Dozens of IRGC-linked Flights Landed in Moscow; U.S. Says Drone Deal Advancing

Data shows 42 flights by Iranian firms under U.S. sanctions - since Ukraine war began. U.S. official says drone deal moving ahead: 'Russians are training in Iran'

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U.S. sanctioned Pouya Air's Il-76 (EP-PUS) landing in Moscow in 2020
U.S. sanctioned Pouya Air's Il-76 (EP-PUS) landing in Moscow in 2020Credit: N509FZ/Wikipedia

The number of Iranian cargo flights to Russia has surged since the war in Ukraine began, an analysis of open-source flight data shows.

Since April, at least 42 flights by Iranian carriers linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guards have landed in Moscow, compared to just three in 2021.

Dozens of IRGC-linked flights to Moscow. Some also fly arms to DamascusCredit: N509fz, Khashayar Talebzadeh, Gsmar/Wikipedia and Icarus Flights

Last month, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said that Iran was preparing to supply armed drones to Russia for use in its invasion of Ukraine. Sullivan said Russia had asked Iran to provide it with hundreds of drones; he also revealed satellite photos showing two visits to Iran by a Russian delegation during which they were shown armed drones.

A U.S. official told Haaretz this week that the Russians have already started training in Iran on using the drones.

It’s impossible to determine from the flight data what cargo the planes were carrying or whether Iran has already begun supplying the drones.

Last week, an aide to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Iran had already provided Russia with 46 drones and that the Russian army had begun using them on the battlefield.

The U.S. official did not confirm that drones had arrived in Russia, but added: “During the last several weeks, Russian officials conducted training in Iran as part of the agreement for UAV transfers from Iran to Russia.”

According to an analysis by Dutch aviation tracker Gerjon, three cargo planes have plied the Tehran-Moscow route in recent months – two 747 jumbo jets belonging to airlines Qeshm Fars Air and Iran Air Cargo, plus a Pouya Air Ilyushin-76.

The latter is under American sanctions for flying fighters and arms to Syria on behalf of the Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force during Syria’s civil war. Qeshm Fars Air is also under U.S. sanctions over its ties to Quds Force and for transporting fighters, arms and other cargo to Syria. The particular plane now flying to Moscow had previously plied the route between Tehran and Damascus for years. The three planes have made at least 42 trips from Tehran to Moscow since the war in Ukraine began, compared to three in 2021.

The surge in flights attests to the strengthening of ties between the two countries, especially under Russia's growing isolation following its invasion into Ukraine. Iran announced last month that it had signed a deal with Russia to expand cooperation in the aviation sector and provide spare parts for planes, after Western sanctions on Moscow caused a severe shortage and serious problems with airplane maintenance. Some of the Iranian cargo planes may have been carrying these spare parts.

As part of the warming ties, Russia earlier this week launched into orbit a satellite fitted with high-resolution camera, after Iran had for years failed doing so.

Putin’s drone war

Russian President Vladimir Putin began the war in Ukraine with significant gaps in Russia’s capabilities and military preparedness, especially with regard to drones. The Russian arsenal contained only one drone in significant numbers – the Orlan-10, a surveillance drone used mainly to identify Ukrainian targets for Russian artillery and rocket batteries.

Another surveillance drone, the Forpost-R, is based on the Israel Aerospace Industries Searcher and manufactured in Russia under license. It has been modified to carry a limited payload of guided missiles.

“Of course the Russians saw what was happening around the world in the drone field and took notes. But they came late to the field,” said Samuel Bendett, who researches Russia’s unmanned capabilities for the Center for Naval Analyses in Arlington, Virginia. “Consequently, when the war in Ukraine began, they had very few armed drones and loitering munitions”.

Ukraine entered the war much better prepared with regard to drones. It had dozens of Turkish-made Bayraktar TB2 drones that carry both surveillance gear and antitank missiles. And it made considerable use of them at the start of the war to stop columns of Russian tanks and carry out long-range attacks.

Iran's Shahed 136 loitering munition

The Ukrainians also have an advantage in loitering munitions, mainly thanks to a shipment of hundreds of Switchblade kamikaze drones from the United States.

“Russia went to war on the assumption that it would be over very quickly, and in this field as well they failed to prepare adequately,” Bendett said.

The Russians are now trying to fill the gap with drones from Iran. If the deal goes through, it will presumably include attack drones such as the Shahed 129 and Mohajer-6, as well as the Shahed 136, which is a type of loitering munition that Iran manufactures in large quantities.

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Read this story in Hebrew:
טהראן אקספרס: עשרות טיסות הקשורות למשמרות המהפכה נחתו במוסקבה מאז הפלישה לאוקראינה

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