JEDDAH – Satellite photos revealed a Russian delegation visiting an airfield in central Iran at least twice in the last month to examine weapons-capable drones, the U.S. revealed on Saturday.
Iran showcased the Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones, both capable of carrying precision-guided missiles, according to satellite images obtained by CNN. The revelations come on the final days of Biden's visit to Israel and Saudi Arabia, where Iran's regional activity was among the most discussed topics.
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"We have information that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs," U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told CNN in a statement, noting the U.S. assesses "an official Russian delegation recently received a showcase of Iranian attack-capable UAVs."
"We are releasing these images captured in June showing Iranian UAVs that the Russian government delegation saw that day. This suggests ongoing Russian interest in acquiring Iranian attack-capable UAVs," Sullivan continued, noting the U.S. believes this was the first time Russian officials visited the Kashan Airfield in central Iran for such a showcase. Officials told CNN the Russians visited again on July 5.
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The revelations come as the U.S. endeavors to use Biden's Mideast trip to consolidate its regional bloc against Ukraine, specifically drawing lines between its ties with Israel and Gulf States compared to the Russian-Iran alliance. "Russia is effectively making a bet on Iran in the Middle East. We are making a bet on a more integrated, more stable, more peaceful and prosperous Middle East," a senior U.S. official said.
Biden is set to conclude his trip by meeting with the heads of key Arab leaders at the Gulf Cooperation Council Plus 3 Summit where they will discuss integrated regional defense systems and Iran's growing ballistic missile threat capability, which a second senior U.S. official says "continues to have nations here in the region increasingly on edge. We know they're advancing that capability at a clip that's disconcerting."
The official noted Iran's drone program is yet another reason to promote such regional defense integration. "They have a domestic production capability and an operational doctrine and concept that continues to advance and grow and improve. You're seeing them use UAVs more and more in the maritime environment, certainly on the ground in Iraq and Syria," they noted. "Those drones, as they become of greater range, greater power and capability, greater payload delivery capability, continue to threaten all our neighbors here in the Gulf region."
The Shahed 129 is an attack drone that can remain in air for nearly 24 hours and is capable of being armed with multiple guides missiles. The Shahed 191 is reverse-engineered from a U.S. drone downed in 2011 — it has shorter air time, and can be armed with bombs.
Two Israeli F-35 fighter jets downed two Iranian Shahed drones in March 2021 in a neighboring Arab state, with that government's consent.
This came three years after the February 2018 incident where Israeli forces downed a Shahed 141 drone near the Jordanian border, leading to a significant Israeli strike on Iran's T4 base in Syria. During the attack, Syrian forces downed an Israeli F-16 jet.
An aerial attack in Iran in February caused heavy damage to the country’s drone network, with several estimates saying that hundreds of drones were destroyed. Tehran blames Israel for the attack, but Israel has not admitted responsibility.