Research indicates that Russian deployment of Iranian drones in Ukraine is facilitated by Western technology theft

New research has highlighted the extent to which Iran has developed a thriving weapons industry using Western technology, and the potential dangers posed by sharing this technology with Russia. The Conflict Armament Research (CAR), based in the UK, discovered that drones sold to Russia by Iran were powered by engines based on German technology, which were obtained illicitly by Iran nearly 20 years ago. These findings underscore Iran’s ability to copy and perfect military technology that it has acquired through illegitimate means. Western officials are worried that Russia may exchange Western-made weapons and equipment recovered from the Ukrainian battlefield with Iran. While there is no solid evidence of this happening yet, relations have grown stronger between the two countries. Russia wants Iranian drones and ballistic missiles, while Iran is keen for Russian investment and trade. In October last year, the head of Ukraine’s Defense Intelligence stated that Russia had ordered about 1,700 Iranian drones of different types.

According to experts, the Shahed-186 costs approximately $20,000, a tiny fraction of the cost of a more expensive Kalibr cruise missile, which is why Russia sees Iranian drones as a cheaper alternative. Between November 2021 and March 2023, CAR examined components in 20 Iranian-made drones in Ukraine, with about half of them being Shahed-136s. The agency confirmed that the motor in the Shahed-136 was reverse-engineered by an Iranian company known as Mado. CAR researchers found Mado’s markings on spark plug caps in the drone’s engines, as well as a serial number sequence used by Mado. Western governments and the United Nations believe that Mado plays a crucial role in Iran’s expanding drone industry. The same serial number pattern was noted by UN investigators examining drone attacks on Saudi Arabia that were allegedly carried out by Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen, as well as missile attacks against Abu Dhabi, one of the United Arab Emirates, last year.

The design of Mado’s engines is indicative of an intense Iranian effort over the past two decades to acquire Western technology for its drones and missiles in the face of widespread international sanctions. In 2006, Iran illegitimately acquired drone engines made by German-based Limbach Flugmotoren. Three years later, an Iranian engineer called Yousef Aboutalebi announced that his company had developed a UAV engine. That company would later become Mado. CAR investigators discovered that original serial numbers on drone components found in Ukraine had been erased, concealing their origin.

Iran has also obtained other Western components such as missile parts made in the Czech Republic which have been copied and used in Iran’s Quds-1 missiles. A UN panel discovered that the parts exported by the Czech manufacturer to a company in Hong Kong in 2010 ended up in Iranian missiles used in 2019.

Ultimately, drone sales have led to stronger relations between Iran and Russia, who were already experiencing isolation from international commerce and the financial system. The sale of hundreds of Shahed-136 drones to Russia will likely provide revenue for further improvements in the industry. The partnership may also explore new territory, such as copying sophisticated Western systems like the Javelin-anti tank missile, and developing military drone capabilities. There remain risks attached to Iran’s acquisition of Western technology and its partnership with Russia. However, for now, Russia remains an eager customer for further drones from Iran, a state that has made evading sanctions to build an indigenous weapons industry a fine art.

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