Iran may soon arm Russia with surface-to-surface short-range ballistic missiles, three U.S. and Western government officials said, in what would be significant escalation of Iranian support for President Vladimir Putin’s war in Ukraine.
In recent weeks, the United States and at least one allied nation have observed indications that Iran is preparing to transfer the weapons, the officials said, although it’s unclear how close Iran is to sending them. As of now, the U.S. has no indications any missiles have been sent, a senior U.S. defense official said.
If delivered, they would be the first advanced, precision-guided missiles that Iran has provided Russia since the war started. Short-range ballistic missiles have a range of hundreds of miles, and could help Moscow replenish its dwindling stockpile, which have been depleted by Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Two of the officials say the surface-to-surface missiles are expected to be part of a tranche of roughly 1,000 additional weapons — including more weaponized drones — that Iran could transfer to Russia by the end of this year.
“We remain concerned about the potential for Iran to provide Russia with surface-to-surface missiles,” White House National Security Council adviser John Kirby told reporters on Tuesday. “They are very actively involved in supporting Russia and its efforts to kill innocent Ukrainians and to damage Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure.”
The Washington Post first reported on Oct. 16 that Iran planned to send short-range surface-to-surface missiles to Russia, citing U.S. and allied security officials. The White House said on Oct. 20 that it was concerned Iran may provide surface-to-surface missiles to Russia.
Yuriy Ihnat, the spokesman for Ukraine’s Air Force Command, told reporters that Ukrainian forces would do whatever it could to counter any Iranian missiles that Russia places across Ukraine’s northern border. Still, he said, Ukraine only has air defense systems, not missile defense, making that task extremely difficult.
Iran’s Mission to the United Nations didn’t respond to a request for comment. But previously, Iran has firmly denied selling armed drones to Russia for use on the battlefield in Ukraine, calling those allegations “unsubstantiated.”
“Such unfounded claims, which are solely based on false flags and fabricated assumptions, are nothing more than a propaganda apparatus launched by certain states to further their political agenda,” Iran’s government said in a statement on Oct. 14.
The Biden administration has also accused Iran of sending military trainers and technical advisers to Crimea to help Russia’s military use Iranian-made drones. Russian military bases in Crimea, which the Kremlin illegally annexed in 2014, have been a key staging ground for Russia’s attacks against Ukraine since the war started in February.
“A week or so ago, we had solid information that they did have personnel on the ground. It wasn’t a very large number,” Kirby said Tuesday. “But whether they’re still there, or in what number, I couldn’t say today.”
Iran’s preparations for a potential missile transfer come amid stalled U.S. efforts to resurrect a deal with Tehran and world powers to address Iran’s nuclear weapons program, with the U.S. saying talks are at an “impasse.”
The U.S. has long maintained sanctions on Iran separate from and in addition to nuclear-related sanctions that were eased under the 2015 nuclear deal, which collapsed after President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in 2018.
Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think tank that advocates a hard-line position on Iran, said the potential weapons shipment provided another reason for the U.S. to back away from efforts to negotiate with Iran over its nuclear program.
“With reports that Iran plans to send short-range ballistic missiles to Russia to use against Ukraine — and as the people of Iran cry out in the streets for a change in regime — the U.S. and its European allies should withdraw all sanctions relief offers made to Tehran and complete the snapback of U.N. sanctions at the Security Council,” Goldberg said.