Russia has hesitated to buy ballistic missiles from Iran out of concern that Ukraine’s allies would in response supply Kyiv with long-range rockets, according to assessments by western officials.
Iran has sent hundreds of armed drones to Russia that have been used to attack Ukrainian critical infrastructure. Western capitals believe Tehran is open to further military co-operation with Moscow.
But despite pressures on its own supplies, Russia has held back from purchases of Iran’s long-range ballistic missiles, which fly faster than the speed of sound and have larger explosive payloads.
One significant factor, according to assessments in Nato countries, has been the threat of the US providing Kyiv with the long-sought ATACMS missile system, whose 300km range could reach deep into Russian held territory.
The US has recently stepped up warnings over deeper Russia-Iran military co-operation, while European diplomats have raised concerns with Tehran. Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato, said that western allies found the relationship “extremely worrying”.
“This is a situation that obviously troubles all of us a great deal,” Smith added. “It is a topic of conversation inside the alliance. And we will continue to send signals to Iran about the dangers of supporting Russia with material support in its attacks and war inside Ukraine.”
Such warnings fit a pattern since the invasion of Ukraine where Kyiv’s western allies have made public unprecedented amounts of classified intelligence in an attempt to undermine, pre-empt and deter Russia and its potential allies.
But officials acknowledge that Moscow may change its stance on Iranian ballistic missiles as shortages of its own precision-guided munitions become more acute and domestic production falters.
The Russian military was already concerned about its ability to sustain the war, one official added, with guided missile and artillery supplies running as low as half their levels late last year. “The Russians are in dire straits. They need missiles,” said one European official.
Helped by Russian technology supplied in the 1990s, Iran has built the largest fleet of ballistic missiles in the Middle East under a programme that the US defence department described in 2019 as “increasingly accurate” and “sophisticated”.
Iran has consistently denied that it has provided weapons to Russia since Moscow launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last February.
Brig Gen Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, Iran’s defence minister, said on Monday that the Islamic republic had “the right to cooperate with other countries to strengthen its might”. But claims that Tehran had sold armed drones to Russia to use in its war with Ukraine had not “been proven”, he told reporters. Asked about the possibility of Iran buying Russian jets, Gen Ashtiani said this was not a new development.
Tehran’s denials have been dismissed in Washington. John Kirby, US National Security Council spokesman, warned last month that Moscow might provide Iran with modern fighter jets and other advanced equipment in exchange for artillery and tank ammunition, without providing any specific evidence. The Pentagon, meanwhile, has said Russia is interested in Iran’s “ballistic missile capability”.
The US has this year alone provided $10bn of weaponry to Ukraine but Washington has rebuffed Kyiv’s requests for ATACMS. The system has almost four times the range of US-supplied Himars missile systems that Ukraine has used to devastating effect against Russian forces.
Tehran and Moscow explored exchanging modern Russian weaponry for ballistic missiles but those talks have stalled, western officials and analysts said, in part because of the potential repercussions of such a deal for both sides.
Iran’s Fateh-313 and Zulfiqar ballistic missiles have ranges of 500km and 700km respectively and would add mass if not advanced capabilities to Russia’s depleted missile stocks.
“There have been discussions [on ballistic missiles], but so far they haven’t done it,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director at the Crisis Group think-tank. “The Europeans [told them] the consequences would be very grave. The US has also drawn a red line.”
But military analysts said the west’s public warnings to Tehran would have limited leverage given that Iran is subject to extensive sanctions. “Iran is one of the few countries willing to sell to Russia,” said a US defence official.
President Vladimir Putin of Russia and his Iranian counterpart Ebrahim Raisi spoke by phone on Monday, although no details were released about what was discussed. A flurry of visits by some of Putin’s top economic confidants also indicates Russia’s growing friendship with Iran stretches past military co-operation.
Russian central bank governor Elvira Nabiullina is preparing to visit Tehran soon, according to Iranian diplomats. Alexei Miller, chief executive of Russia’s state-run gas monopoly Gazprom, was in Tehran last week.
Nabiullina’s visit is likely to focus on integrating Russia and Iran’s bank payment systems, which have been shut out of the global economy by western sanctions, according to a former Russian central bank official.