US says drone factory Russia is building with Iran’s help could be operational early next year

The US believes that an attack drone manufacturing plant Russia is building with Iran’s help could be fully operational by early next year, National Security Council official John Kirby said on Friday.

Iran is shipping equipment for the plant, as well as fully-built drones, to Russia via the Caspian Sea, US officials believe. Russia has purchased hundreds of drones from Iran since last summer and is using them extensively in the war in Ukraine.

Kirby confirmed previous CNN reporting that Iran is using the Caspian Sea route to move drones, bullets and mortar shells to Russia, often using vessels that are “dark,” or have turned off their tracking data to disguise their movements.

The US released a map on Friday showing the route Iran appears to be using to ship the equipment from Amirabad, Iran to Makhachkala, Russia.

The route Iran is using to send drones and other equipment to Russia, according to the US government. - US Government

“Russia has been using Iranian UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in recent weeks to strike Kyiv and terrorize the Ukrainian population, and the Russia-Iran military partnership appears to be deepening,” Kirby said in a statement.

The US also believes that Iran has been shipping materials that Russia has been using to build its own drone factory inside Russia’s Alabuga Special Economic Zone, about 600 miles east of Moscow. The US released a satellite image of the planned location of the purported drone manufacturing plant, taken on April 3.

Satellite imagery of a facility where Russia is planning to build a factory to manufacture drones with Iran's help, according to the US government. - Maxar/US Government

CNN has asked the Russian embassy in Washington and the Iranian mission to the United Nations for comment.

“The support is flowing both ways: from Iran to Russia, and from Russia to Iran,” Kirby said.

“Russia has been offering Iran unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense,” he added. “Earlier this year, Iran announced that it had finalized a deal to buy Su-35 fighter jets from Russia. Iran is seeking to purchase additional military equipment from Russia, including attack helicopters, radars, and YAK-130 combat trainer aircraft. In total, Iran is seeking billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment from Russia.”

Kirby said that the US is releasing this information to the public “to expose and disrupt” the countries’ “full-scale defense partnership.”

He also announced that the US will be issuing a new advisory on Friday to help businesses and governments better understand how Iran is illegally obtaining the components to build its drones, and how they can “put in place measures to ensure they are not inadvertently contributing to Iran’s UAV program.”

The US has imposed tough export control restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining the necessary materials for its drones, but evidence has emerged that suggests Iran is finding an abundance of commercially-available technology—including components manufactured by US companies, CNN has reported.

The Biden administration launched an expansive task force last year to investigate how US and western components, including American-made microelectronics, were ending up in Iranian-made drones being used in Russia.

Kirby said the US will continue to impose sanctions on Iranians, Russians, and other countries involved in the procurement of the equipment.

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