US: Iran building drone factory in Russia for Ukraine war

New satellite images show Iran building a drone factory near Moscow. US security officials are also warning that Iran is illegally trying to buy key components to make military drones — all so Russia can use them against Ukraine.

The images confirm US reports indicating Iran had recently offered to provide UAV production technology and facilities to Tajikistan and Russia.

The Department of Justice (DoJ) issued an international advisory Friday to both the private sector and the public about the latest threats posed by “Iran’s procurement, development and proliferation of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).”

Part of the advisory included a DoJ report, “Guidance to Industry on Iran’s UAV-Related Activities,” which briefly mentioned Iran’s offer to produce a drone factory on Russian soil, but was labeled as hearsay.

The fresh images, released by the White House in a media handout Friday, show two industrial buildings located in Russia's Alabuga special economic zone, a few hundred miles east of Moscow.

Iran UAV factory Russia
Satellite Image by Maxar Technologies | The White House

Newly declassified US intelligence shows that Iran is providing Russia with materials in order to produce the UAV factory.

According to the White House, the drone factory could be operational by next year.

Intel also discovered the Persian nation has been shipping Iranian UAVs to Russian military bases by way of the Caspian Sea, which is a known trade route that directly links the two countries.

US officials are concerned that mutual support between the two nations seems to be flowing both ways, White House spokesperson John Kirby said in a statement about the findings.

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

The spokesman also mentioned recent offers from Russia to supply Iran with "unprecedented defense cooperation, including on missiles, electronics, and air defense."

"This is a full-scale defense partnership that is harmful to Ukraine, to Iran’s neighbors, and to the international community. We are continuing to use all the tools at our disposal to expose and disrupt these activities, including by sharing this with the public — and we are prepared to do more," Kirby stated.

Iran buying up drone parts

Meanwhile, the interagency warning, led by the US Department of Justice, says that it's critical that the private sector is vigilantly aware of the active and extensive overseas network Iran uses to obtain UAV components.

There's a network of procurement agents, front companies, suppliers, and intermediaries across the world, the DoJ said. They use a variety of methods to evade export controls and sanctions.

The DoJ's detailed guide on Iranian UAV-related activity provides recommendations for exporters, manufacturers, distributors, and financial institutions to help them implement effective due diligence and internal controls.

In the 11-page guide, the DoJ provides a spec list of the key components and materials the Iranian government is actively trying to get its hands on to create military-grade UAVs, otherwise known as drones.

Iranian drone
Iran reverse-engineered UAV from American drone. Image by saeedie | Shutterstock

Iran, which has captured US military drones in the past, boasted in March it had successfully built several model drones by reverse engineering an American UAV.

Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine last spring, US officials have proven multiple instances of Iranian UAVs discovered on the ground in Ukraine, presumably launched by the Russian military.

The examination of the Iranian-origin UAVs recovered in Ukraine found many components used to make the aircraft were produced by third-country suppliers.

Components being sought after by Iranian agents include electronics, such as controllers, receivers and circuits, as well as other commodities, such as guidance and navigation equipment.

Since at least late August 2022, Iran has transferred hundreds of Shahed- and Mohajerseries series UAVs to Russia, according to US intelligence officials.

“Moscow has used these UAVs extensively to strike critical infrastructure during its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine,” the DoJ said.

Recovered Iranian Drone in Ukraine
Part of a recovered Iranian UAV in Ukraine. US Department of Justice.

Multifaceted response

In response to the findings, the US, the UK, and the European Union have all imposed economic sanctions and export controls on the Persian nation in an effort to tamp down on the illegal activities carried out and encouraged by the Iranian government.

The warning also coincides with the DoJ’s recent creation of the Disruptive Technology Strike Force — an agency dedicated to cracking down on private companies within the US who engage in selling sensitive technologies to rogue enemy nations.

Another DoJ creation from last March, the Task Force KleptoCapture helps to enforce US sanction compliance against Russia and other foreign adversaries.

In a final effort to ensure the technologies do not make their way into Iranian hands, the National Security Division has hired dozens of new prosecutors to go after violators and updated a policy encouraging self-disclosure.

The White House has not said how they will respond to the new findings. Moscow has repeatedly denied allegations it uses Iranian drones.

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