Iran has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East. Now he sends them to Russia

Iran unveils its first supersonic ballistic missile ‘Fattah’ (Conqueror) at an event attended by President Ebrahim Raisi and other government officials in Tehran, Iran on June 06, 2023.

Sepah News | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Iran has sent hundreds of its powerful ballistic missiles to President Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia, boosting military cooperation between the two US rivals. Reuters reported this weekciting a number of unnamed senior Iranian military sources.

The reported transfer of powerful weapons is set to strengthen Putin’s hand in the Ukraine as the two-year completion of Russia’s invasion of its neighbor approaches. There has already been documented arms cooperation between Tehran and Moscow since 2022, particularly with the transfer of Iranian Shahed drones that Russian forces have deployed with deadly effect in Ukraine.

Reuters reported that Iran delivered at least 400 of its Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missiles to Russia in January this year, and that number is likely to rise. Iran declined to comment to Reuters, while Russia did not immediately respond.

“It was always a question of when, not if, Iran would transfer ballistic missiles to Russia,” Behnam ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told CNBC.

“Iranian material support such as drones has kept Putin fighting in Ukraine for much longer than expected. Ballistic missiles will keep him in this fight longer now.”

In 2022, the US Central Command estimated that Iran had over 3,000 ballistic missiles in its arsenal. Iran has in recent years developed advances and upgrades to its Fateh missile class, improving things like accuracy, range, lethality, maneuverability and survivability, analysts say. The Fateh-110 missile has an effective range of 300 kilometers (about 190 miles), is known to be highly accurate, and has been used in strikes from Iran to Iraq, Syria and Pakistan.

Iran unveils its first supersonic ballistic missile ‘Fattah’ (Conqueror) at an event attended by President Ebrahim Raisi and other government officials in Tehran, Iran on June 06, 2023.

Sepah News | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

“Iranian officials have indicated that more missiles are on the way. Iran builds the missiles domestically with very little input from foreign sources and can produce them in large numbers over a long period of time,” analysts at political risk consultancy Eurasia Group wrote in a research note.

“Iranian missiles offer Russia additional capabilities as it presses its advantage over Kiev amid delays in additional US aid,” it said.

Russian profits

Russia scored a major victory in the eastern Ukrainian town of Avdiivka. It represents a painful loss for Ukraine, and hundreds of Ukrainian troops are feared missing, possibly captured by Russian forces.

The Russian gains come as continued US aid to Ukraine becomes much less certain. The US Senate in mid-February approved a $95 billion aid package for Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, with about $60 billion for Ukraine, but several congressional Republicans in the House of Representatives oppose its passage.

A Ukrainian tank destroyed by artillery shelling on December 31, 2023, in Avdiivka, Ukraine.

Pierre Crom | News Getty Images | Getty Images

What does Iran get in return?

Tehran’s relationship with Moscow is paying off for its government. Already heavily sanctioned by the US and the EU, the arms trade with Russia is a valuable source of revenue for the Islamic Republic.

FDD’s Ben Taleblu describes “reports of cash and gold transfers, conventional arms transfers from the West, fighter jet deals, and even help with Iran’s space program from Russia. For a risk-tolerant Islamic Republic, cooperation with Russia continues to bear fruit.”

Analysts note that several rounds of Western sanctions on Iran, which have helped cripple its economy, have not been enough to prevent it from continuing to sell Russia the deadly weapons it uses in Ukraine. It is also going to get the same new military hardware.

“The missile deal suggests there is now an agreement for Russia to send advanced weapons systems to Iran. Russia delivered a squadron of modern trainer aircraft to Iran’s air force in September 2023, the first phase of a deal that also includes SU-35 jet interceptors,” Eurasia Group wrote.

The SU-35, Russia’s air defense fighter jet, will provide Iran with “its first modern fighter jet in decades, significantly expanding its capabilities at a time of rising tensions with Israel and the US,” the report said.

As for Washington’s response, it may be limited — largely because the Biden administration is reluctant to further escalate tensions in the Middle East. While it can impose sanctions on Iran’s weapons programs, it cannot actually stop the transfer of missiles to Russia along its supply route. The UN arms embargo that barred Iran from selling its missiles expired in 2023.

The boost in arms supplies to Russia, while Ukraine’s allies appear to be stalling, shows what many observers describe as a shift in the war in Russia’s favor.

“As Washington talks with Ukraine, Iran continues to cozy up to Russia,” Ben Taleblou said, “marking the farthest reported case of Iranian ballistic missile proliferation in its history.”

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