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Would Russia convince Iran to transfer ballistic missiles, and could Ukrainian air defense intercept them

Would Russia convince Iran to transfer ballistic missiles, and could Ukrainian air defense intercept them Photo: Vladimir Putin and Ali Khamenei

Russia is expecting more weaponry from Iran. Moscow, having established drone supplies, is not opposed to receiving Iranian missiles. Why Tehran has not yet handed over ballistic missiles to the Russians and what could hinder this deal in the future is discussed in the article by RBC-Ukraine.

Comments from the Defense Intelligence of Ukraine, aviation expert Kostiantyn Kryvolap, expert from Defence Express Ivan Kyrychevskyi, and information from RBC-Ukraine sources in intelligence agencies were used during the preparation of this material.

Russia, involved in the war against Ukraine, cannot produce military equipment and ammunition on the scale it needs. The Kremlin, to replenish supplies, relies not only on its production but also seeks allies among countries deemed outcasts, much like Russia itself.

Iran is one of the few states that directly supplies Russia with equipment and ammunition. Tehran regularly assists Moscow, despite anti-Iran sanctions, which, in terms of quantity, are second only to Russian sanctions. However, Iran possesses something that Russia has not yet acquired: ballistic missiles.

On October 18, the United Nations Security Council resolution prohibiting Iran from entering into missile supply agreements will expire. Discussions about the possibility of Iran selling ballistic missiles to the Kremlin have been ongoing for over a year, and as the expiration date approaches, this topic is being discussed again.

Simultaneously, a few days ago, another military conflict unfolded in the Middle East, threatening to escalate into a full-scale war. It appears, Iran, plays a significant role in this conflict. Officially, Iran supports Palestine and very likely provides Hamas militants with weapons. All of this may influence the possible decision to transfer Iranian ballistic missiles to Russian occupiers.

Outcasts under sanctions

Thousands of drones, ammunition, and components - flights from Tehran to Moscow regularly occur. Russia is also constructing a factory for the production of Shaheds in Tatarstan. Looking at this, one might get the impression that the Kremlin will easily obtain ballistic missiles. However, the relationship between the two sanctioned states is much more complicated than it seems.

Russia and Iran share a common hostility toward the "collective West" and its ideology. Moreover, both states are fighting for the survival of dictatorship regimes. At various times, Moscow assisted Tehran in supporting its ambitions regarding neighboring states, mainly by circumventing the sanctions imposed on Iran for 44 years.

Чи вмовить Росія Іран передати їй балістичні ракети і чи зможе українська ППО їх збивати

Ali Khamenei and Vladimir Putin (Photo: Getty Images)

However, Russia has not always been an outcast in the international community. To maintain relations with Western partners, Russia occasionally voted in favor of new sanctions against Iran and imposed a ban on supplying critical military equipment.

One of the main conflicts between Iran and Russia arose before the full-scale war in Ukraine. It concerned the demarcation of the Caspian Sea and the division of its marine resources into equal shares for each state with a coastline. Russia proposed a plan for dividing the sea into sectors, with Iran receiving a smaller share. Simultaneously, the Russian naval fleet in the Caspian Sea unexpectedly increased and became heavily militarized.

"In 2021, Russia began to reclassify its Caspian fleet as a full-fledged fleet. Powder missile complexes and marine infantry battalions appeared there. And the potential adversary, even if it wasn't said aloud, was supposed to be Iran, primarily," noted expert Ivan Kyrychevskyi in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Several years earlier, while fighting in Syria, Russia was looking for airfields to host its heavy bombers. Iran was one of the locations considered, but unexpectedly, Tehran refused. Additionally, there was a project for the construction of the South-North transportation corridor between Russia and Iran - a railway from St. Petersburg to the Persian Gulf. Tehran hoped that this corridor would provide another way to bypass Western sanctions. One of the routes was supposed to pass through Nagorno Karabakh, but given recent events in the region, the project was never implemented.

"Also, there was a contract between Russia and Iran to build a thousand-kilometer railway on Iranian territory. Sometime in the spring, under new Western sanctions, Russian Railways withdrew from this contract. Who would have thought that Russia would comply with Western sanctions? Against this backdrop, it's surprising that Iran sold Shaheds to the Russians," says Kyrychevskyi.

Even if we disregard all the inequalities in the relationship between Tehran and Moscow, the question arises as to why Russia still hasn't received ballistic missiles after a year of close cooperation in the arms supply. At least, their use by occupiers has not been confirmed, as reported by both Western and Ukrainian intelligence.

"As of today, there have been no recorded instances of the use of Iranian-made ballistic missiles by the aggressor state, the Russian Federation. Of course, our country, along with our partners, is monitoring this issue closely. Measures are being taken to ensure that such occurrences do not happen in the future," stated Andrii Yusov, a representative of the Defense Intelligence in a comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Perhaps the key lies in the UN Security Council resolution, which states that Iran cannot either sell or use ballistic missiles until October 2023. However, despite UN sanctions, Iran has actively supported Yemeni Houthi rebels who have managed to amass a significant arsenal of military equipment over the years of conflict.

Back in 2017, a representative of the Arab coalition, Colonel Turki al-Maliki, claimed that the Houthis had launched Iranian-made ballistic missiles at Saudi Arabia. In 2018, the Pentagon also discussed this, and in May 2023, France accused Iran of conducting nuclear ballistic missile tests, which also violated a UN resolution.

Чи вмовить Росія Іран передати їй балістичні ракети і чи зможе українська ППО їх збивати

Portrait of Ali Khamenei in Iran (Photo: Getty Images)

In other words, the Iranian government continues to defy UN restrictions, and the absence of Iranian ballistic missiles in Russia has other reasons. According to experts, Iran is more likely to continue its proxy war in the Persian Gulf to pursue its own interests rather than assist Russia.

Furthermore, after a recent episode of military conflict between Israel and Hamas militants, several media indicated that Iran had assisted Palestinians in preparing for the attack. Tehran officially denies any involvement but openly acknowledges its support for Hamas' intentions. All of this suggests that Iranians have more important allies today.

Nevertheless, Russia could still acquire Iranian ballistic missiles. According to information from sources in intelligence agencies, the deal between Iran and Russia may involve more than just money. Tehran is in the midst of negotiations and awaits a more advantageous military-technical proposal from Russia.

According to aviation expert Kostiantyn Kryvolap, this could involve Su-35 fighter jets, but such an exchange is not particularly favorable for Moscow. The Su-35 is one of Russia's most advanced fighter aircraft, pitted against American F-16s. In the current sanctions environment, producing additional aircraft in Russia is a challenging endeavor.

Moreover, there are other signs indicating that Russia may not be relying too much on Iran's generosity. One of them is the attempt to repurpose its own missile complexes.

All by itself

When the first reports emerged that Iranians might sell ballistic missiles to Russians, two missiles were mentioned – Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar. Additionally, on September 20, during the visit of Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu to Iran, the leaders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps showcased other developments – a new cruise missile called Paveh and SAM 358 and LACM 351 missiles for striking air and ground targets. However, both analysts and Western intelligence agencies agree that if Iran were to transfer missiles to Russia, they would likely be the Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar.

Fateh-110 is a "surface-to-surface" ballistic missile. It is a copy of the Soviet 9M21 missile for the Luna-M missile system. There are several generations of these missiles, with the latest capable of targeting up to 300 km.

Zolfaghar is an improved version of Fateh, with a range of up to 700 km. The Iranians claim that these missiles are highly accurate and have a longer range than initially stated. However, this information is approximate, according to Kostiantyn Kryvolap.

"What they (the Iranians - Ed.) announce at exhibitions and forums can't be taken too seriously. When I analyze the geometry of these missiles and compare it with the geometry of other missiles, I understand that they can fly 500-700 kilometers. And they say it can fly a thousand. I don't believe that," Kryvolap noted in his comment to RBC-Ukraine.

Чи вмовить Росія Іран передати їй балістичні ракети і чи зможе українська ППО їх збивати

Shoigu's visit to Iran (Photo: Getty Images)

The use of these missiles poses one significant challenge – specific launch complexes are required. Moscow needs not only to purchase these complexes but also to train its military personnel. If these complexes are destroyed, the missiles themselves will be useless.

As Ukraine prepares for the heating season, Russians are trying to increase their stockpile of Iranian drones, known as Shaheds. According to Kryvolap, Moscow aims to reach a monthly production rate of 500 drones. They will obtain them through direct purchases from Iran, production in Tatarstan, and extensive assembly with both Russian and Iranian components. These drones will vary in quality, accuracy, and guidance systems, but the main focus for the occupiers is quantity.

"Last month, they made 503 drones. I think they will try to organize logistics, launch them from four points - Chauda, Primorsk-Akhtarsk, Kursk airfield, and add a fourth somewhere else. They will try to launch them in large quantities with different intervals to confuse our air defense systems as much as possible," Kryvolap said.

Additionally, the Shaheds have been upgraded with satellite phones. As a result, the price of an Iranian UAV has increased, with experts estimating it at $30,000 to $40,000 for Russian taxpayers. By adding a satellite phone, Russians can track the entire path of the drone and its location before it is intercepted by air defense systems.

Чи вмовить Росія Іран передати їй балістичні ракети і чи зможе українська ППО їх збивати

Iranian missile Zolfaghar (Photo: Getty Images)

Russia is also trying to repurpose the S-400 systems. This anti-aircraft missile system is being considered for use as a ballistic missile system. If a missile is designed for anti-aircraft use it may not be well-suited for ballistic missile roles, it depends on the specific objectives Russians have in mind. Although the strikes with such missiles are unlikely to be highly precise, they can cover long distances.

Currently, Russia can produce around 100-120 missiles per month and aims to increase that number to 150. According to intelligence reports, they have increased their production of ballistic missiles fivefold compared to the previous year. At the beginning of 2023, the occupiers could produce about 5 ballistic missiles and 2-3 cruise missiles per month, but by August, the numbers had risen to 30 and 12, respectively. Regarding the Iskander complexes, they can produce approximately 40 missiles per month. Moreover, there are over 40 Iskander complexes capable of launching both cruise and ballistic missiles. Regardless, Moscow is trying to gather as many means as possible to strike Ukraine. Their main calculation is that at least 20% of these missiles will hit their targets.

If Iran does provide Russia with these missiles, they are unlikely to use them as a means to strike infrastructure, according to Kryvolap. The occupiers would rather use these missiles to engage in terrorizing cities and creating information noise for radar operators.

Ukrainian diplomats, in their negotiations with allies, consistently emphasize the need for air defense systems. Military officials stressed that Ukraine needs not just various-radius anti-air defenses but a layered system united under one information field. While mobile groups are used to counter drones by the Ukrainian Armed Forces, often employing machine gun installations, protecting against ballistic missiles is still insufficient with current air defense systems.

In essence, Iranian missiles Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar do not differ from the ballistic missiles possessed by the Russians, meaning the Ukrainian military already knows how to counter them. To achieve this, primarily, SAMP-T and Patriot systems are required, and currently, Ukraine lacks them. Medium-range air defense systems can also intercept missiles flying on a ballistic trajectory, but doing so is much more challenging.

Knowing the difficulties in repelling ballistic attacks, occupiers will try to accumulate missiles. If they do receive them from Iran, this will pose a significant threat to Ukraine, according to Yurii Ihnat, the spokesperson for the Air Force Command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine.

"It's a serious threat. These missiles have been talked about for a year now. No one knows how effective and accurate they are. Of course, Iran will claim they are better, but they are not better than the Iskander, that's for sure. But if Russia gets them, it's a serious problem," Ihnat noted.


In the Iranian Shaheds launched at Ukraine, Chinese engines are found. This information is not only important for obvious reasons but also because Russia is fully capable of establishing drone production on its own, even if Iran refuses to assist it. The enemy should not be underestimated. In its efforts to weaken Ukraine, Russia constantly seeks ways to manufacture and find allies capable of helping in this regard.

In this context, receiving Western assistance is more important for Ukraine than ever before. Currently, an unprecedented number of air defense systems are deployed in the country, but they are still insufficient to create a layered air defense system that can help repel a maximum number of attacks, both from drones and missiles of any type and origin.