Iran is presently using its fleet of civil airliners to ferry armed drones to Russia for the war in Ukraine. It is the latest example of Tehran using these aged aircraft to transport armaments and military personnel.
An investigation by Britain’s i newspaper revealed that four old Iranian Boeing 747s operated by Iran Air, Mahan Air, Qeshm Fars Air, and Saha Airlines have made frequent flights to Russia in recent months. Western officials strongly suspect they are delivering the Shahed loitering munitions (self-donating drones) Moscow has been using against Ukraine’s cities and electrical grid. They also fear Iran could soon deliver short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) as well.
The investigation “revealed 70 flights from Iran to Russia by aircraft sanctioned by the U.S. on suspicion of transporting cargoes from drones to military electronic components”. These flights have occurred roughly twice a week since the present war began and have been spotted at military facilities in Russian airports. The planes are owned by companies linked to Iran’s powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary, which oversees Iranian extraterritorial operations through its Quds Force branch.
Russia began using Shahed-136 drones against Ukrainian cities in October. These drones were delivered in mid-August. The first deliveries were done by Russian cargo planes that flew to Iran to pick them up. Iran initially denied arming Russia with drones but later backtracked, claiming it delivered a small number before Russia launched its invasion on Feb. 24.
On Nov. 1, citing Western officials, CNN reported that Iran was preparing to send 1,000 more weapons to Russia shortly after completing a shipment of 450 drones. This shipment might include the first delivery of SRBMs, which could mark another significant escalation in that brutal war.
Iranian airliners such as those aged 747s still serving Iran’s commercial fleet will likely play a pivotal role in airlifting these weapons to Russia. Iran delivers the drones disassembled and assembles, or helps assemble, them once they arrive in Russia. It’s presently unclear if Tehran will do, or is doing, the same for SRBM deliveries.
The U.S. has sanctioned Iran’s civil air fleet over such illicit activities. Years before Russia invaded Ukraine, Iran used these airliners to help prop up Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Mahan Air, in particular, regularly flew fighters and weaponry to Damascus. The airline’s fleet was also used “for providing financial, material, or technological support for or to the IRGC-QF” (Quds Force), according to the U.S. Treasury Department.
A 2013 Western intelligence report also said that Mahan and Iran Air were using their civilian aircraft to transport military personnel and weapons to Syria through Iraqi airspace. The report claimed the equipment ranged from light arms to components for more advanced weaponry.
“The more sophisticated gear includes parts for various hardware such as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), shore-to-sea missiles and surface-to-surface ballistic missiles,” read the report.
After the Houthis captured Yemen’s capital Sanaa in 2014, Mahan Air established an air bridge between Iran and Yemen to fly in military advisors and arms. After Saudi Arabia assembled a coalition and intervened in the Yemeni conflict against the Houthis in early 2015, Iran attempted to probe that coalition’s blockade by sending a Mahan Airbus A310 to Sanaa. The Saudi air force promptly bombed the airport’s runway to prevent that Iranian plane from landing.
In recent weeks and months, Israel has taken similar moves to disrupt Iran’s airbridge to Syria, part of its broader strategy of denying Iran a military foothold in its northern neighbor. On Aug. 31, it bombed Aleppo airport just before a plane from Iran was scheduled to arrive. On Sept. 6, another Israeli strike damaged the runway of that airport.
Israel also targeted Damascus International Airport on Sept. 17. Previous Israeli strikes on that airport took it out of service for a fortnight in June. The attacks came in response to Tehran’s increased use of airplanes to ferry arms into the country.
These examples aptly demonstrate how this latest Iranian arms airbridge to Russia isn’t unprecedented. Nevertheless, if Iran pushes ahead with deliveries of thousands of more drones and SRBMs, which is likely, then this ongoing airlift could prove unprecedented in scale compared to its predecessors.