Russia, Desperate for Munitions to Fight Ukraine, Courts Iran for Materiel

Spearheading the quest, the Russian defense minister has followed up President Putin’s reception for Kim Jong-un with a mission to Tehran, hailing Iran-Russian ties as ‘reaching a new level.’

Iranian Defense Ministry via AP
Iran's defense minster, Mohammad Reza Gharaei Ashtiani, right, and his Russian counterpart, Sergei Shoigu, left, at Tehran, September 20, 2023. Iranian Defense Ministry via AP

Russia, in pursuit of munitions for the war in Ukraine, is courting Iran with the same passion with which it’s embracing North Korea.

Spearheading the quest, the Russian defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, has followed up President Putin’s reception for Kim Jong-un with a mission to Tehran in which he proclaimed Iran-Russian ties as “reaching a new level.”

Moscow’s Interfax news agency quoted Mr. Shoigu as saying “We are aiming an entire range of planned activities” as he arrived in Tehran with a delegation similar to the team that he led to Pyongyang before Mr. Kim’s nine-day journey by armored train to bases, ports and cities  in the Russian far east.

Iran may not match North Korea as a source of arms, but it’s already shipped several hundred thousand artillery shells that Russia desperately needs. The Wall Street Journal reported shells and other munitions reaching Russia via the Caspian Sea and by air.

Mr. Shoigu is shopping for weapons in Tehran despite a fresh round of sanctions imposed by President Biden a year after the death of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, who had been jailed for refusing to wear the hijab to the specs required by law.

This seeming show of toughness, however, came after Washington persuaded two Korean banks to release nearly $6 billion owed Iran in payment for  oil. Iran got the money, which South Korea was holding due to sanctions, in a complex  deal in which Iran freed five American citizens in exchange for five Iranians  jailed in America, only two of whom opted to return to Iran.

Russia’s approach to Iran parallels its bid for a deal with North Korea involving planes, ships and even the technology for firing satellites into space in exchange for artillery shells and other munitions.

“Iran has solidified its role as Russia’s wartime arms supplier as Russian forces, facing battlefield losses, intensify their attacks on Ukraine’s civilian population and infrastructure.,” said Arms Control Today, published by the Arms Control Association. “Drones supplied to Russia by Iran are wreaking havoc on civilians in Ukrainian cities like Kyiv.”

Iran has also been negotiating with the Russians for Sukhoi fighter planes, the type in which Mr Kim showed keen interest in a visit to a Russian aircraft factory. The deal for the planes, originally made more than a year ago,  was presumably among the topics up for discussion during Mr. Shoigu’s visit to Tehran.

For Iran, the sale of artillery shells — and rockets that it has also exported to the Russians — may compensate for its lack of access to about $100 billion held by foreign banks in payment for oil.

The Americans, trying to counter criticism for releasing any of the funds, said the $6 billion from Korean banks had been deposited for Iran in Qatar and could only be used for humanitarian purposes, including food and medicine.

“No funds are going to Iran at all,” according to the White House middle east coordinator, Brett McGurk. “We’ll lock up these accounts,” he vowed, in case of “any diversion.”

How Washington can control funds that have already been transferred to Qatar, however, remains far from clear. Iran, exalting in release of the funds, obviously hopes to gain access to them.

Iran’s credibility sank to a new low with its decision to kick out a number of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency that were monitoring its nuclear program.

The director-general of the agency, Rafael Mariano Grossi, pleading in vain for Iran to reverse the decision, in an exercise in understatement, said, “Without effective cooperation, confidence and trust will continue to be elusive.”

The agency, he said, “will not be in a position to discharge effectively its verification mandate in Iran and provide credible assurances that nuclear material and activities in Iran are for peaceful purposes.”

Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi,  was not interested. In his address at the UN General Assembly, as reported by the Islamic Republic News Agency, he said “the project to Americanize the world has failed” and “reverence for religions should hold a prominent position on the United Nations’ agenda.”

He appeared to have both the IAEA and American forces in mind when he declared, “Any type of foreign presence not only is not part of the solution, but it is the problem and the difficulty itself.”


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