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Iran Smuggling Weapons from Iraq to Russia

Iran’s regime has not only been supportive of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to recent reports, Tehran has been actively aiding Moscow’s war effort in Ukraine by smuggling munitions and military hardware through their militias in Iraq.

Iran’s military aid for Russia’s army is indicative of the close relationship between the two neighboring countries that have transpired since Vladimir Putin’s reign. Before becoming an Islamic State, Iran under the U.S.-backed Pahlavi Monarchy was anti-Communist and feared the spread of Communism in the region. When Ayatollah Khomeini overthrew the Shah and created the Islamic Republic of Iran, the new government was anti-Communist because of the ideological conflict between Islam and Communism.

After the Soviet Union fell and Putin came into power as Russia’s president, the former KGB officer decided to engage with Tehran to reset the relationship between the two foes. As a result, the two countries have helped each other economically and militarily while supporting Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria. Russia has helped Iran evade sanctions from the United States, and Iran has been one of the few countries that supported Moscow’s actions in Ukraine.

Putin has turned to Iranian weapons smuggling networks and Tehran to provide RPGs, anti-tank missiles, Bavar 373 missile systems, Brazilian-designed rocket launcher systems, and other types of military equipment for its troops. According to officials, Russia’s use of weapons trafficking through the black market means that Moscow is desperate for military equipment, bringing this invasion to a quick end. The development also reveals how the new sanctions enacted by the international community are having a major effect on Russia’s economy and military.

Ever since the U.S. and its allies toppled former Iraqi Baathist President Saddam Hussein in 2003, the country has been flooded with weaponry of all kinds reaching the hands of different Iraqi militia groups. Most of the groups that have obtained these arms are Iran-backed Shia groups that have enacted terrorist attacks against U.S. and Western allies. Groups like the Hashd al-Shaab, a powerful Shia militia group, have obtained RPGs and anti-tank missiles that have been transported to Iran and taken to Russia by sea.

In early April, Hashd al-Shaab dismantled and sent pieces of Brazilian-designed rocket launcher systems to Iran because of their anti-U.S. sentiments. Cargo ships with Russian and Iranian flags have shipped loads of weapons through the Caspian Sea from the Iranian port of Bandar Anazli to the Russian city of Astrakhan. Satellite imagery has shown that missiles in these cargo ships are bound for Russia because of Moscow’s need for destructive firepower against Ukraine.

“While various reports have discussed the extent of damage and loss being imposed on the Russians by the Ukrainian military, Russia does have additional equipment in reserve, long-term storage, and assigned to units not currently engaged in Ukraine, according to Dakota Wood, Senior Research Fellow at the Defense Programs at the Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.

“If they are so short of working equipment, then yes, it says a great deal about the brittleness and lack of resilience within the Russian military,” Wood said.

Wood further explains that this recent action “serves as a revealing indictment of the accuracy of Russian reporting up their chain of command regarding Russian military effectiveness, readiness, status of equipment and supplies, and so forth. The Russian military has been falsely reporting its status or that Russian political leadership was paying adequate attention.”

Why would Iran supply Russia? One of the reasons is because of Tehran's anti-U.S. and anti-Western sentiment. Another reason might be because the regime is worried about Putin's regime falling and wants to make sure their major ally and supporter does not fall. When asked why Iran would engage in military arms transfer to Russia, Wood explained that Iran “has several motivations to act as intermediary and are likely getting paid for their involvement, thus this would be an income stream.”

Additionally, Wood points out that “Russia is acting as an intermediary in ongoing discussions related to the JCPOA (nuclear deal). Iranian support to Russia's war effort could incentivize Russia to act more on Iran's behalf than the United States'.”

The bigger picture for Iran, according to analysts like Wood, is that its actions now could set the stage for Russian support in the future. Iran might also be seen as a 'power player' in the Middle East, its involvement in global affairs outside the Middle East enhancing its prestige and influence within the Middle East region.

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