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The White House says Russian officials visited Iran to view drones for use in Ukraine

President Biden speaks to reporters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
Evan Vucci
/
AP
President Biden speaks to reporters in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, on Friday after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Updated July 16, 2022 at 9:58 AM ET

JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Russian officials visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in recent weeks to view weapons-capable drones it is looking to acquire to use in its war against Ukraine, the White House said.

The Biden administration released the intelligence as President Joe Biden met Saturday with leaders of six Arab Gulf countries, plus Egypt, Jordan and Iraq for a regional summit. Biden told fellow heads of state at the summit that the United States was committed to the Middle East and "will not walk away and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran."

Biden sought to use his appearance at the summit, closing out a four-day trip to the region, to bolster U.S. positioning in the Middle East and knit the region closer together against Iran.

Hours before the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, the White House released satellite imagery that indicates Russian officials have twice visited Iran in recent weeks for a showcase of weapons-capable drones it is looking to acquire to use in its war in Ukraine.

None of the countries represented at the summit have moved in lockstep with the U.S. to sanction Russia, a key foreign policy priority for the Biden administration. If anything, the United Arab Emirates has emerged as a sort of financial haven for Russian billionaires and their multimillion-dollar yachts. Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.

Release of the satellite imagery showing that Russian officials visited Kashan Airfield on June 8 and July 5 to examine the drones could help the administration better tie the relevance of the war to many Arab nations' own concerns about Iran's nuclear ambitions and other malign activity in the region.

A senior Biden administration official, who briefed reporters before the summit, said Moscow's efforts to acquire drones from Tehran show that Russia is "effectively making a bet on Iran."

The administration also released satellite imagery of Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones being displayed and in flight on the airfield, while a Russian delegation transport plane was on the ground.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said in a statement that the administration has "information that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with several hundred UAVs." UAVs are unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.

"We assess an official Russian delegation recently received a showcase of Iranian attack-capable UAVs. We are releasing these images captured in June showing Iranian UAVs that the Russian government delegation saw that day," Sullivan added. "This suggests ongoing Russian interest in acquiring Iranian attack-capable UAVs."

Sullivan said U.S. officials believe the June visit "was the first time a Russian delegation has visited this airfield for such a showcase."

Iran's mission to the United Nations did not immediately respond to a request for comment early Saturday regarding the White House's assertion.

On Friday, Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, rejected reports on exporting Iranian drones to Russia, calling them "baseless."

"This sort of claims parallel with Biden's visit to occupied Palestine, or Israel, are in direction of political intentions and purposes," the website of Iran's Foreign Ministry quoted Amirabdollahian as saying. "We oppose any move that could lead to continuation and intensifying conflicts."

Biden is looking to strengthen coordination among Middle East allies' response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, and what the ongoing conflict means to the region. Many of the Gulf nations — Saudi Arabia, in particular — have grave concerns about Iran's malign activity in the region.

Sullivan told reporters earlier this week, before Biden arrived in the region. that the U.S. had determined that Iran was preparing to train Russian forces to use the drones as soon as this month. He argued that Russia's "deepening an alliance with Iran to kill Ukrainians is something that the whole world should look at."

The UAVs that the administration believes Iran is preparing to transfer to Russia are the same weapons that Iran has provided to Houthis in Yemen.

Kashan Air Base, located some 190 kilometers (120 miles) south of Tehran, is one of Iran's oldest airfields.

Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in 2021 linked Kashan to Iran's drone program, alleging that Iran trained militants from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to fly drones at the facility.

The U.S. intelligence assessment was first reported by CNN.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press