By AAMER MADHANI and JON GAMBRELL – Associated Press
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — Russian officials have visited an airfield in central Iran at least twice in recent weeks to see drones capable of weapons they are seeking to acquire for use in its war. against Ukraine, the White House said.
The Biden administration released the intelligence as President Joe Biden met with leaders from six Gulf Arab countries on Saturday, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq for a regional summit. Biden told fellow heads of state at the summit that the United States is committed to the Middle East and “will not leave and leave a vacuum to be filled by China, Russia or Iran.”
Biden sought to use his appearance at the summit, capping a four-day trip to the region, to bolster US positioning in the Middle East and bring the region together against Iran.
Hours before the Gulf Cooperation Council summit, the White House released satellite images showing that Russian officials have visited Iran twice in recent weeks for a showcase of weapons-capable drones it is seeking to acquire for use in its war in Ukraine.
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None of the countries represented at the summit followed suit with the United States in sanctioning Russia, a key foreign policy priority of the Biden administration. On the contrary, the UAE has become something of a financial haven for Russian billionaires and their multi-million dollar yachts. Egypt remains open to Russian tourists.
The release of 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 the concerns of many Arab countries over the Iran’s nuclear ambitions and other malign activities in the region.
A senior Biden administration official who briefed reporters ahead of the summit said Moscow’s efforts to acquire drones from Tehran show that Russia is “effectively betting on Iran.”
The administration also released satellite images of Shahed-191 and Shahed-129 drones on display and in flight at 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 supply Russia with several hundred drones.” UAVs are unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones.
“We assess that an official Russian delegation recently received a showcase of attack-capable Iranian drones. We are releasing these images captured in June showing Iranian drones that the Russian government delegation saw that day,” Sullivan added. “This suggests continued Russian interest in acquiring Iranian attack-capable drones.”
Sullivan said U.S. officials believed 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 on Saturday morning regarding the White House assertion.
On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, in a phone conversation with his Ukrainian counterpart Dmytro Kuleba, dismissed reports of Iranian drone exports to Russia, calling them “baseless”.
“These kinds of claims parallel to Biden’s visit to occupied Palestine, or Israel, are in line with political intentions and goals,” Amirabdollahian was quoted as saying by Iran’s Foreign Ministry website. “We oppose any initiative that could lead to the continuation and escalation of conflicts.”
Biden seeks to strengthen coordination between the response of Middle Eastern allies to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what the ongoing conflict means for the region. Many Gulf countries – Saudi Arabia in particular – are gravely concerned about Iran’s malign activities in the region.
Sullivan told reporters earlier this week, before Biden arrived in the area. that the United States had determined that Iran was preparing to train Russian forces to use the drones as early as this month. He argued that “deepening Russia’s alliance with Iran to kill Ukrainians is something the whole world should be looking at.”
The drones that the administration believes Iran is about to transfer to Russia are the same weapons that Iran supplied to the Houthis in Yemen.
Kashan Airbase, located about 190 kilometers (120 miles) south of Tehran, is one of the oldest airfields in Iran.
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz in 2021 linked Kashan to Iran’s drone program, alleging that Iran had trained militants from Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Yemen to fly drones in the facility.
The US intelligence assessment was first reported by CNN.
Gambrell reported from Lviv, Ukraine. Associated Press writer Zeke Miller in Washington contributed reporting.
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