White House announces tough position on Iran weapons sales to Russia

As Kirby affirmed on Thursday, “We’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.”
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby at a Feb. 17 news briefing. (Associated Press)
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby at a Feb. 17 news briefing. (Associated Press)

WASHINGTON DC, United States (Kurdistan 24) – The National Security Coordinator for Communications, John Kirby, briefed reporters on Thursday about Iranian arms sales to Russia.

Kirby is a retired US navy rear admiral. He led the Pentagon’s press office until May, when he was brought over to the White House.

Kirby’s briefing constituted the most authoritative statement, to date, by a senior Biden administration official on the issue of Iranian support for Russia’s war in Ukraine—and on US policy toward Iran more broadly.

That policy has evolved considerably since Jan. 2021, when the Biden administration took office and its focus in the region was on renewing the Obama-era policy toward Iran: handle it with kid gloves; avoid conflict; and renew the 2015 nuclear accord, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which Donald Trump left in 2018.

Although Biden administration officials will not say so clearly and directly, the JCPOA is all but dead in the water and they, along with their European Union (EU) partners, were naive to have placed so much emphasis on renewing it, while failing to recognize that Iran might not be so interested in doing so.

The change in US policy is basically driven by two developments, unanticipated in Jan. 2021. One is the ongoing Iranian protests, triggered by the Sept. 16 death of a young Kurdish woman in the custody of Tehran’s so-called morality police for not properly wearing a headscarf.

Read More: Biden condemns Iranian regime’s suppression of protests; warns of more sanctions

The other is Tehran’s open alignment with Moscow in the biggest security crisis for the US and Europe in 70 years—since World War II—namely Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Hence, the significantly tougher position that Kirby expressed on Thursday.

Implications for the Middle East?

The new US position toward Iran, as articulated by Kirby, may have implications for the Middle East. Several of America’s traditional allies in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia, have been concerned by the way that the Biden administration has overlooked Iran’s aggression in the region for the sake of renewing the JPCPOA.

However, as Kirby affirmed on Thursday, “We’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.”

New Details about Iranian Support for Russia’s War in Ukraine

Kirby revealed new details about Iranian assistance to Russia in the war in Ukraine. There are Russian military personnel based in Crimea, which Russia seized from Ukraine already in 2014.

Russian forces in Crimea are “piloting Iranian UAV’s, using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine,” including strikes in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, Kirby said.

On Monday, Russia used Iranian drones to attack civilians there. “The drones flew low over office buildings and apartment blocks in the center of Kyiv, visible from the streets below and adding a frisson of terror,” The New York Times reported. “At least four people were killed” in the attack, “in a capital at once defiant and buffeted by fear.”

“A relatively small number” of Iranian troops are involved in assisting the Russians, Kirby explained, but they are, nonetheless, “directly engaged on the ground” in assaults “that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.”

The Russians need Iranian support, Kirby said, because Russian troops are not familiar with these weapons systems.

They are “organically manufactured Iranian UAVs, and the Russians just don’t have anything [like that] in their inventory,” he stated. That problem became apparent early on, when there were “operator and system failures.”

“They weren’t being piloted appropriately and properly and were failing to reach targets, or the systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customer expected,” Kirby continued.

“So the Iranians decided to move in some trainers and some technical support to help the Russians use them with better lethality,” he added.

Moreover, the US expects the flow of Iranian arms to Russia to continue. “Russia has received dozens of UAVs so far and will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future,” Kirby said.

Putin had expected a quick victory in Ukraine, but the war has dragged on for eight months and Russia is experiencing supply shortages. So, as Kirby explained, “We are concerned that Russia may also seek to acquire advanced conventional weapons from Iran, such as surface-to-surface missiles,” which it will use for its war in Ukraine.

Renewal of JCPOA on Hold

Asked how Iran’s weapons sales to Russia affected prospects for renewing the JCPOA, Kirby replied in terms somewhat similar to that of the State Department earlier this week. But his language was tougher than that of the diplomats—indeed tougher than what any Biden administration official has expressed so far.

“Our focus right now,” Kirby said, “is not on the JCPOA. We are far apart [from] the Iranians in terms of a return to the deal.”

“They had demands,” he continued, “that were well in excess of what the JCPOA was supposed to cover.”

In other words, as events turned out, Tehran was not really all that interested in concluding a renewal of the nuclear accord.