Dec 14, 2022 - World

Scoop: Amid Russian pressure, UN report skirts question on Iran drones

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to his Iranian counterpart, Ebrahim Raisi, in Tehran on July 19. Photo: Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

Russian President Vladimir Putin speaks to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi in Tehran on July 19. Photo: Sergei Savostyanov/Sputnik/AFP via Getty Images

An upcoming report to the UN Security Council obtained by Axios about Iran's compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal does not accuse Iran of supplying Russia with drones for the war in Ukraine, despite pressure from the U.S. and its allies to do so.

Driving the news: Russia has pushed back hard, and so far successfully, on Western efforts to convince UN Secretary-General António Guterres to order an investigation into Iran's alleged supply of drones. Guterres makes no definitive statement on the issue in his forthcoming report.

  • In the report, Guterres details several letters he received from representatives of the U.S., France, Germany, the U.K. and Ukraine arguing that Iran transferred drones to Russia “in a manner inconsistent with" UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which codified the Iran nuclear deal.
  • Guterres also writes that he received letters from representatives of Iran and Russia rejecting the allegations and stressing that even if Iran did provide drones, that would not violate the resolution.

Between the lines: Under Resolution 2231, which passed in 2015 as part of the nuclear deal, countries are not allowed to transfer or receive from Iran ballistic missiles and drones that have a range of more than 300 kilometers and a payload of more than 500 kilograms until October 2023.

  • The U.S. and European powers argue that the ban applies to the Iranian drones. The Russians and Iranians disagree.
  • If the UN determines there was a violation, it would be a significant embarrassment for Russia, which is a permanent member of the Security Council and continues to deny it is using Iranian drones in the first place.
  • Iran has admitted to supplying some drones to Russia but claims it was before the war began. The U.S. says it has definitive evidence of more recent transfers.

Behind the scenes: Guterres has been trapped in an argument between the two sides since October over whether to deploy UN experts to investigate the matter, according to letters obtained by Axios and the accounts of four diplomatic sources directly involved in the issue.

  • The U.S. and European powers are demanding a UN investigation, but Russia argues Guterres has no authority to authorize one without a decision from the Security Council (which Russia would likely veto).
  • But according to two diplomats from the Western Security Council member states, the UN's legal adviser and undersecretary of political affairs both determined Guterres does have a mandate to deploy experts, and there are precedents from similar cases in the Middle East.
  • The Western diplomats say Russia has put immense pressure on Guterres and his advisers not to order an investigation, and it's even threatened to withdraw its cooperation on other issues relating to Ukraine, most notably the grain corridor.

State of play: Guterres has not ordered an investigation, and as a result, he reaches no conclusion on the drone issue in his report. “The Secretariat is examining the available information. Any findings will be reported to the Security Council, as appropriate, in due course," Guterres writes.

  • A Western official told Axios that Guterres must order the investigation now and "not give in to pressure from Russia."
  • A UN source told Axios that Guterres was in a very difficult position. “Every week the secretary-general received letters from each side with completely contradictory information. There was a lot of pressure from both sides, and the secretary-general had to walk a very fine line."
  • The UN source said the U.S. had also asked Guterres several times in recent weeks to pass messages to Iran warning of the ramifications of supplying drones and missiles to Russia. The secretary-general held several phone calls on this issue with Iranian officials, most recently on Dec. 2 with Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian.

What they're saying: Stéphane Dujarric, spokesperson for the secretary-general, told Axios: “The UN secretariat continues to perform the tasks assigned to it by the Security Council. … In this regard, the secretariat is ready to analyze any information brought to its attention by member states that is relevant to the report."

  • Western officials directly involved in the issue say the fact that the UN report didn’t make a determination about Iranian drone exports does not mean the UN won't find a violation of Resolution 2231. 
  • A State Department spokesperson said, “Iran, in violation of Resolution 2231, provided Russia with drones to wreak havoc and inflict destruction on Ukrainian civilians. Russia, in violation of Resolution 2231, procured them. There is no doubt that the transfer occurred without approval by the council, and thus in violation of Resolution 2231."
  • A spokesperson for the Russian Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

What to watch: A senior UN source said the secretary-general has the option of sending a team of experts to Ukraine in the future in order to investigate the claims regarding the use of Iranian drones.

Go deeper: Iran plans to limit range of missiles sent to Russia, Israeli officials say

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