This file handout photo made available by the Iranian Army office on January 5, 2021, shows drones on display prior to a military drone drill at an undisclosed location in central Iran. Image Credit: AFP

Washington: Iran is preparing to supply Russia with hundreds of drone aircraft, including advanced models capable of firing missiles, the Biden administration said on Monday, publicly revealing what US officials say is a secret effort by Tehran to provide military assistance for Russian’s attacks on Ukraine.

The planned delivery of unmanned aerial aircraft, or UAVs, disclosed by National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan at a White House briefing, could provide a significant boost to Moscow’s efforts to find and destroy Western-supplied artillery and other weapons systems that have slowed the advance of Russian troops in recent weeks.

Sullivan said Iran is also preparing to train the Russians on how to use the weapons, with initial training sessions set to begin as soon as this month.

“Our information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs, including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline,” Sullivan told reporters in the White House briefing room.

“It’s unclear whether Iran has delivered any of these UAVs to Russia already,” Sullivan said, “but this is just one example of how Russia is looking to countries like Iran for capabilities.”

The revelation comes as President Joe Biden prepares to depart for the Middle East, where he is expected to confer with key allies on a unified regional policy toward Iran. Tensions between Washington and Tehran have been further strained in recent weeks, amid faltering nuclear talks and an uptick in rocket and drone attacks on US military installations in the Middle East, conducted by militia groups armed and funded by Iran.

While Russia has its own extensive arsenal of drones, the arrival of Iranian aircraft could help Moscow replenish a key weapons system that suffered heavy losses during the four-month conflict. Surveillance UAVs play a crucial role in the targeting of enemy forces by artillery, and weaponised drones can hover over the battlefield for hours, launching missiles that can destroy tanks and other armoured vehicles.

Iranian leaders have freely shared UAV systems with outside groups, most especially pro-Iran militias in Iraq, Syria and Yemen. Iranian-designed drones have been used to attack US and allied military bases in the Middle East, as well as civilian targets such as oil refineries.

Over the years, Russia has been a key trading partner and occasional military ally to Iran. While Moscow joined the United States and European Union in backing the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, it also fought alongside Iran in helping defend Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad - a key ally for both countries - during Syria’s 11-year civil war.

Iran’s apparent decision to provide military assistance to Moscow could further undercut efforts to revive the nuclear accord. After former president Donald Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement in 2018, Iran reneged on its promise to limit its stockpile of enriched uranium to levels far below what would be needed to build a nuclear weapon. Since then, Tehran has blown past the agreed restrictions and now possess enough fissile material to make at least one bomb, if it decides to do so, according to nuclear weapons experts. US intelligence agencies say they have seen no evidence to date that Iran has begun making actual weapons.