In remarks reported Monday Iran’s foreign minister appeared to accept as possible, despite past denials, that Moscow had used Iranian drones in Ukraine.

“If it is proven to us that Iranian drones are being used in the Ukraine war against people, we should not remain indifferent,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said, as reported by Reuters.

The Iranian foreign ministry website and official news agencies last Friday reported Amir-Abdollahian denying claims at a European summit last week that Iran had supplied Russia with military drones deployed in the Ukraine war. The European Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States all last week introduced sanctions against three Iranian military commanders and a defense company over the reported supply.

Abdollahian was last Friday reported as saying Tehran was “strongly opposed to war and to the arming of any warring side.” The minister said Iran had “told the Ukrainian officials to show any evidence they have that would prove the use of Iranian drones in the Ukraine war.”

Foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani reiterated early on Monday that Tehran had not supplied Moscow with munitions for the war in Ukraine despite “defense cooperation.”

Volte-face?

Amir-Abdollahian’s latest remarks suggested a shift if not a volte-face. But it was unclear if he was implying “Iranian drones” might have reached Russia without any official sanction, or without the specific knowledge of the foreign ministry. Alternatively, some analysts have long argued Iran often employs a tactic of ‘plausible deniability.’

US officials began claiming back in July, without offering conclusive evidence, that Iran had agreed to supply drones to Russia. Security analysis have said they could offer Moscow a cheaper, if far less effective, alternative to missiles.

Iranian officials have denied these claims, but they have talked up the Iranian-made weapons. Major-General Yahya Rahim Safavi, a military adviser to Iran’s leader Ali Khamenei, claimed October 18 that 22 countries had expressed an interest in buying Iranian military drones.

‘Giving them to X and Y’

Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei himself in a tweet October 19 compared past western dismissal of Iranian drone-manufacturing with their current fears: “A few years ago they questioned the authenticity of photos of Iranian-made advanced drones & missiles and claimed they’re photoshopped. Now they’re saying Iranian drones are dangerous, why are you selling & giving them to X & Y.”

The issue of drones was also taken up last week at the United Nations Security Council, where France, the United Kingdom, and the United States presented a letter arguing that it would contravene a provision in UNSC Resolution 2231, which in 2015 endorsed the Iran nuclear agreement, the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action). The controversy at the UNSC adds a further challenge in the frozen talks aimed at reviving the JCPOA.

In a further political twist, Ukraine is highlighting Iran-Russia links as a way of justifying its arguments that the US and EU should supply it more advanced weapons.

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