A senior US official said Tuesday that Russia's plan to acquire hundreds of combat drones from Iran shows its urgent need to reinforce due to heavy losses four months after invading Ukraine.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the national security council, said the deal, revealed by the White House on Monday, also shows Iran's willingness to support Moscow's war on Ukraine.
But he said supply the drones would not necessarily affect US ongoing attempts to negotiate a return to the 2015 six-party deal to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
"We continue to want to see a nuclear deal that takes Iran's nuclear ambitions, at least its nuclear weapons ambitions, off the table," Kirby said.
On Monday the White House revealed intelligence that Russia and Iran are moving quickly on a drone supply pact, which comes as Russia forces face stiff Ukrainian resistance in their push to consolidate control of eastern and southern Ukraine.
"The Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles), including weapons-capable UAVs, on an expedited timeline," White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters.
"Our information further indicates that Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use these UAVs, with initial training sessions slated to begin as soon as early July," he said.
- Divulging intelligence -
Kirby told CNN that the drones can be both for reconnaissance and to deliver munitions, and explained why the information was divulged.
"It was important to make it clear to the world that we know that Russia needs these additional capabilities," he said. "They are expanding their resources at an accelerated rate."
Russian forces have incurred heavy losses in recent weeks, especially to ammunition depots and command posts, after the United States and allies began providing longer-range precision weapons to Ukrainian force, like the Himars precision-guided missiles.
That could stall the Russian military's ability to advance, and could enhance the capacity of Ukraine forces to push them back.
Iran responded on Tuesday by saying that "no special development" had taken place in technological cooperation with Russia following the invasion of Ukraine in February.
Without specifically mentioning drones, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani said cooperation with Russia "in the field of some modern technologies predates the war in Ukraine, and there has been no special development in that regard recently."
Tehran's position regarding the war "is quite clear and has been officially announced many times," he added.
Iran has maintained that it is against the war in Ukraine and called for a political solution, while blaming the roots of the crisis on the United States and NATO's expansion.
"The claim of the American official (Sullivan) comes as the US and the Europeans have for years turned the occupying and aggressor countries, including in the West Asia region, into a storehouse of their various deadly weapons," Kanani added.
Sullivan said it was not clear whether Iran had delivered any of the drones to Russia yet.
He noted that Iran's drones have been used by the Huthi rebels in Yemen to attack Saudi Arabia.
- Drones play key role -
Drones have played a crucial role on both sides of the war in Ukraine, for everything from firing missiles from a distance, to dropping small bombs on targets, to conducting reconnaissance.
Ukraine's forces have had particular success in using Turkish-made Bayraktar armed combat UAVs, and the United States and other allies have supplied Kyiv with many types of smaller drones.
"We have already provided hundreds of UAVs to Ukraine. We are in constant conversation with them about their needs," Kirby said.
Kirby stressed that the conflict could not be simplified as a "drone versus drone war."
"It depends on what these UAVs are used for," he said. "It is not just about one capability. It really is all the capabilities taken in sum," he added, mentioning the Himars systems.