The U.S. has evidence that Iran sent troops to Russian-occupied territories in Ukraine to help Russia launch drone attacks on targets across the country, Biden administration officials said Thursday.
Iran sent trainers and technical support to enable Russian forces to use Iranian-made drones “with better lethality,” John Kirby, White House National Security Council spokesperson, told reporters in a teleconference.
“We assess that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations,” Kirby said.
“The systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customers expected,” Kirby said. As a result, the Iranians decided to send in troops to assist the Russians, he said.
Asked how many Iranians were in Crimea and why, Kirby said, “I don’t have a number … What we do know is there’s a relatively small number that are.”
Russia has deployed dozens of drones purchased from Iran to Ukraine and has used them in attacks in recent days, including in the capital city of Kyiv, according to Kirby and State Department spokesperson Ned Price.
“Russia has received dozens of these UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) so far. And will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future,” Price told reporters at a separate briefing.
The U.S. has “credible information that Russian officials prior to the presence of Iranian trainers in Crimea have received training in Iran,” Price said.
Citing Russia’s dwindling supplies of advanced weapons, Kirby said the administration was concerned that Iran would provide Russia with surface-to-surface missiles, but did not elaborate.
“Furthermore, in light of Russia’s ongoing supply sort of shortages, we are concerned that Russia may also seek to acquire advanced conventional weapons from Iran such as surface-to-surface missiles that will almost certainly be used to support the war against Ukraine,” Kirby said.
The New York Times first reported that Iranian personnel had been sent to Ukraine to guide Russian forces in the use of newly acquired Iranian-made drones. The Washington Post recently reported that Iran planned to provide Russia with missiles.
Even as it struggles to fend off a counter-offensive by Ukrainian forces in the country’s east and south, Russia unleashed a wave of drone and rocket strikes on Ukraine’s infrastructure and civilian areas over the past week. The Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, was hit by a series of drone attacks on Monday that set apartments ablaze.
The State Department’s Price said the U.S. was working to help Ukraine bolster its air defenses against drone and other aerial attacks.
The Biden administration earlier this year accused Iran of preparing to send drones to Russia. Iran has denied transferring drones to Russia.
Asked how Iran’s support for Russia’s war effort could affect stalled negotiations to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers known as the JCPOA, Kirby said the administration was currently focusing on Iranians protesting in the streets.
“So we’re just simply not focused on that right now,” said Kirby, echoing recent statements by senior administration officials. “What we are focused on is making sure that we’re holding the regime accountable for the way they’re treating peaceful protesters in their country and supporting those protesters.”
The nuclear deal is “largely academic at the moment” in light of the widespread protests in Iran, Price said at the State Department.
The United States recently imposed new sanctions on Iran related to its drone shipments to Russia, including companies and individuals allegedly involved in the effort, and would look for additional measures to hold Tehran accountable, Kirby said.
The Iranian mission to the U.N. did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Dan De Luce is a reporter for the NBC News Investigative Unit.