Axis of Evil: Chinese Tech Powering Iranian Drones in Russia-Ukraine War

Report sheds light on Iran-Russia-China nexus and illicit use of American tech

Parts of downed Iranian drone in Ukraine / Reuters
November 1, 2022

The Iranian-made drones Russia is using to kill Ukrainians are being powered by Chinese technology, showing that the Communist regime is playing a larger role in the conflict than previously known, according to a watchdog group.

Chinese Communist technology is "enabling Iran to manufacture and supply drones to Russian forces," according to the Institute for Science and International Security, a think tank that closely monitors Iran’s military infrastructure. "It appears that Chinese companies are supplying Iran with copies of Western commodities to produce UAV combat drones." Components used to power these drones also appear to originate from companies based in the United States and Europe.

The findings could spell trouble for the Western companies involved in this drone technology, as trade of this nature is heavily sanctioned by the United States and European governments. While it is more than likely Iran is procuring this technology on the black market with China’s help, watchdogs including the Institute for Science and International Security are calling on the Biden administration to more aggressively police these networks. This includes stopping negotiations aimed at reviving the 2015 nuclear accord until Iran ends its military trade with Moscow.

"A priority is to understand how foreign parts are ending up in Iranian drones," the institute says in its latest report. "Discovering Iranian procurement networks can start with the Western suppliers, who would be expected to cooperate with authorities. From there, authorities need to systematically expose Iran’s procurement network, identifying trading companies, distributors, shipping companies, agents friendly to Iran, and ultimately those in Iran organizing these purchases."

Iran has already supplied Russia with hundreds of drones, which contain lethal missile technology. Tehran has reportedly agreed to supply at least a thousand, "if not thousands, of additional drone systems and eventually export short-range ballistic missiles," according to the report.

The components powering these drones appear to have originated in Austria, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States, according to the group, and include "off-the-shelf parts" used in civilian aircraft and drones.

A State Department spokesman said anyone linked to the flow of arms from Iran to Russia could be subject to U.S. sanctions.

Iran’s Shahed-136, one of several drones being used by Russia, contains an electronic signal receiver reportedly produced by the U.S.-based Texas Instruments, according to the findings. The fuel pump for this drone is allegedly produced by TI Automotive, a U.S. subsidiary of TI Fluid Systems, according to the report.

A spokesman for TI Automotive told the Washington Free Beacon it is aware of the allegations but cannot confirm the veracity of them.

"We have not examined this particular part and are not able to confirm any aspect of the Twitter post, including the use of these items," the spokesman said. "That said, the photo appears to be of a standard fuel pump manufactured by TI Fluid Systems that is readily available as a service part through retailers and distributors in Europe. TI Fluid Systems does not sell this pump or any parts to customers in Iran and does not support or authorize any sale or distribution of our parts to Iran."

Texas Instruments did not respond to a request for comment.

The Shahed-136 drone is also powered by an engine produced by China’s Beijing MicroPilot Flight Control Systems, according to the report. It is based on a model aircraft engine designed by the German company Limbach Flugmotoren GmbH & Co.KG.

"Iran has a long history of illicitly procuring Limbach engines for its drone program," according to the report. "In 2012, Limbach opened a subsidiary in China, Xiamen Limbach Aircraft Engine Co., Ltd., to produce the L550 series and other engines. It is unclear how Beijing MicroPilot Flight Control Systems obtained the design for the L550 series engine, or if Limbach or its agent sold the design to the company under a license."

Iran’s military sales to Russia, which Tehran denies are happening, constitute a violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which formally codified the 2015 nuclear agreement. Under that measure, Iran is barred from engaging in military trade of this nature—a violation made all the more egregious by U.N. Security Council member Russia’s involvement in the situation.

"One immediate action is to acknowledge that a revival of the JCPOA should not occur unless Iran stops exporting drones and Iranian drones are no longer used in Ukraine," the Institute for Science and International Security says in its report, referring to the nuclear agreement by its official acronym. "The people of Ukraine who are suffering such grievous losses from Iranian drones deserve no less."

Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran has long been reliant on the black-market trade for its military needs.

"Iran has a long history of not only illicitly procuring dual-use and commercially available materials and technology for its military programs, but also reverse-engineering them at home," Taleblu told the Free Beacon. The United States can help combat this situation by providing regional allies with "commensurate short-range air defense systems" capable of destroying Tehran’s weaponry.