On-the-Record Press Gaggle by NSC Coordinator for Strategic Communications John Kirby

October 20, 2022

Weapon Program: 

  • Military

MR. KIRBY: Thanks, Saloni. I think as you guys have all been aware, we’ve been warning since July that Iran would be planning to sell UAVs — unmanned aerial — unmanned aerial vehicles — to Russia for use against Ukraine.

In September, as we said, Russia transferred UAVs that it had purchased from Iran into Crimea to use in its war against Ukraine.

So today we can confirm that Russian military personnel that are based in Crimea have been piloting Iranian UAVs, using them to conduct strikes across Ukraine, including strikes against Kyiv in just recent days.

We assess that Iranian military personnel were on the ground in Crimea and assisted Russia in these operations. Russia has received dozens of UAVs so far and will likely continue to receive additional shipments in the future.

Furthermore, in light of Russia’s ongoing supply 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.

There’s extensive proof of their use by Russia against both military and civilian targets there. Yet both Iran and Russia continue to lie about it, denying that Iran is providing weapons to Russia for use in Ukraine. Iran and Russia, (inaudible), they can lie to the world, but they certainly can’t hide the facts.

And the fact is this: Tehran is now directly engaged on the ground and through the provision of weapons that are impacting civilians and civilian infrastructure in Ukraine — in fact, that are killing civilians and destroying civilian infrastructure in Ukraine.

So, let’s be very clear: The United States is going to pursue all means to expose, deter, and confront Iran’s provision of these munitions against the Ukrainian people. We’re going to continue to vigorously enforce all U.S. sanctions on both the Russian and Iranian arms trade. We’re going to make it harder for Iran to sell these weapons to Russia. We’re going to help the Ukrainians have what they need to defend themselves against these threats. And we’re going to continue to stand with our partners throughout the Middle East region against the Iranian threat.

We’re also working with allies and partners, including at the United Nations, to address Iran’s dangerous proliferation of weapons to Russia. Yesterday, in New York, we began that process with Ukraine, the UK, and France to hold Iran accountable for its provision of UAVs to Russia. This closed meeting in the U.N. Security Council kicked off a process under U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 — I know you’re all familiar with that with respect to Iran — and it was led by a panel of experts.

Today, the EU and the UK also slapped new sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities that are supporting Iran’s support for Russia’s war. As you know, we have done that already. We will continue to impose and vigorously enforce sanctions on those who aid Iran’s support for Russia’s war against Ukraine.

Let me just end with this: We’ve said this for months, that Russia had plans to turn to Iran for support. And this is another sign of just how brutal Mr. Putin is willing to be and just how isolated both he and Iran are from the rest of the world.

But bottom line is: We don’t believe it’s going to change the course of the war. The Iranian people have shown in the midst of the air attacks that they’ve suffered over the last few days that they are standing firm and resilient, that they’re not going to allow it to change their determination to push back on Russian aggression.

The Ukrainian armed forces have proven that it’s not going to change their calculus in terms of the territory that they are trying to claw back.

And the other thing that’s not going to change is our determination to continue to provide Ukraine with the security assistance and financial assistance that they’re going to need to defend themselves.

And with that, I’ll take questions.

MS. SHARMA: Great. Let’s go to Aamer Madhani from AP. You should be able to unmute yourself and ask your question.

Q Hi. Thanks, Saloni. Hi, John. On these details that you just unveiled on Iran’s involvement, can you say, even ballpark, how many personnel and type of personnel from Iran are in Crimea? And why does Russia need actual Iranian on-the-ground help with the UAVs? And, I guess, finally, how does this action impact the administration’s look at — feeling on returning to the JCPOA? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. I don’t have a number of — yeah, I don’t have a number of how many Iranians are in Crimea, but we do know it’s a — there’s a relatively small number that are. And the answer for why there is — it’s a — it’s a good question.

First of all, these are systems that the Russian armed forces are not familiar using. And these are organically manufactured Iranian UAVs, and the Russians just don’t have anything in their inventory. So, it follows that they would need a little training on how to pilot these things.

Number two, there were operator — well, I’d say operator and system failures early on where either they weren’t being piloted appropriately and properly and were failing to reach targets, or the systems themselves were suffering failures and not performing to the standards that apparently the customers expected. So the Iranians decided to move in some trainers and some technical support to help the Russians use them with better lethality.

And was your question is this relat- — how is this going to be related to the JCPOA? Or was it just a general JCPOA question?

Q How is this directly — does this impact the administration’s decisions continue to keep the possibility of returning to the JCPOA open?

MR. KIRBY: Okay, I gotcha. Our focus right now, quite frankly, Aamer, is not on the JCPOA. We are way far apart with the Iranians in terms of a return to the deal, so we’re just simply not focused on that right now. They had demands that were well in excess of what the JCPOA was supposed to cover. And again, so we’re just — we are not focused on the diplomacy at this point.

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. And we are focused, as I said in my opening statement, on making sure we’re holding Iran and Russia accountable for this — for these arm sales.

And there are existing UNSCR resolutions, like 2231, that give us the authority to continue to sanction Iranian defense industry and that kind of thing. As a matter of fact, I mean — just to level set, I mean, we’ve sanctioned companies — defense companies in Iran and one individual that is involved in the research, development, production, and procurement of UAVs and UAV components. And that would include the Shahed series of drones, which we know are being used inside Ukraine right now. Those are the ones that I’m sure you’ve seen — the tri-wings.

And we’re going to continue to impose those sanctions, as well as explore new sanctions, as we did yesterday in the U.N. So there’s going to be more to come on that.

MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Josh Wingrove from Bloomberg. You should be able to unmute yourself.

Q Hey there. Thank you so much for doing this. John, forgive me, it might be my line crackling a little bit. Can you just — you’re saying that the Iranians and the Russians are both jointly piloting these remotely from Crimea. I want to be sure I heard you right on that. And if you could elaborate a little bit more on what you think the next steps will be, that would be great.

And just to pile on totally, I wondered if you folks had a comment on an indictment last night of two Russian nationals who were charged with evading sanctions on smuggling U.S. military technology and Venezuelan oil, and the link to the company RUSAL and whether there’ll be a further U.S. response to that. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: Okay. I’m sorry, I was writing your questions down. What we — the information we have is that the Iranians have put trainers and tech support in Crimea, but it’s the Russians who are doing the piloting. That’s our assessment at this time. So I think I’ll leave it at that.

On next steps, I think I covered that in my opening statement. We’re going to continue to — to hold both Russia and Iran accountable. Certainly, we’re exploring new sanctions. We’ve already imposed sanctions. You saw the EU and the UK today also slap some sanctions on Iran and individuals and companies. So there’s growing international support here to to impose accountability on Iran for this provision.

But the other thing — next steps, I mean — the other thing — and I said it in my opening statement, and I guess it’s easy because we say it all the time; it’s considered a throwaway line, and it’s not: We’re going to continue to make sure that Ukraine has the capabilities they need to defend themselves.

And so, the Defense Department is looking actively right now at potential air defense solutions for the Ukrainians. I can’t tell you today what that’s going to look like, when that — you know, we’re going to be able to move additional air defense capabilities to Ukraine. But I can assure you that DOD is well aware of the threat and is working hard to see what they can do to help the Ukrainians deal with the threat.

In addition to us looking inside the lifelines — pardon the old Navy term — we’re — we’re looking outside the lifelines, and that means we’re working with allies and partners who also have air defense capabilities at their disposal that might be willing to provide them to Ukraine.

And just last week, you saw Germany and Spain agree to pony up some short- to medium-range air defense capability that the Ukrainians can use.

So, we understand the threat they’re under and how these drones adjust that threat. And we’re going to keep working to make sure that they get what they need.

And on your last question, it’s going to sound like I’m dodging you, but I promise I’m not. I really need to defer you to the — refer you to the Justice Department on something that — that is not something that we, here at the NSC, would speak to. That’s really better in their purview.

MS. SHARMA: Thank you. Let’s go to Patsy from Voice of America. You should be able to unmute yourself.

Q Thank you, and thanks for taking my call. So, on the Iranian drones, John, can you speak about whether there’s any indication that Belarus is somehow also involved either in the transfer or operation or training or what have you of these Iranian drones by Russia?

And is this part of — you know, like, can you also speak a little bit in terms of the renewed Russian offensive operations threat on the northern front? I mean, do you see the indication that the threat of Russian offensive from Belarus is indeed growing?

And if I may, just one question on Taiwan. Can you confirm on reporting that U.S. and Taiwan are in talks for a joint production of weapons? I know that Vedant spoke briefly on this yesterday at State, but if you can add anything else that’d be great. Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: On the last question, I can’t add to that. I have nothing more to say on that. What I can tell you is that we remain committed to helping Taiwan defend itself, and we’re always going to be open to — to considering new ways to do that in concert with Taiwan. But I don’t have anything specific on that — on that particular report.

On your — on your other stuff: On Belarus, no indication that Belarus is involved in either the transfer, training, or operation of these — of these drones.


Q Hi, thank you so much for taking my question. I just wanted to go back on sanctions on Iran for the drone sales to Russia. Has the U.S. imposed sanctions on Iran related to these drone sales? Or is it mostly being focused on the U.N. and snapping back U.N. sanctions on Iran? Thank you.

MR. KIRBY: No, I mean, we have imposed new sanctions, including on an air transportation service provider for its involvement in the shipment of Iranian UAVs to Russia. So, specifically on this issue, we’ve already done that.

We’ve also sanctioned, as I said earlier, companies and even one individual that was involved in the research, development, production, and procurement of Iranian UAVs and components, as I said earlier, including specifically the Shahed family of drones that we know are being used — some of which, anyway — we know are being used in Ukraine.

So, no, I mean, the sanctions we put in place are — have been specifically on this — on this issue. And we’re going to continue to look for additional opportunities going forward.