February 2, 2023

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EXCLUSIVE: Biden’s task force is investigating how US technology ended up in Iranian attack drones used against Ukraine


Washington
CNN

The Biden administration launched an expanded task force to investigate how American and Western components, including American-made microelectronics, ended up in Iranian-made drones. hundreds in UkraineSeveral officials familiar with the effort told CNN.

The United States has imposed severe export restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-quality materials, but evidence has emerged to suggest that Iran is finding an abundance of commercially available technology.

Last month, the UK-based investigative organization Conflict Armament Research I checked several drones which was dropped in Ukraine and found that 82% of its components were manufactured by companies based in the United States.

Among the components found in some of the drones were processors made by Dallas-based technology firm Texas Instruments, according to an investigation by the Ukrainian Armed Forces and a source familiar with the U.S. investigation, as well as an engine made by an Austrian company. It is owned by the Canadian company Bombardier Recreational Products. Both companies have condemned any use of their technology for illegal purposes.

Their seemingly inadvertent involvement in Iran’s drone industry underscores how cheap products intended for civilian use can easily be modified for military purposes, often falling outside the confines of sanctions and export control regimes.

In a statement to CNN, Texas Instruments said, “TI does not sell any products to Russia, Belarus, or Iran. TI complies with the applicable laws and regulations of the countries in which we operate, and partners with law enforcement organizations as necessary and appropriate. Additionally, we do not support or condone the use of our products in applications for which they were not designed. ”

Bombardier Leisure Productshe said in a statement It has launched an investigation into how the engines got into the drones.

The officials said the investigation has intensified in recent weeks amid intelligence obtained by the United States that the Kremlin is preparing to open its own factory to produce drones inside Russia as part of a deal with Iran.

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Iran has already begun transferring drone schematics and components to Russia to help with production there,CNN reportedin a dramatic expansion of the military partnership between the two countries.

Agencies across Washington are involved in the task force, including the Departments of Defense, State, Justice, Commerce, and Treasury, and one official described the investigation as an “all hands to the roof” initiative. The White House National Security Council is overseeing the effort as part of a larger “comprehensive approach” to dealing with Iran, a senior administration official said, from its crackdown on protesters and its nuclear program to its deepening role in the war. in Ukraine.

But the issue of drones is a particularly urgent one given the sheer volume of US-made components, many of which were manufactured in the past two years, that have been found in Iranian drones that Russia has been deploying across Ukraine against civilians and critical infrastructure. .

Conflict Armament Research found that Iranian drones they examined in Ukraine in November had “high-level technological capabilities,” including tactical-grade sensors and semiconductors sourced outside Iran, demonstrating that Tehran “has been able to circumvent Existing sanctions regimes have added more capabilities and flexibility in handling their weapons.”

John Kirby, a National Security Council official, told reporters earlier this month that the United States would impose sanctions on three Russian companies involved in acquiring and using Iranian drones, and is “evaluating other steps we can take in terms of export controls to restrict Iran’s access.” to sensitive technologies.

Much of that work falls to the task force, officials said, and one of its first tasks is to notify all U.S. companies whose drone components have been found. Congressional staff briefed on the effort told CNN they hope the task force will provide lawmakers with a list of US companies whose drone equipment has been found in an effort to force more accountability by getting the companies to monitor their supply chains more closely.

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The task force also has to coordinate with foreign allies, since components used in drones are not limited to those produced by American companies. Conflict Armament Research also found that “more than 70 manufacturers in 13 different countries and regions” produced components for the Iranian drones they examined.

in October,CNN has gained access to a drone that was shot down in the Black Sea near Odessa and captured by Ukrainian forces. It was found to contain Japanese batteries, an Austrian engine, and American processors.

An Iranian-made Mohajer 6 drone.

According to A.I Study publishedlast month by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security. The report concluded that “China is playing a greater role than previously assessed in enabling Iran to manufacture and supply unmanned aerial vehicles to Russian forces.” It appears that Chinese companies are supplying copies of Western goods to Iran for the production of combat drones.

The White House believes that it is successfully driving home the scale of the problem with the allies. The senior administration official told CNN that there is a “growing broad and deep international consensus on Iran, from the European Union to Canada to Australia and New Zealand, which is being led by American diplomacy.”

Officials said there is no evidence that any Western companies are knowingly exporting their technology for use in drones, which is partly why the task force’s job has been so difficult.

The task force’s work has left track of the supply chains of the microelectronics industry, which relies heavily on distributors and third-party vendors. The microchips and other small devices that end up in many Iranian and Russian drones are not only cheap and widely available, but they can also be easily hidden.

Parts of a drone after the Russian strike on fuel storage facilities in Kharkiv, Ukraine on October 6, 2022.

Iran is also using front companies to buy equipment from the US and EU that may have a dual use, such as Austrian engines, which Tehran could then use to build drones, According to the Treasurywhich sanctioned several of those companies in September.

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This makes monitoring the supply chain a challenge, although experts say American and European companies can do a lot to track the direction of their products.

“American companies have a lot to do to keep track of their supply chains,” said Dmitry Alperovich, former chief technology officer of cybersecurity firm CrowdStrike.

Better tracking of sellers is the first step, he said, but the task is admittedly difficult because many of these companies’ products are commoditized and available on shelves and online for civilian purposes. Neutralizing some Iranian front companies by imposing sanctions and cutting off their supplies to some Western companies would be like “a game of whack-a-mole,” Alperovic said, noting that “they can easily find another supplier.”

He added that the real “weak point” of US policy when it comes to export controls is enforcement – and the prosecution of specific individuals involved in illegal transactions.

“We have to strengthen the resources to impose our sanctions to achieve the desired effect,” Alperovic said.

You can put companies on [sanctioned] Entity List,” he added, “but if you don’t actually go after the people involved, it doesn’t say much.”