Iranian military buys balloons from Russia that can be used for espionage – Meduza Investigation

On February 4, 2024, hackers from the Prana Network group, opposing the current regime in Iran, announced the hacking of the mail servers of the local company Sahara Thunder – it is considered a “layout” associated with the Iranian Ministry of Defense and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). Ten gigabytes of data describe details of the exchange of military technologies between Tehran and Moscow. Meduza studied this archive – and found there not only new details of the already told story about kamikaze drones, but also evidence that the Iranian military is buying “spy” balloons from Russia (analogues of the Chinese balloon that was shot down over US territory) .

Complex “Demavend”

In the extensive correspondence of Sahara Thunder, Meduza discovered 17 emails from the Russian company Vneshtekhsnab, which specializes in the export of equipment. These letters discuss the supply to Iran of products from the Dolgoprudny Automation Design Bureau (DKBA) – “the only,” as stated on its website, “a state-owned enterprise engaged in the development and creation of airships, balloons, and special-purpose systems.” The Iranian side named the project related to balloons “Demavend” – in honor of the dormant volcano in northern Iran. According to Persian legends, this mountain holds an evil spirit inside, whose breath sometimes bursts from the crater.

People representing the Iranian government were probably really interested in Russian airships and balloons. After reviewing the Sahara Thunder documents, Meduza discovered that:

  • the head of this company is the full namesake of Kazem Mirza Kondori, once an attache of the Iranian embassy in China;
  • in the copy of most of the letters that Condori exchanged with Vneshtekhsnab, there is an email daftar02@gmail.com, which, according to data from the merged databases, belongs to the “attaché of the Embassy of the Islamic Republic of Iran” in Moscow;
  • Sahara Thunder calls “Mr. Famerini” its “representative” in negotiations with the Russians – a man with that last name, Rohalla Famerini, currently holds the position of attaché at the Iranian Embassy in Moscow;
  • Finally, those leaked documents relating to the supply of Iranian kamikaze drones to Russia have already been verified by other journalists and experts.

Correspondence between Sahara Thunder and Vneshtekhsnab began on November 11, 2020 – with a letter from the then general director of Vneshtekhsnab, Irina Ponomareva, addressed to Condori. In this email, Ponomareva reports that her company has already “begun the procedure for obtaining government permits” for the export of dozens of items of “equipment”, including “airborne weather station”, “controlled pressure valve”, “balloon signal light (ASO)”, “berth bow balloon”, “workstation – control panel” and “cylinders with helium weighing 16,600 kilograms”.

All these items (including helium) are mentioned on the DKBA website as components of an unmanned airship or balloon. With the help of its video and radio surveillance systems, such a device, explains the design bureau, can monitor the “operational situation” in real time: in water areas, near state borders, on highways and in residential areas, as well as in “locations of attractions and sports events.” and public entertainment events.”

In May 2022, after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, correspondence resumed. Iran again needed a supply from the Dolgoprudny Design Bureau – this time it included “repaired equipment along with the balloon shell.” As a result, they again decided to send the cargo by sea, and, according to the correspondence, they were supposed to “meet” the device “at the port of Anzali” in northern Iran.

Almost a year later, on April 17, 2023, Vneshtekhsnab again wrote to the Iranians about the problems: another “delay in the supply of spare parts for the Damavand complex” occurred due to tightening of export rules with the outbreak of a full-scale war. Ponomareva explained that after March 9, 2022—then the Russian government determined the list of goods and equipment temporarily prohibited from being exported from the country—communication with licensing authorities “has become significantly more complicated.” Now the law requires receiving new export documents from the Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Ponomareva wrote. And she concluded: “We will inform you about our readiness for customs clearance immediately after receiving the ST-1 certificate.”

This correspondence was completed by the new general director of Vneshtekhsnab, Ilya Botvinovsky, who headed the company immediately after Ponomareva. On September 12, 2023, he informed Sahara Thunder that the cargo was ready to “clear customs.” And he clarified: “Is it possible to send the goods to another part of Iran?” Botvinovsky promised to inform the ship’s name “additionally” – and hand-written the official letter to the Iranians with a sweeping inscription in Russian: “With respect and best wishes!”

What exactly the Iranian Damavand project is intended for is not stated in the leaked documents. Vneshtekhsnab itself does not know the details, the company’s management admitted to Meduza. “I do not know yet. Just next week I’ll go there [to Iran] on a business trip and see what it [the Damavand project] is like,” the company’s general director Ilya Botvinovsky said in a conversation with Meduza.

Launch of the VAL model balloon developed by DKBA (Joint Stock Company “Dolgoprudny Automation Design Bureau”) from the Klyuchi airfield in Kamchatka

He noted that “the balloon would be good to use at some World Cup, for example, to launch it and film the area around it.” “Yes, [launching a balloon] to monitor safety is one of the directions. You can hang anything on a balloon, including equipment that allows you to do this. And he flies for as long as he wants. This is still a fundamental product,” concluded Botvinovsky.

However, in the press the products of the Dolgoprudny Design Bureau are described as “the Russian fleet of spy balloons.” Since the middle of the 20th century, DKBA has been designing devices similar to the Chinese “reconnaissance” balloon shot down in the American sky – or to the devices of the United States and Israel armed with cameras and radars, which sometimes end up over Iran.

Iranian delegation at Russians defense plants

The ayatollah regime is interested not only in Russian balloons. Meduza discovered a leaked document describing a visit of 17 Iranian specialists to several enterprises of the Technodinamika holding, coordinated with the Russian Ministry of Defense, to “get acquainted with [its] scientific and technical potential and production capabilities.”

If such a trip really took place, then from March 5 to 13, 2023, the Iranian delegation – with breaks for protocol events and a “cultural program” – traveled to eight cities in Russia and inspected eight enterprises of the Technodinamika holding.

Iranians were transported “economy class” and accommodated in “standard class” rooms, noted in the program; a separate budget was provided for “the allocation of souvenirs on the day of summing up the results of the work.” The visit program was approved by Ministry of Defense employee Evgeny Shmyrin – in the department he holds the post of head of the department of advanced interspecific research and special projects. In 2022, he was awarded the State Prize named after Marshal Zhukov “for the creation of a system of aviation multi-purpose tactical guided missiles and a modular guided missile-bomber weapon system.”

It is unknown whether Russia and Iran concluded any agreements as a result of this visit; the leaked documents do not mention this. However, the delegation also visited those enterprises that are associated with the production of drones, that is, sites that could potentially be converted for the production of Iranian drones.

However, Tehran is also interested in purchasing Russian weapons. Thus, in the fall of 2023, Iranian diplomats began negotiations on the supply of Russian anti-tank and anti-ship missiles.

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