An Iranian T-72S tank being used in an operation in Iraq to fight Islamic State group fighters.

With sanctions strangling its ability to get its hands on weapons, Iran's only way of amassing a stockpile of arms has been to build them itself. Sniper rifles, armoured vehicles or even surveillance drones make up the Islamic Republic's store of military hardware. Now, Tehran is busy secretly funnelling these weapons to groups taking on the Islamic State group in Iraq.

It's no secret whose side Tehran is on in the conflict raging in Syria and Iraq. The government has been unwavering in its support for the embattled Alawite regime of President Bashar al-Assad and the Iraqi government - both Shiite powers - against the advance of Islamic State group jihadists. But Iran has been far less forthcoming about what that support means in concrete terms.

Types of Iranian aid in Iraq

One such sign of Iranian aid to Iraq became apparent towards the end of last year. In autumn 2014, photos began to circulate online that showed Iranian General Qassem Souleimani. Souleimani is head of the Quds Force, a special forces unit attached to Iran's Revolutionary Guards that carries out operations on foreign soil. The photo showed the general side by side with Iraqi Kurdish fighters as well as soldiers from the Iraqi army and Shiite militias. It was the first time Iran's role as a military advisor on Iraqi soil had been acknowledged, albeit semi-officially.

Although Iran denies having sent ground troops or carrying out airstrikes, Tehran has on several occasions admitted to both arming Peshmerga fighters and delivering logistic and humanitarian support to Iraqis. In practice, Iran has been delivering aims to most groups involved in fighting against the Islamic State jihadists. FRANCE 24 spoke to N.R. Jenzen-Jones and Galen Wright, two researchers from the Australia-based Armament Research Services (ARES).

Iran has transferred arms to the Iraqi Army but also to the Peshmerga and to various Shiite militia groups. With the exception of the Iraqi Army, those categories contain numerous independent groups. Additionally, it is difficult to determine which groups are being supplied directly, and which are acquiring Iranian arms through intermediaries.

T-72S: Modified in Iran, then sent to Iraq

Iranian T-72S tank in Iraq.

Specialists from the investigative website Bellingcat.com recently published photos of Iranian tanks being used in Iraq. The model that appeared on the photos was the T-72S, a Russian-made tank subsequently modified by the Iranians. What separates it from both the T-72M and T-72M1 tanks used by the Iraqi army is the absence of a 'V'-shaped metal panel at the front. The Iranian model replaces this 'V' with a system that allows for an additional place of armour to be fitted.

According to what we know, the photo was probably taken near the Iraqi city of Jaloulah, around 40km away from the Iranian border. However, it's impossible to discern from this image who is driving the tank. It could be the Iraqi army, militiamen or even Iranian soldiers.

Safir: The Iranian jeep painted in colours of Iraq's Hezbollah

In this photo, 4x4 'Safir' jeeps built in Iran since 2006 carry the colours of the Iraqi Hezbollah - or Kataeb Hezbollah - battalion. This Shiite militia is reportedly very close to Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

'Safir' jeeps painted in the colours of the Hezbollah movement in Iraq.
 
Iranian sniper rifles

A year ago, specialists noticed for the first time that Iranian-built sniper rifles were being used by Iraqi soldiers against Islamic State group jihadists.

At that time, the site War is Boring had published this photo (below) showing an Iraqi soldier holding a 'Sayyad'. The 50 calibre sniper rifle is an Iranian replica of the Austrian-built Steyr HS.50. Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Syrian army are already equipped with the Iranian-made model.


Other Iranian sniper rifles currently making the rounds in Iraq include the 'Shaher' and the 'Siavash', a lighter model.

When asked about the quality of weapons built in a country crippled by the weight of sanctions, Jenzen-Jones and Galen Wright reply that Iran's tendency to exaggerate their power while also strategically masking certain realities has led many in the West to underestimate its industrial capabilities. They add: "In terms of basic ordnance and small arms, however, Iran certainly has the production capability and capacity".



The above video was meant for internal military use but was leaked onto social networks. In it, a commander from the Iranian Quds Force operating in Syria goes over the pros and cons of his Iranian-built 50mm rifle:

"It's a very good gun. Many people have been killed with this weapon, but it's far too heavy. The muzzle can also cause problems, it's too big."

Surveillance drones guided by Shiite militias?

The Islamic Republic has never admitted to carrying out airstrikes in Iraq. But despite that, photos and videos have offered proof that camouflaged Iranian warplanes have been used over Iraqi territory.

Several experts, as well as the Pentagon, have asserted that Iran's air force bombed eastern Iraq at the end of 2014. At the time, Islamic State group fighters had come perilously close to the Iranian border in the area surrounding Jaloulah.


But Iran's aerial support has also taken the form of surveillance drones. In November 2014, the Observers web site published photos showing an Iranian-built drone brought down by Islamic State group fighters in Iraq.


Recently, the photos above showing fighters from an Iraqi Shiite militia called 'Achoura' were posted on social networking websites.

The images show men dressed in combat gear sitting in front of a large computer screen. The image is described as showing a viewing room during a '[drone]' reconnaissance operation of Islamic State group positions in the Ramadi area'. It's hard to judge from a few images whether Iranian drones were actually put in the hands of Iraqi militias, or whether the photo was staged in order to awe the enemy. But it is possible that engineers from Iran are training militias to use Iranian-built surveillance gear.
 
Getting armed by Iran to get a reaction out of the United States?

While Iran aims to keep evidence of its military aid under wraps, Baghdad isn't being so coy. Only recently, the Iraqi Prime Minister admitted that Iran was Iraq's most important arms supplier. For Australia-based arms specialists Jenzen-Jones and Galen Wright, statements like these are intended for Washington too:

There is a pressing need for munitions in Iraq, and Iran appears to be consistently delivering materiel. Of course, it is important to consider that these comments may be politically motivated, and intended to pressure the US into completing transfers they have been delaying.

Iranian ammunition supplies near the city of Amerli in Iraq.

Post written with FRANCE 24 journalists Ségolène Malterre @segoMalterre and Ershad Alijani @Ershadalijani