Russia’s mercenary Wagner group is preparing to provide an air defence system to either Iran or Hezbollah at Moscow’s direction, the United States said on Tuesday.
John Kirby, a spokesman for the White House national security council, said Washington was prepared to use counter-terrorism sanctions against Russian individuals or entities that might make the “destabilising transfers”.
Wagner, which is funded by the Kremlin, has been brought back into line after a failed mutiny in June presented the biggest threat to President Vladimir Putin’s two-decade rule.
Washington’s assessment came as evidence emerged that Wagner was still using its headquarters in St Petersburg months after the site was raided by Russian security forces following former leader Yevgeny Prigozhin’s aborted march on Moscow.
Reports earlier this month suggested the group planned to provide Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based group backed by Tehran, with the Pantsir-S1 air defence system.
Known by Nato as the SA-22, the system uses anti-aircraft missiles and air-defence guns to intercept aircrafts.
Mr Kirby told a briefing that the “expanding partnership” between Moscow and Tehran threatened the international community.
He said Washington was aware that Iran has been providing Russia with “significant numbers” of drones, guided aerial bombs and artillery ammunition in its war in Ukraine.
In return for that support, “Russia has been offering Tehran unprecedented defence cooperation including on missiles, electronics and air defence”.
He also shared newly-declassified intelligence which suggests this military cooperation could stretch to Hezbollah.
“Our information further indicates that Wagner, at the direction of the Russian government, was preparing to provide an air defence capability to either Hezbollah or Iran,” he said.
Such a transfer could further escalate tensions in the Middle East as Israel continues to wage its operation to root out Hamas from the Gaza Strip.
Cross border clashes between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon have intensified in recent days.
It has escalated concerns that the terror group may move to open a new front in the war.
The US has repeatedly warned Hezbollah and other Iranian proxy groups against escalating the conflict.
Joe Biden, the US president, has positioned aircraft carriers and troops in the region to act as a deterrent.
Mr Kirby said the Biden administration would “closely monitor” whether the Wagner group goes ahead with the transfer.
In total, Iran is looking to purchase “billions of dollars” worth of Russian military equipment, including attack helicopters, radars and combat-trainer aircraft, he said.
His remarks marked the latest warning from Washington about deepening military relations between Moscow and Tehran.
Mr Kirby said the burgeoning relationship was “obviously harmful to Ukraine, certainly harmful to Iran’s neighbours, quite frankly harmful to the international community”.
He highlighted in particular an official visit by Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister, to Iran in September, described as an “important step” for military cooperation between the allies.
During the visit, Iranian officials showed off a range of advanced, short-range missile systems.
The White House is “concerned” the Iranian regime could “go a step further” in its support for Russia’s campaign in Ukraine as a result, and could also provide Moscow with ballistic missiles to target Kyiv’s forces, Mr Kirby said.
His warning came as Mr Biden faced continued resistance to his request for more than $61 billion (£48.6 million) in emergency funding for Ukraine from right-wing Republicans in Congress.
The aid is part of a larger $106 billion (£84.5 billion) funding request from the US president that also would encompass defence spending on Israel, Taiwan and bolstering the US border with Mexico.