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Parts from more than a dozen US companies found in downed Iranian drone in Ukraine

(CNN) — Parts made by more than a dozen American and Western companies were found inside a single downed Iranian drone in Ukraine last fall, according to an assessment of Ukrainian intelligence obtained exclusively by CNN.

The assessment, which was shared with US government officials late last year, illustrates the scope of the problem facing the Joe Biden administration, which has vowed to stop Iranian production of drones that Russia is using in Ukraine.

CNN reported last month that the White House created a task force to investigate how American and Western technology — ranging from smaller equipment like semiconductors and GPS modules to larger parts like motors — ended up in Iranian drones.

Options to combat the problem are limited. The United States has for years imposed strict export restrictions and sanctions to prevent Iran from obtaining high-quality materials. Now, US officials are seeking better enforcement of those sanctions, encouraging companies to better monitor their own supply chains and, perhaps most importantly, trying to identify third-party distributors who are taking these products and reselling them. to actors such as the Government of Iran.

There is no evidence to suggest that any of these companies violate US sanctions laws and knowingly export their technology for use in drones. Even with many companies promising increased oversight, monitoring where these ubiquitous parts end up in the global marketplace is often very difficult for manufacturers, experts told CNN. Companies may also not know what they are looking for if the US government has not reached out and penalized the actors who buy and sell the products for illicit purposes.

Ukraine shoots down 13 Russian drones that were going to hit Kyiv 2:29

And the Ukrainian intelligence assessment is further evidence that, despite the sanctions, Iran still has plenty of commercially available technology.

Of the 52 components the Ukrainians removed from the Iranian Shahed-136 drone, 40 appear to have been made by 13 different US companies, according to the assessment.

The remaining 12 components were made by companies in Canada, Switzerland, Japan, Taiwan and China, according to the assessment.

The sanctioned Iranian companies appear to be working successfully on efforts to secure supplies of crucial electronic components and products. For example, the company that built the downed drone, Iran Aircraft Manufacturing Industries Corporation (HESA), has been under US sanctions since 2008.

Kyiv Ukraine attack

File photo. This photo shows critical power infrastructure as it burns after a drone attack on Kyiv, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on the morning of December 19, 2022. (Credit: SERGEI SUPINSKY/AFP via Getty Images )

A game worth playing

One major problem is that it is much easier for Russian and Iranian officials to set up shell companies to buy the equipment and evade sanctions than it is for Western governments to uncover those front companies, which can sometimes take years, experts said.

“This is a game of Hit a Mole (referring to the game where several moles come out of their holes and you have to hit them with a mallet before they hide again). And the US government needs to get incredibly good at the game, period,” said former Pentagon official Gregory Allen, who now serves as director of the Artificial Intelligence Governance Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “This is a core competency of the US national security establishment, otherwise it had better start to become one.”

Allen, who recently co-authored research on the effectiveness of US export controls, said ultimately “there is no substitute for strong domestic US government capabilities.”

He also warned that it is not an easy job. The microelectronics industry relies heavily on third-party distributors and resellers that are difficult to trace, and the microchips and other small devices that end up in many of the Iranian and Russian drones are not only inexpensive and widely available, but also widely available. easily hidden.

“Why do smugglers like diamonds?” Allen said. “Because they are small, light and worth a lot of money. And unfortunately, computer chips have similar properties.” Success will not necessarily be measured in stopping 100% of transactions, he added, but in making it harder and more expensive for criminals to get what they need.

‘A prolonged attack’ with Iranian drones

The rush to stop Iran from making the drones is becoming more urgent as Russia continues to deploy them in Ukraine with relentless ferocity, targeting both civilian areas and crucial infrastructure. Russia is also working to set up its own factory to produce the drones with the help of Iran, according to US officials. On Monday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said Ukrainian forces had shot down more than 80 Iranian drones in just two days.

Zelensky also said that Ukraine had intelligence that Russia “is planning a protracted attack with Shaheds,” betting that this will lead to “depletion of our people, our air defense, our energy sector.”

A different investigation into the downed Iranian drones in Ukraine, by the UK-based research firm Conflict Armament Research, found that 82% of the components had been made by US-based companies.

Damien Spleeters, deputy director of operations for Conflict Armament Research, told CNN that the sanctions will only be effective if governments continue to monitor which parts are being used and how they got there.

Ukraine advances towards Kherson after the announcement of the withdrawal of Russian troops.

A group of people walk past damaged buildings on Borodyanka on November 9, 2022 in Kyiv region, Ukraine. Borodyanka was particularly hard hit by Russian air raids in the first weeks of the conflict. Power and heat cuts across Ukraine caused by missile and drone attacks on energy infrastructure have added urgency to winter preparations. (Photo by Ed Ram/Getty Images)

“Iran and Russia will try to circumvent those sanctions and they will try to change their procurement channels,” Spleeters said. “And that’s precisely what we want to focus on: getting into the field and opening up those systems, tracking the components and monitoring the changes.”

Experts also told CNN that if the US government wants to tighten enforcement of the sanctions, it will need to dedicate more resources and hire more employees who may be on the ground to track down sellers and resellers of these products.

“No one has really thought about investing more in agencies like the Office of Industry Security, which were really sleepy parts of Washington’s national security establishment for a few decades,” CSIS’s Allen said, referring to an offshoot of the Commerce Department. which deals primarily with the application of export controls. “And now all of a sudden they’re at the forefront of the national security technology competition, and they’re not getting resources remotely in that regard.”

US companies say they comply with US law

According to the Ukrainian assessment, among the US-made components found on the drone were nearly two dozen parts built by Texas Instruments (TI), including microcontrollers, voltage regulators, and digital signal controllers; a Hemisphere GNSS GPS module; a microprocessor from NXP USA Inc.; and circuit board components from Analog Devices and Onsemi. Components built by International Rectifier, now owned by the German company Infineon, and the Swiss company U-Blox were also discovered.

CNN requested comment by email last month from all companies identified by the Ukrainians. The six respondents stressed that they condemn any unauthorized use of their products, while noting that combating the diversion and misuse of their semiconductors and other microelectronics is an industry-wide challenge that they are trying to achieve.

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

Gregor Rodehuser, a spokesman for German semiconductor maker Infineon, told CNN that “our position is very clear: Infineon condemns the Russian aggression against Ukraine. It is a flagrant violation of international law and an attack on the values ​​of humanity.” He also added that “apart from direct business it is difficult to control consecutive sales throughout the entire life of a product. However, we instruct our customers, including dealers, to only resell in accordance with applicable regulations.”

Analog Devices, a Massachusetts-based semiconductor company, said in a statement that they are intensifying efforts “to identify and counter this activity, including implementing enhanced monitoring and auditing processes, and taking enforcement action where appropriate…to help to reduce unauthorized resale, diversion, and unintentional misuse of our products.”

Jacey Zuniga, director of corporate communications for Austin, Texas-based semiconductor company NXP USA, said the company “complies with all applicable export control restrictions and sanctions imposed by the countries in which we operate. Military applications are not a focus area for NXP. As a company, we vehemently oppose our products being used to commit human rights violations.”

Drones Iran Ukraine

Iranian drones in Ukraine.

Phoenix, Arizona-based semiconductor manufacturing company Onsemi also said it complies with “applicable export control and economic sanctions laws and regulations and does not sell directly or indirectly to Russia, Belarus, or Iran or to any military organization. foreign. We cooperate with government and law enforcement agencies as necessary and appropriate to demonstrate how Onsemi conducts business in accordance with all legal requirements and that we hold ourselves to the highest standards of ethical conduct.”

Swiss semiconductor maker U-Blox also said in a statement that its products are for commercial use only and that the use of its products for Russian military equipment “is a clear violation of U-Blox’s terms of sale applicable to customers and distributors alike.

CNN’s Tim Lister and Victoria Butenko contributed to this report.

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