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Can Iran And Russia's Arms Swapping Sustain A Lasting Defense Partnership?

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on July 19, 2022.
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi (right) welcomes Russian President Vladimir Putin in Tehran on July 19, 2022.

When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visited Moscow in early 2022, he had high hopes of leaving with defense deals that would circumvent international sanctions and take advantage of the expiration of a United Nations embargo on arms trading with Tehran.

Russian fighter jets, advanced antimissile defense systems, and other high-tech military equipment were high on Raisi's wish list. But questions arose: What could sanction-hit Iran, short on cash and technology, offer energy-rich Russia in return? And would Russia be willing to send advanced military technology to Iran at risk of angering rival states and important customers in the Middle East?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine just a month after Raisi's visit provided the answer.

As it became apparent that the war would drag on much longer than the Kremlin anticipated, depleting Russia's arsenal, Moscow turned to Iran for military drones that have proved to be a deadly addition to Russia's war effort. Iranian short-range missiles, as well as shells and ammunition, have reportedly helped shore up dwindling supplies. And there are suggestions that Iranian ballistic missiles could be delivered in the future.

Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile systems parade on Red Square in central Moscow in May 2021.
Russian S-400 antiaircraft missile systems parade on Red Square in central Moscow in May 2021.

In exchange, Iran is anticipating the delivery of advanced Russian Su-35 combat jets, S-400 antimissile systems, a military satellite, and other long-sought military equipment. CNN has reported that Russia is sending captured weapons that the United States supplied to Ukraine on to Iran, where they could potentially be reverse-engineered to produce Iranian-made equivalents.

And according to The Wall Street Journal this week, Russia is also aiding Tehran's efforts to clamp down on persistent antiestablishment protests at home by providing advanced surveillance software.

Su-35 Deal Goes Down

Immediately after the UN arms embargo against Iran expired in 2020, Tehran lauded the opportunity to strengthen its security.

The lifting of the arms ban was part of the terms of the moribund nuclear deal signed between Iran and world powers in 2015, which curbed Tehran's sensitive nuclear activities in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

The 13-year embargo had denied Iran the right to import or export conventional weapons, making Tehran largely dependent on its own military technology to keep pace with regional foes Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Remaining U.S. sanctions continued to limit Iran's ability to import technology, particularly any that could aid Iran's suspected efforts to develop nuclear weapons, and the European Union maintained its own arms embargo on conventional arms and missile technology in an attempt to get Iran to adhere to the nuclear deal after Washington unilaterally withdrew from the accord in 2018.

Putin (left) attends a meeting with Raisi in Moscow on January 19, 2022.
Putin (left) attends a meeting with Raisi in Moscow on January 19, 2022.

But the lifting of the UN embargo opened a window for conventional arms trading with Iran, with Russia and China seen as the most likely suppliers.

Raisi described his two-day visit to Moscow in January 2022 as a "turning point" in Tehran's relationship with Russia as Iranian officials expressed interest in purchasing fifth-generation Russian fighter jets, air-defense systems, helicopters, and tanks. Acknowledging Iran's strapped budget, however, defense experts suggested Iran was unlikely to invest in prohibitively expensive combat aircraft.

Air-Combat Veterans

For decades, Iran has struggled to maintain an air force that depends largely on U.S. aircraft purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution, with some dating back to the 1960s. Longstanding U.S. sanctions denying Iran access to spare parts for its aging F-5s, F-14s, and F-4 Phantoms have left Iran with a patchwork fleet of U.S. aircraft, Iranian aircraft modeled on U.S. aircraft, and some Chinese and Russian warplanes purchased in the 1990s.

While Iran's wish for Russian four-plus-generation Su-30 multirole fighters had been denied for years, the Su-35 -- a fourth generation fighter-bomber and Russia's only serially produced fighter aircraft for export -- surprisingly emerged as Iran's best hope to update its air force.

A Russian Su-35 fighter-bomber
A Russian Su-35 fighter-bomber

In January 2022, as U.S. sanctions pressure intensified amid concerns of an impending Russian invasion of Ukraine, Egypt canceled an estimated $2 billion contract for the delivery of Su-35s. Cairo's move followed similar terminations of discussions to sell Su-35s to Indonesia and Algeria.

"The Su-35 is the best multirole fighter the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) could hope to acquire in a short timeframe," Jeremy Binnie, Middle East defense specialist at the global intelligence company Janes, told RFE/RL in written comments. "The aircraft have been sitting in the open at the Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Plant since they started coming off the production line in 2020."

While it was expected that Iran would try to get the Su-35s once bound for Egypt, the sticking point was whether Tehran would be willing to allocate funds for the air force at the expense of weapons-development programs or the budget of the powerful Islamic Republican Guards Corps (IRGC).

In January, Iran's semiofficial Tasnim news agency quoted Shahriar Heidari, head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, as saying Iran would receive 24 Su-35s as early as this month. Heidari also said Iran had ordered helicopters, air-defense systems, and missile systems from Russia.

While the specifics of the Su-35 deal have not been confirmed, Binnie said, "We could speculate that Russia's urgent need for one-way-attack [drones] helped tip the equation" in favor of Iran's air force. This he added, "would reflect an interesting Russian calculus that these cheap but long-range weapons are actually more useful than advanced multirole fighters" in the Ukraine war.

The Su-35 has had a spotty record in the Ukraine war, with Ukrainian forces claiming to have shot down many of them. But the deployment of more modern fighters to the Ukrainian battlefield has led Kyiv to express worries that they will significantly strengthen Russia's ability to dominate the skies.

Binnie said he believes the Su-35s will be used "primarily in the air-to-air role, based deep inside Iran to increase their survivability so they can be scrambled to intercept aircraft coming in to attack the nuclear and other strategic sites."

This, he added, will essentially take over the role of the U.S.-made F-14s based in Iran's central province of Isfahan while providing a "massive improvement on those 1970s-vintage aircraft."

Challenges Of Cooperation

During a recent trip to the Middle East, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin expressed concerns over Russia's deepening military cooperation with Iran over the past year, saying it "poses serious challenges" for the region.

Austin highlighted the "lethal consequences" of Iran's provision of drones to Russia and the potential for Moscow to send "technology to Iran in exchange for its assistance."

Austin also reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stands next to a downed Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone in Kyiv on October 27, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy stands next to a downed Iranian-made Shahed-136 kamikaze drone in Kyiv on October 27, 2022.

To this point, there is no indication that nuclear-power Russia's defense cooperation with Iran might expand beyond conventional weaponry.

The addition of Su-35s to Iran, while helpful, are not seen as a panacea for its air force's capabilities in the face of better-equipped regional foes.

And while Russia's S-400 antimissile system, of which at least one has been ordered according to Iranian media, would boost Iran's ability to fend off potential air strikes, its provision would not violate previous UN or existing EU arms embargoes because it is a defensive weapon.

Just A Fling?

Regarding the prospect of future arms deals, Binnie said he expects both Moscow and Tehran to take a cautious approach that will not risk weakening their own defenses or transfer top technology.

"For example, due to import restrictions, Russia's military industries will probably struggle to replace any S-400 that is taken out of the line and transferred to Iran," Binnie said. And "supplying ballistic or cruise missiles to Russia would reduce Iran's deterrent against attack."

Advanced Russian tanks, which are at a premium on the Ukrainian front, would also likely not be on offer to Iran.

Speaking about the state of current U.S. sanctions against Iran and Russia, Peter Piatetsky, a former U.S. Treasury Department official who is now the CEO of the consultancy firm Castellum.AI, said they are not designed to stop cash or barter deals between the two states.

"It doesn't mean that sanctions are not effective; they simply are not designed to seize physical items like cash or weapons," he said. "Sanctions can be imposed on the persons involved, but with both Iran and Russia being international pariahs, they don't seem to care."

As for whether Russia and Iran's defense dealings can last beyond the current state of mutual need in the face of domestic economic issues, sanctions, and international pressure, Piatetsky said it will play out much like any relationship.

"What starts out as a relationship of convenience can become a true partnership. True partnerships can crumble and become transactional, true partnerships can endure stress and grow stronger, and parties can also enter into a relationship of convenience and stay in it despite resentments and a lack of mission alignment because they cannot identify better options," he said. "Russia and Iran are in the latter bucket."

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