Photo source: wikipedia.org /
In an important development in bilateral relations between Tehran and Moscow, “Iran’s Deputy Defense Minister Brigadier General Mahdi Farahi on November 28, 2023 announced that plans have been finalized for Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers to join the combat units of the Iranian Armed Forces”. Iran is expected to receive at least Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. This important development brings many questions, including what are the reasons and motivations of both Iranian and Russian sides? What are the implications of this arms deal? To answer these questions, the following points are considered:
First, the air fleet of the Iranian army mainly consists of the third and fourth generation jets of the Cold War of the 1970s, especially the US Fighter Jets of F-14, F-5 and F-4 which bought from the United States, according to close and strategic relations between Tehran and Washington during the Pahlavi period. Therefore, Iran had no problems in pilot training, recovery, repairs, supply of spare parts and other technical services. However, after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, severing diplomatic relations between Iran and the United States and imposing sanctions, the situation changed internationally. Although the Iranian Air Force was able to play an important role in the Iran-Iraq war based on the aforementioned fighters in the 1980s, after the end of the war in 1988, the problem of modernization, repair and supply of spare parts became more apparent. These circumstances pushed Iran to buy a few Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters it bought in the 1990s, and Iran had to develop missile capabilities in order to solve the problem of a worn-out air force fleet and increasing the capacity of deterrence against threats. Therefore, Iran’s first motivation and purpose for purchasing Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers is to modernize part of the old and worn-out fleet of the Air Force, which is based on American technology in the 1970s. Although it cannot completely solve this problem, changing the equipment and fleet structure of the Iranian Air Force is a time-consuming and very expensive process.
Second, purchasing Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers can be increasing the capabilities of Iran’s air force in various fields. Regarding Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, Mohammad-Hassan Sangtarash, an Iranian military analyst, told the Russian state-run Sputnik news site in January 2023 that “this aircraft will be especially effective if Iran can install original weapons on it. The Super Flanker Su-35 can play the role of a combat mini-AWACS (airborne warning and control system), and if connected to Iran’s radar network, it will acquire unique point defense capabilities. If Iran purchases technologies and kicks off joint massive production [of the Su-35], it can gain a certain advantage over the fighters and warships of countries neighboring Iran”. Indeed, the Mil 28 helicopter or “Night Hunter” is a combat helicopter with two turboshaft engines with a power of 2500 horsepower, which gives this helicopter a speed of about 320 km/h. It is also capable of carrying a variety of different weapons such as 80- and 122-mm rockets and anti-tank guided missiles. On the other hand, “the Yak-130 serves two purposes. The advanced jet trainer will better train Iranian pilots to fly some of the frontline aircraft, or at least the Russian jets in its inventory. The Yak-130, like the BAE Systems ‘Hawk’ that the Indian Air Force (IAF) operates, also possesses significant secondary light attack capability, serving as a massive force multiplier while trying to hit enemy ground formations”. It is clear that the aforementioned capacities can help to increase the capacity of the outdated and old fleet of the Iranian Air Force.
Third, the news of Iran’s planned purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 advanced fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers is another sign of deepening relations between Tehran and Moscow. If we go back to the past, the purchase of a few Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters it bought in the 1990s was not a very successful experience and could not continue. The relations between Tehran and Moscow were not as close as in recent years, and the challenges of Russia and the West were not the same as today. Therefore, Russia was cautious in military and defense cooperation with Iran, and in Iran’s nuclear case, Moscow voted in favor of six resolutions sanctioning Iran in the UN Security Council. In particular, in 2007, a military contract was signed between Iran and Russia to receive the S-300 defense system, but the Russians refused to deliver this defense system to Iran in 2010, according to resolutions sanctioning Iran in the UN Security Council and also under pressure from the West. But after six years, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the self-imposed ban in April 2016 and completed delivery of S-300 air defense missiles to Iran, following the agreement between the P5+1+EU and Iran on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 14 July 2015. There is no doubt that new factors such as the war in Syria and Ukraine, the continuation of unilateral US sanctions against Iran and the extensive Western sanctions against Russia have accelerated and expanded the process of military and defense cooperation between Iran and Russia. While Western sources strongly criticize the sale and export of Iranian drones to Russia, and Iran said it shipped drones to Russia before Ukraine war, Iran’s planned purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 advanced fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers shows deepening relations between Tehran and Moscow.
Forth, this development is significant in another angle. In recent years, similar contracts were canceled for the sale of Russian Su-35s to Algeria, Egypt and Indonesia under pressure from the United States and the threat of economic sanctions. As a result, these countries bought US F-15 fighter jets or French Rafale fighters instead. Thus far, China is the only country that has succeeded in buying Sukhoi Su-35s from Russia, and India’s negotiations with Moscow have yet to make any notable progress. Therefore, Iran and Russia, as two countries under Western sanctions, unlike Egypt, Algeria and Indonesia, do not have any consideration for the expansion of defense and military cooperation.
Fifth, the new process of military and defense cooperation between Iran and Russia can have implications of expiring and lifting of Iran’s arms and missiles embargos by the UN Security Council against Iran. Based on the United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (July 2015), which endorsed the JCPOA on the Iranian nuclear program, all restrictions on the supplies of major arms to and all arms from Iran expired in October 2020. It meant that Iran legally able to buy and sell conventional weaponry, including small arms, missiles, helicopters and tanks. Following this development, Iran opened Ababil-2 unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) factory in the Tajikistan capital of Dushanbe in May 2020. In the second step, the UN Security Council’s sanctions on the development and export of Iranian missiles quietly expired on October 18, 2023 as a part of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which set the specific terms for the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear program in July 2015. While Russia welcomed the lifting of missile sanctions, the United States, the Council of Europe, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada all announced their sanctions on Iran’s missile program will be maintained. Therefore, it is not surprising that we see the expansion of Iran’s military and defense cooperation with Russia.
Sixth, “Iran’s planned purchase of the Su-35 fighter jets can affect the balance in regional air power vis-à-vis the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, especially the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all of which have fragile relations with Iran. As a result, these countries, and possible others, might turn to more weapons from the West, especially the US F-35 fighter jets. Relatedly, simmering tensions with Tel Aviv—including the alleged Israeli drone attack on Iranian territory in January 2023—may also influence this deal, as the advanced fighters will improve Iran’s defensive and preventive defense against possible Israeli attacks”. However, according to close relations between Russia and Israel, as well as the United Arab Emirates, it is very unlikely that Russia wants to disrupt the balance of air forces in the Middle East by selling and exporting Sukhoi 35 fighters in a large number. On the other hand, Iran’s planned purchase of the Su-35 fighter jets will not change the bases of deterrence of this country, relying on missile and drone power. This means that Iran’s military and defense deterrence power will not be based on the air force and fighters.
Overall, Iran’s planned purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 advanced fighter jets, Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, and Yak-130 jet trainers is a significant development. These are the first fighters that will be delivered to Iran 30 years after the purchase of a limited number of MiG-29s from Russia. It can bring Iran and Russia another step closer, especially on the eve of concluding an important and long-term strategic cooperation agreement. It can also help modernize and strengthen a small part of Iran’s air force capacity, but it will not change the fundamentals of Iran’s deterrence. In addition, Russia will be very cautious regarding the regional consequences of the sale and export of Sukhoi 35 fighters to Iran.
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About the author:
Vali KALEJI, Ph. D. in Regional Studies, Central Asia and Caucasian Studies, Faculty of Law and Political Science, University of Tehran and as a senior expert in Eurasian studies, he has published numerous articles on Eurasian issues with the National Interest, the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, the American Foreign Policy Council’s Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, the Middle East Institute in the United States, Oxford Analytica in the UK, and the Valdai Club in the Russian Federation.