Iran’s Military Modernization Challenge Worsens With Russia-Ukraine War


Given the internal economic pressure on the Iranian government and the diplomatic pressure  on the United States, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action’s (JCPOA) revival seems likely in June, which if it happens, will coincide  with the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) Board of Governors meeting. If the nuclear deal is revived in June or within this year, Iran will rush to plug its tactical defense needs by purchasing modern weapons systems which it has already selected and discussed with willing potential exporters. 

Once US sanctions are lifted, Iran can shop in virtually any arms market. A few factors throwing a spanner into the works include price, delivery time, ease of maintenance and provision of spare parts and services in the long term. Even when it could afford it,  Tehran faced mounting political backlash  with regard to its acquisition of foreign military hardware.Hence, Tehran will have to depend on politically reliable partners – Russia and China, even though its needs are better served by  cutting-edge French, German or Swedish weapons. Prior to the lifting of UNSC sanctions to transfer arms in October 2020, Iran’s shopping list for weapons systems comprised predominantly of Russian military hardware with China being the fallback option. Until 2018, predominantly Russia and to a lesser extent China, made up 96 percent of Iran’s arms imports. The volume of purchases was not large due to financial constraints.

Iran’s Russian shopping-list includes the purchase of the S-400 Triumf, 36 Sukhoi-30SM fighter jets,  TOR M2 short-range surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), the Pantsir missile system and modern Russian T90M tanks which were promoted as transcending all other counterparts  until the invasion of  Ukraine on February 24. Tehran has also shortlisted the Yak-130 trainer-conversion jet as well. Iran seeks to fill some serious gaps in its naval defense by purchasing Russia’s anti-ship Baston cruise missile system with the capability to target up to 350 kilometers.  Iran’s naval ambitions are far from compatible with its existing naval fleet, therefore, it has added Russian submarines and corvettes to its shopping list.

Iran’s air force may look good on paper but to become competitive with its neighboring rivals, it has a plan of acquiring some 350 fighter jets.  It direly needs to replace its US-made F-14 Tomcats, F-5s and F-4s as well as Soviet-era vintage Su-22s and MiG-29s. Since these airframes are old, they cannot carry the vast array of missiles, bombs and targeting pods.  Its domestically reverse-engineered F-5s only offer reassurance  on  paper. Iran could have acquired 40 Russian twin-engine MiG-29s by 1993 but the deal was not realized  due to an assortment of factors.

By mid-2000, Iran was contemplating the purchase of 250 Su-30s but the Russians denied any such consideration on their part. After the signing of the JCPOA in 2015,  Iran approached Russia again for the most modern flanker version, the Su-30SM.

In 2016, Tehran reportedly tried again  to acquire the Su-30 prospectively after the lifting of the UN arms embargo.  Rumor has it that some advance payments were made, and the production of the jets is ongoing. 

With the lifting of US sanctions sooner or later, Iran’s military modernization may be longer than it had anticipated. This delay is due to its exceedingly high dependency on Russia’s defense industry, and the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war which is overwhelming Russia’s military supply lines.  Russia’s air force and army have faced significant losses, and the Kremlin desperately needs to replenish its forces with replacements.  Hence,  existing foreign orders will not only suffer but also newer orders will be faced with uncertain delivery dates. 

Multilayered financial and technological sanctions are raising the political cost which Iran did not forecast.  Tehran has banked on the Kremlin for a no-strings-attached uninterrupted supply chain of weapons systems. Russia will also have to consider its strengthening ties with the Gulf states, and the sale of the latest fighter jets, frigates, and anti-ship missiles to Iran (which will not face supply chain issues from the Russian side) which will no doubt have adverse repercussions for her. Already, Iran’s vast array of ballistic and cruise missiles are directly or indirectly dependent on Russian parts such as engines and guidance systems. 

Considering the host of issues in acquiring Russian arms, Iran can split the order and buy some military hardware from China. Unlike Moscow, Beijing will have to consider Washington’s response to such a deal. With its renewed COVID-19 outbreak and lockdowns, it is grappling with unforeseen economic challenges resulting in rising inflation and a clogged supply chain. Secondly, the production lines in China’s defense industry are busy coping with the enormous demand from its own armed forces.  Beijing’s export orders are piling up too. Besides, China may not be willing to sell its modern weapons systems like the J-10 to Iran, which has a special knack for modernization. 

To conclude, Russia is unlikely to extricate itself from the Ukrainian war anytime soon and whenever it does, its armed forces will require re-equipping and modernization in almost all domains of warfighting. Hence, Iran will deepen its ties with China for its strategic hardware needs. It may fall back on India too, which can be enticed to compete with China in the arms domain.  Iran’s defense planners right now must be assessing the available Chinese and possible Indian weapons in relation to the country’s needs. It takes a lot of time for a country to shortlist suitable weapons which can be integrated and afforded. Over the next few months, Tehran will be reviewing its secondary choice of weapons and engaging with likely suppliers for discussions on price, field testing and delivery dates. The Ukraine war-related sanctions on Russia may continue to impact Iran’s military outlook for years to come. 

Editorial Team