The Expansion of Military Ties Between Russia and Iran Raises Concerns in the West


The recent increase in arms transfers between Russia and Iran presages the expansion of the two countries’ military relations during the current year. The military partnership between Moscow and Tehran comes as the United States rapidly increases its global arms sales. In contrast, Russian arms exports are on a downward trajectory, with the conflict in Ukraine contributing significantly to this; they dropped by 31 percent over the past five years.

There is a mutual supply of weapons by both sides, with Moscow sending Tehran captured US and Western-made weapons from the war in Ukraine, according to recent reports. Iran’s arms supply chain to Russia includes the transfer of lightweight machinery, particularly drones. Iran has sent hundreds of drones to Russia. Some of these drones have been spotted in Ukraine, posing an increasing threat to Western war efforts there and possibly contributing to prolonging the Russia-Ukraine conflict. These drones are powered by Western technology recovered in Ukraine by Russian troops and sent to Iran. Tehran’s military industry is growing fast, with it reliant on reengineering Western weapons and technology.

Additionally, Iran recently bought Su-35 jets from Russia and is also planning to purchase Russian helicopters and missiles. Additionally, Iran is set on purchasing Su-30SM aircraft and the advanced Yak-130 light combat and trainer jet. Moving forward, experts say Iran will rely on its partnership with Russia to buy the parts and equipment needed to operate the mentioned aircraft for the sake of air superiority and expanding ground attack operations.

US-led sanctions previously slowed down the delivery of Russian military equipment to Iran. But as Washington tightens the sanctions on Moscow and Tehran, the two capitals seem keen to expedite the transfer of arms. Despite these sanctions, Iran has acquired a list of tactical bombers, fighter aircraft and transport planes from Russia.

Steps to link the Russian and Iranian banking systems are one of several measures to counter international efforts to curtail the budding military partnership between the two sides through sanctions. A new Russian-Iranian deal will allow 52 branches of Iranian banks and four unnamed foreign banks to use Iran’s local interbank telecom system, known as SEPAM, to connect with 106 banks using Russia’s System for Transfer of Financial Messages or SPFS. The two local interbanking systems cannot be sanctioned and their infrastructure is not controlled by Western governments.

The International North-South Transport Corridor, once completed and operational, will also help in circumventing Western sanctions and is crucial to Russian and Iranian relations, trade and the transfer of arms.

Not surprisingly, the United States is concerned that Russian military transfers could enable Iran to access rather advanced military components for its air defense systems. Tehran confirmed that it has ordered new military supplies from Moscow and hopes to receive them soon. The United States also says that the growing Russian-Iranian relationship is moving at a dangerously fast pace, and warns that Tehran already has a near-global procurement network to acquire cutting edge military technology. Tehran believes it has the right under international law to engage in military cooperation and sales with Russia.

The United States is imposing tighter sanctions against Russia and Iran in 2023 and taking more steps to end Iranian drone supplies to Moscow. The US Senate introduced measures this year to address the challenge of the military partnership between Moscow and Tehran, and introduced the Deterring Iranian Support for Russia in Ukraine and Pre-empting Terrorism Act. The Pentagon has identified Iran as a global challenge because of its enhanced military cooperation with Russia, and seeks a global coalition to push back on the two countries’ partnership.

Israel is also targeting Iranian defense infrastructure, including ammunition depots. Tehran thwarts most attacks, but the cost of these attacks against its arms industry is rising. Ukraine appears to support these Israeli attacks, according to social media and other media outlets backed by Kyiv, in an effort to warn Tehran not to supply weapons and drones to Russia.

It is unclear if these measures will limit the arms transfers between Iran and Russia. Tehran continually prepares to send more weapons as well as Iranian military personnel to Moscow. Russia insists that its cooperation with Iran will move forward despite US pressures.

As the United States strengthens its partnerships across Asia with countries like South Korea and Japan to contain Russia, the Moscow-Tehran military partnership is also likely to strengthen. Additionally, lackluster controls over the international and Asian arms market means that Moscow and Tehran will always find new ways to expand the transfer of arms, technology and equipment.

Editorial Team