Washington’s bid to extend the arms embargo on Iran has faced widespread international opposition. Now Tehran can presumably purchase as well as sell military hardware. However, missile-related bans are set to expire on October 18, 2023. For now, Iran is free to acquire tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery systems, fighter aircraft, warships and air defense systems provided it can afford to purchase these and countries are prepared to sell to Iran. Nonetheless, the plethora of US sanctions will continue to hinder Iran’s access to sophisticated offensive and defensive hardware through financial sector sanctions and diplomatic pressure.
Iran’s Likely Shopping List
Iran’s military is in dire need of hardware replenishment as it is either dependent on equipment from the Shah’s era or some Russian weapons systems and improvised Chinese variants, with the Chinese military equipment highlighted in the following chart.
|Iranian Designator||Chinese Designator|
|Kosar||JJ/KJ/TL-10 (variant of FL-8)|
|Nasr||JJ/TL-6 (identical to erstwhile FL-9)/C704|
Chinese weapons systems in Iran’s inventory. Source: Iran Military Power, DIA.
Its own industrial-military complex has not offered groundbreaking weapons but has demonstrated impressive capability to integrate smuggled newer sub-systems into existing platforms and reverse-engineer certain others, mostly in the realm of drones and missiles. Its indigenous fighter jet – Qaher 313 – even a decade after its unveiling has yet to make its maiden flight. Of the 76 Shah-era F-14s, Tehran is probably able to keep only a dozen air-worthy by dismantling the others and utilizing their parts. Now with the prospect of the UAE acquiring the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II, Iran is not only exposed to the likelihood of a stealth fighter on its frontier but also lacks the capability to even detect it. Hence, at the top of Iran’s priority list will be Russia’s S-400 Triumf missile defense system, which has been subject to regular upgrades since its commissioning in 2007. Since the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) only has a handful of noteworthy planes, Iran eyes Russia’s latest Su-35 or Su-30SM, the most advanced in its military category of 4++ generation fighter jets. Though its needs are much greater, Tehran is likely to enter into talks to initially order 24 jets due to budgetary constraints. It is plausible that Russia might offer the less capable and more affordable MiG 35 or MiG-29.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on June 23, “Iran will be able to buy new fighter aircraft like Russia’s [Sukhoi] Su-30SM and China’s [Chengdu] J-10. With these highly lethal aircraft, Europe and Asia could be in Iran’s crosshairs. The United States will never let this happen.”
Considering that China can offer an alternate purchase option, as pointed out by Pompeo, the J-10C variant may be of special interest to Iran. The platform is solely Chinese and available for export too. Beijing has a speedy assembly-line; hence, delivery could be much sooner than Russia’s jets. The other likely candidate could be the JF-17 Thunder, available with either a Chinese or a Russian engine, and with a lower price tag and almost similar in performance to the MiG-29.
Iran’s land forces too remain devoid of modern tanks and artillery platforms. Russia has some enticing main battle-tanks (MBT) alongside other provisions for land warfare. With heightening tensions on its Azerbaijan frontier, Iran’s third top defense ware item will be T-90 tanks. The plain area in the northwest of the country is suited for armored warfare.
Finally, Iran will be looking to purchase long-range, supersonic anti-ship missiles (AShM). The IRGC has twice sunk a mockup of a US aircraft carrier during its drills in 2015 and 2020. The prospect of the IRGC significantly enhancing Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities has attracted US attention since the 1990s.
Political Economy of Exporting Weapons to Iran
Russia in 2017 refused to sell fighter jets such as the Su-35 and Su-30SM as well as the S-400 Triumf missile defense system to Iran in a bid to keep its diplomatic channel open with the United States. However, this policy of denial no longer seems applicable. Moscow has clearly stated that it will not have a problem in selling the S-400 missile defense system to Iran, which is claimed to be capable of detecting stealth fighter jets like the F-35 or F-22. If the Kremlin is willing to sell the S-400 missile defense system, then it will not hold back from selling fighter jets to Iran such as the Su-30SM, MiG-29 or MiG-35. Russia is a tough negotiator and may not agree to give credit without an impressive quid pro quo, for example, a base or two in Iran’s northwest region. Historically, Russo-Iran negotiations have not gone smoothly in relation to setting the price tag for the Russian S-300P defense system. Given the crippling US sanctions along with the economic fallout from COVID-19, Iran will not be able to place a handsome weapons order without risking public outrage.
Alternatively, China not only has innovative defense technology and significant interests in Iran but can also provide long-term credit for purchasing a sizable number of weapons systems, ranging from aviation platforms (AWACs, fighter jets, trainers) to tanks and anti-ship missiles.
After successful talks with Russia or China, the delivery timeframe will not be less than two to three years. However, the transfer of some defensive missile systems or upgrades to Iran’s existing arsenal could possibly be quicker.
Eastern European states such as Serbia and Belarus, are other likely contenders for Iran’s weapons-buying spree. However, both countries face their own geo-political and diplomatic challenges, for example, Belgrade is eyeing inclusion in the European Union (EU).
Apart from broader political repercussions, Russia faces no significant obstacles from the United States and the European Union for selling arms to Iran as all of its key arms manufacturers are already sanctioned by the United States and the European Union. During the 1990s, US-Russia engagement helped stall the transfer of Russian weapons to Iran. However, at this moment in time, Moscow will have to consider the political costs of its decision to sell arms to Iran vis-à-vis its ties with the Gulf states, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With the former, it has serious engagement on energy issues while the latter is mulling over joining the advanced fighter jet program with Moscow.
Also, China faces a dilemma in selling arms to Iran as the Gulf states remain its top import and export partners and the safety of maritime navigation in the Gulf is vital to its multifaceted interests. Though Beijing has discreetly kept the underground supply line of weapons and subsystems open to Tehran, it cannot tip the balance of power by providing offensive, top-of-the-line weapons such as the J-10C or even the JF-17 Thunder.
Nonetheless, it will sell Tehran purely defensive weapons while engaging in legitimate technology transfer. Such an arrangement can keep the relationship intact without endangering China’s vital interests. Russia, however, is likely to take a more adventurous course.