Iran eyes major defence deals despite nuclear deal
Beirut - A little more than a month after Iran’s agreement with US-led global powers to curtail its nuclear programme, the Islamic Republic unveiled a short-range ballistic missile, known as the Fateh-313 (Conqueror) that can reputedly hit targets at a range of 500 kilometres with pinpoint accuracy.
The August 22nd event, on the occasion of Defence Industry Day, was a blunt reminder by Tehran that, although the Vienna agreement maintains for another eight years an international ban on providing Iran with ballistic missile technology that could help it develop nuclear warheads, the Islamic Republic is pressing ahead with what has become a vast missile development programme that is a vital element of its military strategy.
Tehran insists that the technology ban only pertains to the development of missiles designed to carry nuclear warheads and, because it maintains that it has no such programme, the ban therefore does not apply to developing new weapons.
“We will buy, sell and develop any weapons we need and we will not ask for permission or abide by any resolution for that,” Iranian President Hassan Rohani, who was a driving force behind the landmark Vienna agreement, declared at the Fateh-313 unveiling.
That echoed a similarly defiant position taken by Ali Akbar Velayati, senior foreign affairs adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, on July 21st on Khamenei’s official website.
Iran has the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, eclipsing Israel’s force of nuclear-capable Jericho weapons with a range of 5,000 kilometres. This is believed to include 50-100 Jericho IIBs and an unknown number of Jericho III missiles that have been operational since January 2008.
On March 8th, Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier-General Hossein Dehqan displayed a new long-range land attack cruise missile, the Soumar, built by the Aerospace Industries Organisation.
The ground-launched missile is named after a city destroyed in the 1980-88 war with Iraq, during which Saddam Hussein’s missiles pulverised Tehran and the infant Islamic Republic’s western cities while the Iranians had no weapons to even the score, an event that hastened Iran’s agreement to a UN ceasefire in a war Saddam started.
The memory of Iran’s helplessness in the “war of the cities”, the world’s first missile inter-city battle, has long been a highly emotive factor in Iran’s drive to become a missile power.
The Soumar has a reported range of 2,500 kilometres, enough to reach Israel. Western security sources say that could be extended to 3,000 kilometres if conformal fuel tanks were fitted.
This drive to build up a massive array of short-, medium- and long-range missiles capable of devastating broadsides against the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, US forces deployed in the region and Israel 1,200 kilometres to the west is the core of Iran’s strategic strike capability and its defence policy.
The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps controls not only the missile force but the vast defence industry Iran has built up since the 1979 revolution to overcome international arms embargoes that prevented it from buying weapons from the West. It has not prevented arms sales by Russia and China.
Iran’s conventional forces — its regular army, the air force and navy — are largely in poor shape, armed with outdated weapons systems and low on the priorities when it comes to funding. That may be changing because of the expected windfall that Tehran expects from the lifting of economic sanctions as part of the July 14th deal — as much as $150 billion by some estimates.
Russia is already lining up for some big defence sales that could dramatically enhance Iranian conventional forces’ capabilities. Moscow is expected to say soon whether it will deliver advanced S-300 air-defence missile systems to Iran under a 2007 contract put on hold because of Western — and Israeli — opposition.
Dehqan said on August 22nd that the S-300 deal will be completed by end of 2015. If that’s correct, delivery of the system will be a quantum leap for Iran in terms of improving its air-defence system, particularly to protect its nuclear facilities against Israeli or US air or missile attacks.
That, at a stroke, would change the strategic equation in the region in Iran’s favour.
But there’s more. There are reports Tehran wants to buy up to 250 Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bombers or 150 Chinese J-10 fighters to replace pretty much the entire strike element of its largely obsolete air force, and to acquire at least 20 Ilyushin Il-78 Midas aerial tankers that greatly expand the range of its strike capabilities — possibly in terms of hitting Israel from the air, a concept so far considered beyond reach.
None of these reports have been verified and they may be part of the psychological war everyone plays in the region. But they do reflect the concerns that Iran’s military is eying a new era of operational capability that it once could only dream of.