Iran’s Russian arsenal could have ‘untold consequences’
Beirut - Iran, its long-strained coffers replenished by the July 2015 nuclear agreement with the United States and global powers, is buying advanced military hardware worth billions of dollars to rebuild its rundown conventional military forces after decades of international sanctions.
With the acquisition of advanced weaponry, largely from Russia, its ally in the Syrian war, the Islamic Republic will dramatically alter the military balance in the Middle East, primarily against Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Israel, and bolster its drive to become the dominant power in the turbulent region as the United States disengages.
Iran’s Arab neighbours, along with Israel, fear that with the financial resources to which Tehran is gaining access, Iran is moving towards acquiring military capabilities that match its regional ambitions, greatly increasing the power of the hard-liners who already control the largest missile arsenal in the Middle East at a time when the rivalry with Saudi Arabia is edging towards open conflict.
In the long term, “the technological gap between Iran’s military and others in the region will narrow, which will have untold consequences for the regional balance of power”, US-based global security consultancy Stratfor cautioned.
Iran is about to take delivery of the first of five batteries of Russian S-300PMU-2 air-defence missile systems, with the order to be completed by the end of the year, under a controversial 2007 contract.
Russia delayed delivery in 2010 because of Western pressure but resumed the $800 million deal after the nuclear agreement was signed in Vienna, ending the Islamic Republic’s isolation.
Iranian Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan, who visited Moscow in mid-February, disclosed that Tehran wants to buy an unspecified number of advanced Russian Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighter jets. Regional sources told The Arab Weekly that Tehran is also eyeing Russian MiG-35 fighters along with Yak-130 advanced training aircraft.
The value of the potential Su-30 contract is not known but under the 2015 agreement Tehran will have access to unfrozen assets worth $100 billion-$140 billion as crippling economic sanctions are lifted in exchange for Iran curtailing its contentious nuclear programme.
Iran’s declared defence budget is as much as $15 billion but the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has access to “significant amounts of unbudgeted funds on arms and technology”, according to the Foundation for Defence of Democracies in Washington.
Indeed, as Iran’s neighbours look on in dismay, its re-armament programme is already causing trouble and more is likely on the way. The US State Department warned on February 18th that the proposed Su-30 sale would violate a UN arms embargo on Iran, which, under the 2015 agreement, will remain in force for another five years.
Tehran has already riled Washington by testing two ballistic missiles under development in what the Americans see as the latest in a long string of Iranian transgressions of UN Security Council resolutions.
It is not clear yet how many Su- 30s Tehran seeks to acquire. But the jet is considered the equal of the US F-15E strike fighter and Iran’s 30,000-strong air force is in dire need of modern combat aircraft.
The air force has been decaying for years and has long been one of the Islamic Republic’s weakest military branches, primarily because of international arms embargoes. This did not prevent Russia selling it a few MiG-29 interceptors a few years ago but Iran’s 334 combat aircraft consist largely of obsolete US and French warplanes, including US-built F-4 and F-5 jets that date from the Vietnam War era.
Until the air force is rebuilt, which will take years, Tehran’s most potent weapon for repelling air strikes is its air-defence network, soon to be reinforced by the S-300s, which can engage multiple aircraft and missiles at a range of up to 200km. Iranian crews have already been trained in Russia.
“The lifting of international sanctions and the region’s vastly changing geopolitical environment have opened a window of opportunity for Tehran to buy potent arms from Russia and modernize its arsenal,” observed Farzin Nadimi, a Washington-based military analyst.
He said that following the July 14th agreement, and driven to some extent by the war in Syria where Tehran and Moscow are providing powerful forces that are keeping beleaguered Syrian President Bashar Assad in power, “strategic ties between Iran and Russia have reached unprecedented levels.
“This is not surprising given their forces have been fighting alongside each other in Syria for some time,” Nadimi wrote in a February 18th analysis for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “Consequently, bilateral military relations can be expected to grow, and new levels and areas of cooperation opened for exploration.
“That said, their military relationship has been spotty in the past, with long negotiations and memorandums of understanding often leading nowhere, sometimes due to outside pressure. The consummation (of recent agreements) would be a sign that things are changing.”
Despite the July 14th nuclear deal, under which Tehran agreed to curtail its nuclear programme in exchange for the lifting of international sanctions and access to up to $100 billion in frozen assets, the Islamic Republic is not likely to find Western arms manufacturers falling over themselves to do business despite the potentially rich pickings to be had.
“Continued policy differences, opposition from local allies and mistrust on the nuclear programme effectively block Iranian access to US and European defence markets,” observed Stratfor.
“Instead, Iran must turn to alternative markets for its defence needs. But it has limited options there as well: Russia and China are the only countries that can provide the type of advanced weaponry that will compare with that of Iran’s neighbours,” particularly Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Turkey, which has spent lavishly on advanced conventional weaponry over the last three decades while the Islamic Republic was cut off from Western arms markets.
“For now, Russia appears best positioned to be the primary supplier for Iranian defence needs,” Stratfor noted. “For one thing, Russia maintains an edge over China in key areas, including surface-to-surface missile technology and air superiority fighter aircraft.”
Another important factor is Iran’s strategic alliance with Russia in supporting the Assad regime, with Russia providing air power and Iran the manpower — mainly from Shia militias headed by Lebanon’s Hezbollah — to ensure Syrian President Bashar Assad’s survival in a war approaching its sixth year.
While Iran is making major advances in developing its own ballistic missiles, which have become its primary strategic strike arm, it lacks powerful ground forces that could become vital to its expansionist objectives in the region. Although it is aiding the Assad regime with paramilitary forces, it is not able to match Russia’s expeditionary power.
Upgraded air and ground forces would change that equation and allow Tehran to expand its military power across the region.
Iran also wants to greatly expand its indigenous arms industry and Dehghan disclosed on February 9th that the Su-30 contract will include the transfer of technology to allow the Islamic Republic to build the aircraft domestically. That’s a major step towards becoming self-reliant in aircraft production and a potential boon for Russia’s arms industry, which has been constrained through a lack of international sales and its current economic straits as oil prices plummet.
“We told them we need to be involved in the production” of the Su-30, Dehghan declared.
The deputy commander of Iran’s ground forces, General Kiomars Heidari, has indicated that Tehran may also buy T-90 main battle tanks if Moscow agrees to share the technology.
That may be in the cards. “Iran is in dire need of upgrading its conventional weaponry and Russia is looking for stable arms markets as many of its traditional buyers turn elsewhere,” Stratfor observed. “Tehran will be that stable market, at least in the short term.”