Iran’s Russian arsenal could have ‘untold consequences’

Friday 26/02/2016
In the cards. Russia’s T-90 tanks, shown in 2013 file picture, rolling at the Red Square in Moscow.

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.”