TEHRAN, Iran — Iran’s foreign policy has experienced many developments following the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with six world powers on July 14. The most significant of these changes is perhaps how Russia is now viewing Iran as a major arms customer. Indeed, the past six months have been filled with nonstop stories by Russian media outlets quoting officials voicing Moscow’s keen interest in selling weapons to Tehran. Of note, the JCPOA lifts the ban on sales of major conventional arms and related components and services to Iran.
The first of these reported deals relates to a 2007 contract in which Russia had promised to supply Iran with S-300 surface-to-air missile systems — a contract that Moscow never fulfilled. However, after the nuclear deal, Moscow quickly changed position and announced that it would deliver the missiles to Tehran; this announcement was perhaps hurriedly made out of fear that Russia would have to pay compensation to Iran to the tune of billions of dollars in case of further delay. However, as talks over the S-300 missile system became more serious, Moscow set the precondition that Tehran first withdraw the lawsuit it has filed over the withholding of the missiles before any delivery can be made.
Subsequently, official Russian news agencies such as Sputnik began to report on the possibility of Moscow selling other heavy weaponry to Iran, such as Sukhoi Su-30 Flankers, MiG-35 fighter jets, T-90 battle tanks, amphibious vehicles and other weapons. But are these incessant reports accurately depicting a keen Iranian interest in purchasing Russian weaponry, or are they merely a form of psychological warfare?
One instance of this potentially troublesome dynamic was when Sorena Sattari, Iran’s vice president for science and technology affairs, traveled to Moscow and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Following the visit, the Russians launched an intensive media campaign saying that Iran had requested the purchase of Sukhoi Su-30 Flankers. The Islamic Republic has until now shown no official reaction to such claims. Moreover, for months, Russian officials and media outlets talked of Tehran’s alleged keen interest in purchasing 100 Sukhoi Superjets, even as senior Iranian officials shied away from noting such a decision. In fact, all Russian claims about the Sukhoi Superjets were eventually dismissed by the deputy head of Iran’s Civil Aviation Organization, Mohammad Khodakarami.
There are many instances of Russian authorities making deceptive or false statements, and also Russian media outlets producing numerous reports on alleged sales of arms to Iran. Indeed, a cursory review of the archives of official Russian news outlets such as Sputnik or Russia Today produces an array of these kinds of stories.
Make no mistake: There is no doubt that the Russian military-industrial complex is seeking to expand its interests by gaining access to Iran’s huge market. However, Russia’s key goals in selling arms to the Islamic Republic are more diverse.
During the 1990s, Russia had produced a number of new platforms in heavy weaponry for air, sea and ground forces. The Sukhoi Su-30 and MiG-35 jets as well as T-90 tanks are among these weapons. However, as a result of different economic and political constraints, Moscow failed to obtain a suitable market for its products and its weapon sales were limited to India and a few countries that had become newly independent in Central Asia and the Caucasus.
Meanwhile, Moscow has over the past several years tried to design fifth-generation jet fighters, tanks, armored personnel carriers, newer helicopters and stealth combat ships. None of these initiatives have been able to reach the level of mass production, which means Moscow has paid a heavy price for the production of its current advanced products. Thus, the arms it is putting forth for sale to Iran have failed to generate any profit so far. Research and development for new platforms such as the Armata tank or the PAK-FA 5G stealth fighter jet are very costly, and in light of Russia’s current economic situation appears very difficult to sustain. Thus, a sovereign arms customer such as Iran — which is hungry for weapons and whose current weaponry is technologically several generations behind — is viewed as an economic bridge that will allow Moscow to venture into a new generation of weapons.
It should not be overlooked that following Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, Russia has been closer to Iran than any other world power. However, based on the first principle of the Islamic Revolution, which urges an Iran independent of the East and West, Iranian officials have so far never allowed this closeness to enter a stage where Iran would be fully dependent on Russia. Neither has Tehran formed a strategic alliance with Moscow. Yet, the Russians continue to see the sale of heavy weaponry to Iran as the best opportunity to make Tehran more dependent while preventing it from coming closer to the West. This is because military dependence, due to its heavy cost in terms of finances, intelligence, security and human resources, strongly affects the relations between the selling and buying countries.
The nuclear deal raised hopes for a new era in relations between Iran and the West among Iranian and Western political elites. However, as a result of numerous misunderstandings and animosities between the two sides, there have been no practical measures taken toward establishing sustainable relations by either party. Indeed, the idea of a new such era may perhaps be unlikely.
Regardless, the reality is that at the current historical juncture, the West would benefit from ending its hostile policies toward Iran, and also from suggesting strategic concessions to Tehran. If not, the Islamic Republic will have no choice but to form the strategic alliance with Moscow that it has avoided. In this vein, the West can propose to provide Iran with conventional heavy weaponry for solely defensive purposes. Such a re-entry of conventional Western weaponry to Iran would help quickly remove the shadow of mistrust held by Iranian authorities toward the West on the one hand, and on the other, protect the West from the dangers posed by a potential strategic alliance between Iran and Russia. Of note, the immense profits of exports of arms to Iran’s military, which is in great need of virtually every kind of weaponry, cannot be overlooked and is something that could greatly improve the economies of Western countries, and especially the United States, France, Britain and Germany.
If senior policymakers in Iran and the West maintain a clear understanding of the historic dimension of such a shift, their decisions could greatly impact the future strategic balance of the world. If not, it appears that current divisions are on course to harden.