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Moscow struggles to sell fighter jets in the Mideast

With Egypt and Algeria reportedly backing out of plans to acquire Russian-made fighter jets, there is speculation Tehran could emerge as a potential buyer.

Russia seems to be having a hard time finding a buyer for its most advanced weapons in the Middle East.

In early January, there were reports that Algeria had rejected a deal to purchase Russian Su-35 fighter jets. According to Algerian defense analysts, Algiers came to the decision due to a lack of a modern on-board radar station, which does not meet the requirements of the Algerian military.

Over the past 10 years, the Algerian air force’s fleet has been updated with Russian Su-30MKA fighters. But the most important contract was signed in 2019, when Algeria bought from Russia 16 heavy Su-30MKI (A) and 14 medium MiG-29M / M2 fighters worth $2 billion. This marked the continuation of military-technical cooperation between Russia and Algeria with the latter's new government. The first planes under this contract entered service in the fall of 2020. The next step was to be the purchase of Su-35 fighters, which was unexpectedly canceled.

Algeria also buys Terminator combat vehicles, T-90A tanks and S-400 air defense systems from Moscow, and there seems to be no serious threat that the nation will significantly reduce its military-technical cooperation with Russia. Yet this could pan out if the real reason for the refusal of the Su-35 deal was the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA). This US law, passed in July 2017, allows sanctions against "the destabilizing activities of the Iranian, Russian and North Korean regimes," including countries that buy weapons from Russia.

Although CAATSA has not yet directly been named as the reason for Algeria's refusal to purchase the Russian fighter, it is already indicated in the actions of another North African country: Egypt. In November 2019, US Assistant Secretary of State R. Clark Cooper informed Cairo that Egypt could subject itself to sanctions if it acquires Russian fighters.

Cairo agreed to buy 30 Su-35 fighters from Moscow in 2018. Earlier, Egypt has already received from Russia 46 MiG-29M / M2 fighters and 46 Ka-52 Alligator combat helicopters worth more than $3 billion under 2015 contracts. Information on the number of Su-35 fighters already delivered to Egypt varies. Some sources say five have been received.

Reports of training exercises between Egyptian fighter jets of the Russian Su-35 and the French-made Rafale noted that during the training exercise, the Russian plane played the role of aggressor, attacking the French jet. But the Rafale jammed the second's radar, easily tracked down the enemy and conditionally “shot it down.”

Egypt, like Algeria, may not directly name CAATSA as the reason for refusing to purchase aircraft in order to preserve relations with Moscow. And Cairo, which has already decided to purchase new batches of Rafales instead of the Su-35, can cite the results of the air exercises. Currently, most of the Su-35s produced for Egypt are still in Russia, according to the French newspaper Air & Cosmos

Indonesia also decided to cancel a deal from 2018 for 11 Russian Su-35 fighters, and instead Jakarta will purchase French Rafales and the United States' F-15 EX.

If it becomes clear that Algeria and Egypt’s refusal to acquire the Su-35 is really connected with the CAATSA, the likelihood increases that Moscow may decide to supply these fighters to Iran. While in the past the Middle East contained many potential buyers of Russian weapons, now Iran may remain Russia's uncontested military-technical partner in the region. 

Previously, Russia tried to avoid such deals with Iran. The Kremlin has been attentive to the fears of Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf. For example, in 2017, according to reports, Russia refused to sell Su-35 fighters to Tehran, offering obsolete Su-27SM3 aircraft instead. 

The Dutch military publication Scramble notes increasing speculation that Iran and Russia may sign a defense agreement for $10 billion over 20 years this month, in which Moscow would supply Iran Air Force with 24 Su-35 aircraft and up to two divisions of S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems. The Su-35 fighters already produced for Egypt could be provided to Iran, thus significantly speeding up the implementation of any contract.

At the same time, an obstacle may be Tehran's lack of free funds for such expensive equipment. If Egypt terminates its contract with Russia, those fighters may end up as part of the Russian air force.

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