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Iran leans on Russia, hopes for Sukhoi sale as EU pressure mounts  

Tehran is increasingly boosting its military ties with Moscow, hoping for Sukhoi sale, amid dim prospects for the revival of the nuclear deal and a wave of fresh sanctions over its crackdown on dissent at home.
Indian Air Force (IAF) Russian-made Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter jet takes part in an air refueling exercise from a French Air and Space Force (FASF). Russia is reportedly mulling sale of Sukhoi fighter jets to Iran.  (Photo by EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP via Getty Images)

As their relations get strained with the West, Iran and Russia are deepening their ties. This month saw two phone calls in less than 10 days between Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, multiple high-level visits, and reports on potential sale of Russian Sukhoi fighter jets to Iran in a bid to escape tightening EU and US sanctions. 

Iran has already drawn the ire of its Western foes by delivering combat drones to Russia, which are being used in the latter's war on Ukraine. Tehran has denied this armament, but as evidence mounts of its kamikaze drones crashing in Kyiv, it has become increasingly unable to convince the Ukrainian side of its denials.

At the same, Tehran does not shy away from its long-standing military cooperation with Moscow. Under decades-long Western sanctions, the Islamic Republic's air force has eroded and remains in dire need of an overhaul, which is reportedly being sought through Russia. According to a report earlier this week by the state-funded Press TV, Tehran is close to obtaining 24 advanced Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets from Moscow, a confirmation of earlier comments in September by army officials who spoke for the first time of those plans being in the pipeline. The report did not address speculation on whether those deliveries would serve as Russia's payment for Iranian drones. But earlier this week, Iranian lawmaker Shahriar Heydari was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying that the order could be at Iran's doorsteps as early as spring.  

According to official readouts from the Kremlin and the Iranian presidential office, Raisi and Putin spoke over the phone twice from Jan. 9-19, with the pair stressing the need "to boost bilateral ties." 

In the time span between the two calls, top Putin adviser Igor Levitin was in Tehran and sat down with the highest-ranking security official in the country, Secretary of the Supreme National Security Council Ali Shamkhani.

According to Nour News (run by Shamkhani's office), during that same visit the Russian official held talks with newly appointed Governor of Iran's Central Bank Mohammad Reza Farzin to discuss bolstering Iran-Russia banking cooperation. The meeting came against a backdrop of reports that the two sanctions-hit states were setting up a new trade formula that could push aside the US dollar from their transactions.  

Iranian media have also been extensively covering a report by Finance Feeds, saying Iran and Russia are working on developing a "stablecoin" in an attempt to mitigate the impacts of Western sanctions and eliminate the US dollar from their books. According to those reports, the project is being jointly conducted by the two countries' central banks, which have over the past year been exploring solutions to smoothen transactions.   

But this week, Iran's already squeezed economy received yet another blow, as the European Parliament voted to list the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a "terrorist" organization. The Iranian foreign exchange market reacted quickly, with the troubled national currency, the rial, sharply plummeting again, losing some 5% of its value against the US dollar in a matter of a few hours.   

In multiple statements, Iran's civilian and military officials have warned of "consequences" awaiting Europe following the IRGC vote. Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian compared Europe's move to "shooting oneself in the foot." The country's armed forces, in a statement published by the ISNA news agency, spoke of implications for "regional and global peace," which Europe should be expecting. And Iranian lawmakers were gearing up to ratify a bill that will proscribe European military forces as "terrorists," rendering them "legitimate targets" for the IRGC.  

The nature of the Iranian response has yet to be clarified. Nonetheless, in the contest of Iran-Russia military ties, it could be simply translated into more Iranian involvement in the Kremlin's war on Ukraine and the cooperation to be taken to levels beyond drone deliveries.  

Enraged by the European blacklisting, the IRGC — already active overseas with its controversial Quds Force — will perhaps find few reasons to shy away from a palpable engagement to help the ally, Russia, gain some ground in Ukraine and in a broader scale against the West as the common foe of Tehran and Moscow. 

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