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Iran-Russia military relations take spotlight following Moscow FM meeting

Despite international pressure, the two isolated states have been ramping up military ties with reported deliveries of Iranian drones in exchange for Russian Sukhoi warplanes. 

TEHRAN — Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian was in Moscow on Wednesday for a visit he said covered military cooperation among a host of other bilateral and regional issues.  

"Obviously, defense cooperation is one of the subjects topping the joint agenda of Iran and Russia," he declared when leaving for Moscow, where he stood next to his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov at a joint presser.  

In an interview with Russian state TV, Amir-Abdollahian was asked about a report by The Wall Street Journal this week that cited American officials as saying that Moscow is giving Tehran "cyberwarfare" and "surveillance software" in exchange for Iranian drones.  

"Iran's military cooperation does not harm any side," Amir-Abdollahian said, without addressing any details in the report.  

Iran has been facing relentless international pressure over the drones it has been supplying to Russia that are being used in deadly operations in Ukraine. Tehran has disavowed the deliveries beyond a number of shipments made months into the conflict.  

Yet during the course of the Ukraine war and amid the ongoing anti-government unrest in Iran, the military ties between the two sanctions-hit countries have seen a sharp uptick.  

As recently as March 11, Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations announced that a deal for Tehran's purchases of Sukhoi-35 warplanes from Moscow has been finalized. The precise numbers remain unclear, but Iran has long been seeking the aircraft to upgrade its crumbling air power.   

Under decades of international sanctions, Iran's air force has been lagging and has struggled to survive with multiple overhauls and occasional reverse-engineering projects.  

According to the Iranian officials, the Sukhoi-35 deal was made possible thanks to the lifting of an international arms embargo long maintained on Iran. The restrictions were officially removed in 2020 under Resolution 2231, which allowed the Islamic Republic, at least on paper, to buy and sell conventional arms.  

The new purchases came in line with earlier announcements including one in January by an Iranian lawmaker, who said a squadron was set to arrive around the end of March.  

Some observers have argued that those planes are Russia's payment for the Iranian drones, particularly the Shahed-129 and 191, which are produced at a center in the central city of Kashan, which was reportedly visited by Russian military representatives back in July.  

In February, a New York Times analysis of satellite imagery combined with an Iranian state TV propaganda video of the inauguration of an underground airbase detected signs that the site was preparing to house Russian-made airplanes. 

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