What’s next for Russia-Iran military partnership?

If the arms embargo on Iran ends in October, what arms might Tehran buy from Moscow?

al-monitor Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami attends the VII Moscow Conference on International Security MCIS-2018 in Moscow on April 4, 2018.  Photo by ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP via Getty Images.

Aug 27, 2020

Russia’s dialogue with Iran has emerged as one of the most dynamic fronts of Moscow’s diplomacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif visited Moscow twice this summer — first in June and then in July — to discuss the future of the nuclear deal, as well as the coordinated response to the American campaign to extend the UN arms embargo on Tehran.

Against this backdrop, Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami's trip to the Army-2020 Military Forum taking place Aug. 23-29 is adding fuel to speculation about Moscow and Tehran ramping up military-technical cooperation once the Iran arms embargo expires Oct. 18. The American proposal to extend the restrictions was brought up in the UN Security Council but was rejected. Washington’s demand to use the so-called snapback mechanism to impose sanctions on Tehran also seems unlikely to yield results.  

Prior to Hatami’s visit, Tehran’s ambassador to Russia, Kazem Jalali, said military partnership between Russia and Iran is "growing by the day" and should soon break new ground. "We will soon open a new chapter in the Russia-Iran military-technical partnership,” Jalali wrote on his Telegram channel.

Following Hatami’s negotiations with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoigu, the Iranian Embassy in Moscow spoke of the necessity to further strengthen their partnership “provided the depth of strategic understanding between the two countries in the region.” Such enthusiasm was not seen in the reports on the Russian media, however, which is usually upbeat on the prospects of the Russian-Iranian military partnership. The Iranian delegation’s presence at the forum did not receive much attention. The only highlights included footage of the Iranian delegation examining the S-400 and Pantsir-S1 air defense systems, a hint at possible new contracts on the delivery of those systems.

According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, once the arms embargo is lifted, Iranian authorities are looking to purchase Russian tanks, the S-400 and the Bastion coastal defense missile system. In addition to that, Tehran is also interested in Russian Su-30 jets, the advanced Yak-130 pilot training aircraft and T-90 tanks. Those reports have to be taken with a grain of salt, of course. So far the only reliable source of information about possible contracts are the (rather vague) declarations of officials from both countries. Serious doubts remain as to whether Tehran will actually conclude any expensive contracts with Moscow.

There are several reasons to be careful.

To begin with, Iranian representatives are not the first Middle Eastern delegation to size up the S-400 and show interest in a possible purchase of the system somewhere down the line. Russian experts enjoy talking up the reputation of Russian weaponry, saying how impressed foreign delegations have been with Russian tanks, jets and missile defense systems. In reality, however, there is a big difference between declaring formal interest in purchasing arms and actually signing the contract for its delivery. And Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) does have Russian-made Tor-M1 short-range air defense systems that can be upgraded.

Second, the Iranian leadership has on several occasions reiterated that while Russian tanks such as the T-90 or missile defenses remain its favorite choice, Tehran's current priority is producing domestic armored vehicles such as Karrar tanks. Meanwhile, the three S-300PMU missile systems that Russia has supplied Iran should be enough. Tehran also has the Iranian Bavar-373 systems that share common characteristics with the Russian S-300. The IRGC is believed to be the main driver behind the domestic production drive and controls the majority of defense enterprises.

Third, a deepening of military cooperation with Iran is fraught with possible — if not certain — reputational risks for Moscow. The episode with the shooting down of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737 in January demonstrated the low resilience to stress of Iranian military personnel, who fired two Tor-M1 missiles at the plane.

Fourth, it would be wrong to dismiss the possibility of Russia cultivating closer relations with Iran’s traditional foes. After the 8th Moscow Conference on International Security, hosted by the Ministry of Defense, Bloomberg reported that Russia rejected an Iranian request to buy S-400s for fear of stoking trouble in the Middle East and upsetting Gulf states and Israel. However, representatives of the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation clarified later that Russia is ready to supply Iran with S-400s.  

In theory, there is a way for Russia to both avoid strains in relations with Iran and avert reputational damage from getting too close to it. To that end, Moscow might find a golden medium in limiting itself to supplying air defense systems of various ranges to Tehran to build up its protection against possible external threats but not offensive armaments.

Russian analyst Yuri Lyamin said he believes Iran will eventually opt for purchasing Su-35 or Su-30M jets from Russia. Iranian air forces face an urgent need for modern multirole aircraft and the Iranian military-industrial complex cannot service these needs at the moment. Mikhail Barabanov, an expert at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said in 2018 that the Iranian aviation industry revolves around revamped versions of old American jets, that the industry cannot offer anything beyond that and that engineers are incapable of coming up with new ideas while lobbying for more money for old ones. Barabanov made his comments when Iran presented its new Kowsar jet, practically a variant of the F-5 two-seat jet.

Nikita Smagin, a Tehran-based expert with the Russian International Affairs Council, said he believes Iran is unlikely to sign any substantial package deal with Russia for purchasing a wide array of weapons and military hardware. A move by the Iranian regime to go ahead with massive weapons purchases at a time when the country is plagued by stagnation and falling real incomes may well stir unrest within the country.

In the end, while Iran will almost certainly refrain from any massive deals with Russia, it likely will opt for making a few symbolic deals to demonstrate its ability to overcome the US blockade, Smagin said. Yet this will not solve the country’s long-term problems. “You cannot fix the dilapidated aircraft fleet by buying a few jets,” Smagin said. “Integrating air defense systems — replicas of foreign systems — into one system would also prove a challenge.”

And yet there may be more to the potential of Russia-Iran military cooperation than meets the eye. According to Alexander Stuchilin, the deputy CEO of the Rezonans research center, the Rezonans-NE radar, produced by the center — and designed to detect stealth aircraft — has been on combat duty in Iran for several years. The radar even managed to detect the American-produced F-35 jets present near the republic’s borders January, he said. While media somewhat sensationalized Stuchilin’s statements, they are hardly groundbreaking. The ability of an aircraft to operate undetected is not foolproof. The question is what tactics are used to detect and defend against aerial threats.

A more noteworthy detail is that those F-35s may have been detected using the radar models produced for the Russian army. According to official reports, Russia sent Iran two Ghadir radar systems in 2014 and 2015 that were subsequently deployed in the provinces of Semnan and Khuzestan. These radars are designed as an export product and thus have lower characteristics compared with the models for use in Russia. Yet there have also been reports suggesting Iran may also be in possession of radar stations modified for use by the Russian army. Those stations have reportedly been deployed in  Fars province west of Shiraz, as well as in Kurdistan province north of Bijar.  

One way or another, the lifting of the arms embargo presents a challenge for Russia’s military cooperation with Iran. There is an obvious tension between Moscow being interested in supplying Iran with defense equipment and Tehran’s wish to purchase offensive arms. Iran’s toxic reputation is another factor Russia has to take into account, provided that any sales of aircraft or missiles for fighter jets or warships might cause an outcry among both regional players and the United States. However, it is not unfathomable that the Kremlin would approve sales of offensive weapons to Iran, disregarding reputational concerns and possibly turning Russia into a besieged fortress, albeit without the old Soviet ideological baggage.

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