To Supply Arms Or Not To Supply Arms: Russia And China Faces Dilemma Over Supplying Arms To Iran

J-10C at the Zhuhai Air Show. J-10C at the heart of China, Iran cooperation. J-10C can fill gap of much needed fighter jets shortage of Tehran.

Washington’s bid to extend the arms embargo on Iran has faced widespread international opposition. Now Tehran can presumably purchase as well as sell military hardware. However, missile-related bans are set to expire on October 18, 2023. For now, Iran is free to acquire tanks, armored combat vehicles, artillery systems, fighter aircraft, warships and air defense systems provided it can afford to purchase these and countries are prepared to sell to Iran.  Nonetheless, the plethora of US sanctions will continue to hinder Iran’s access to sophisticated offensive and defensive hardware through financial sector sanctions and diplomatic pressure.

Iran’s Likely Shopping List

Iran’s military is in dire need of hardware replenishment as it is either dependent on equipment from the Shah’s era or some Russian weapons systems and improvised Chinese variants, with the Chinese military equipment highlighted in the following chart.

Now with the prospect of the UAE acquiring the fifth-generation F-35 Lightning II, Iran is not only exposed to the likelihood of a stealth fighter on its frontier but also lacks the capability to even detect it. Hence, at the top of Iran’s priority list will be Russia’s S-400 Triumf missile defense system, which has been subject to regular upgrades since its commissioning in 2007. Since the Iranian Air Force (IRIAF) only has a handful of noteworthy planes, Iran eyes Russia’s latest Su-35 or Su-30SM, the most advanced in its military category of 4++ generation fighter jets. Though its needs are much greater, Tehran is likely to enter into talks to initially order 24 jets due to budgetary constraints. It is plausible that Russia might offer the less capable and more affordable MiG 35 or MiG-29.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned on June 23, “Iran will be able to buy new fighter aircraft like Russia’s [Sukhoi] Su-30SM and China’s [Chengdu] J-10. With these highly lethal aircraft, Europe and Asia could be in Iran’s crosshairs. The United States will never let this happen.”

Considering that China can offer an alternate purchase option, as pointed out by Pompeo, the J-10C variant may be of special interest to Iran. The platform is solely Chinese and available for export too. Beijing has a speedy assembly-line; hence, delivery could be much sooner than Russia’s jets. The other likely candidate could be the JF-17 Thunder, available with either a Chinese or a Russian engine, and with a lower price tag and almost similar in performance to the MiG-29.

Iran’s land forces too remain devoid of modern tanks and artillery platforms. Russia has some enticing main battle-tanks (MBT) alongside other provisions for land warfare. With heightening tensions on its Azerbaijan frontier, Iran’s third top defense ware item will be T-90 tanks. The plain area in the northwest of the country is suited for armored warfare.

Finally, Iran will be looking to purchase long-range, supersonic anti-ship missiles (AShM). The IRGC has twice sunk a mockup of a US aircraft carrier during its drills in 2015 and 2020. The prospect of the IRGC significantly enhancing Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) capabilities has attracted US attention since the 1990s.

Political Economy of Exporting Weapons to Iran

Russia in 2017 refused to sell fighter jets such as the Su-35 and Su-30SM as well as the S-400 Triumf missile defense system to Iran in a bid to keep its diplomatic channel open with the United States. However, this policy of denial no longer seems applicable. Moscow has clearly stated that it will not have a problem in selling the S-400 missile defense system to Iran. If the Kremlin is willing to sell the S-400 missile defense system, then it will not hold back from selling fighter jets to Iran such as  the Su-30SM,  MiG-29 or MiG-35.

Russia is a tough negotiator and may not agree to give credit without an impressive quid pro quo, for example, a base or two in Iran’s northwest region. Historically, Russo-Iran negotiations have not gone smoothly in relation to setting the price tag for the Russian S-300P defense system. Given the crippling US sanctions along with the economic fallout from COVID-19, Iran will not be able to place a handsome weapons order without risking public outrage.

Can China Sacrify Friendship of Oil-Rich Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for Cash strap Iran?

Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest crude oil exporter sent an average of 1.98 million barrels per day (bpd) of crude to the world’s biggest oil importer China during the month of October, the data showed.

This marked a jump of 77% from the month of October in 2018 when Chinese imports from the kingdom averaged 1.12 million bpd.

The figure for October 2019 also represents a 14% increase on the month of September 2019 when imports from Saudi Arabia averaged 1.74 million bpd.

China’s crude oil imports increased this year after the launch of two new Chinese refineries, each with a capacity of 400,000 barrels per day.

Hengli Petrochemical said in May that its refinery in Dalian, northeast of China’s Liaoning Province, was fully operational.

Zhejiang Petrochemical’s refinery in the city of Zhoushan began operations earlier this year, and plans to double its capacity to 800,000 bpd.

Saudi national oil company Aramco signed an agreement in February with the Zhoushan Municipal People’s Government to acquire a 9% stake in the refinery.

Alternatively, China not only has innovative defense technology and significant interests in Iran but can also provide long-term credit for purchasing a sizable number of weapons systems, ranging from aviation platforms (AWACs, fighter jets, trainers) to tanks and anti-ship missiles.

After successful talks with Russia or China, the delivery time frame will not be less than two to three years. However, the transfer of some defensive missile systems or upgrades to Iran’s existing arsenal could possibly be quicker.

Apart from broader political repercussions, Russia faces no significant   obstacles from the United States and the European Union for selling arms to Iran as all of its key arms manufacturers are already sanctioned by the United States and the European Union.

During the 1990s, US-Russia engagement helped stall the transfer of Russian weapons to Iran. However, at this moment in time, Moscow will have to consider the political costs of its decision to sell arms to Iran vis-à-vis its ties with the Gulf states,  mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE. With the former, it has serious engagement on energy issues while the latter is mulling over joining the advanced fighter jet program with Moscow.

China also secretly sold weapons, ballistic missiles, drones and nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia worth billions of dollars. Any confrontation with Saudi Arabia in diplomatic front will cause major disruption of crud oil supply to China and China eventually losing multi-billion dollar contracts to build nuclear plant in Saudi Arabia.

Also, China faces a dilemma in selling arms to Iran as the Gulf states remain its top import and export partners and the safety of maritime navigation in the Gulf is vital to its multifaceted interests.

Though Beijing has discreetly kept the underground supply line of weapons and subsystems open to Tehran, it cannot tip the balance of power by providing offensive, top-of-the-line weapons such as the J-10C or even the JF-17 Thunder.

Can Iran repay Russia’s Debt?

First, we should keep in mind that Russia has previously been reluctant to supply Iran with high-tech systems and offensive weapons. In August 2017, Russia allegedly denied Iran’s request for 24 Su-35 and Su-30SM fighters and, instead, offered the Su-27SM3 fighters over Moscow’s concerns about sharing sensitive technologies with Tehran and Iran’s inability to supply Russia with hard currency.

S-400 SAM

Likewise, Russia apparently rebuffed Iran’s request for the S-400 during Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s visit to Moscow in May 2019, which was linked to Russia’s reservations about inflaming the wider tensions in the Persian Gulf between Iran and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Russia was quick to dismiss reports about its refusal to sell the S-400 to Iran and, more recently, Russia’s ambassador to Iran, Levan Dzhagaryan, affirmed that while Moscow has “no problem” selling the S-400 to Iran, Russia and Iran have yet to commence negotiations on potential weapons sales. Given the complex history of Russian arms sales to Iran, there is little to suggest that negotiations will proceed rapidly. Furthermore, several factors will constrain Tehran’s ability to purchase arms and other systems from Moscow, including the economic situation in Iran and Russia’s reputational and political risks.

Su-30 Aircraft

Second, Iran’s domestic economic crisis poses a major impediment to its acquisition of large-scale arms from Russia, especially as Moscow has already declined Tehran’s request to purchase weapons on credit. Iran lacks the funds to purchase extensive weapons and to weather the costs for maintaining advanced weapons systems, including training and spare parts. In fact, Iran’s difficult economic situation remains the greatest obstacle to its procurement of large-scale, costly weapons. It is simply unfeasible for a country facing a crippling economic downturn to afford expensive weapons such as the S-400 or a squadron of fighter jets. For example, the initial costs of one squadron of 18-24 modern fighters can reach up to $2 billion.

In addition, each new type of weaponry and military equipment requires specialized training of personnel, spare parts, maintenance and integration with existing command and control systems, which could cost more than the equipment itself. Iran also has one of the lowest defense budgets relative to GDP in the Middle East, which places significant constraints on the funds allocated for weapons procurement in comparison to Israel or Saudi Arabia. Whereas China may be more amenable to delivering weapons on credit, Russia is neither willing nor able to provide Tehran with weapons on credit due to Moscow’s own economic situation.

Third, arms sales to Iran have clear implications for Russia’s foreign policy in the Middle East, which has been contingent on maintaining close relations with Iran while concomitantly expanding its ties with Iran’s adversaries including Israel, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia. The UAE is the secret buyer of Russian weapons which fuels Libyan and Syrian war.

Russia’s relations with these countries suggest that Moscow will remain circumspect over providing Iran with offensive weapons that could disrupt the regional balance of power and antagonize Tehran’s neighbors. Moscow’s reticence to supply Tehran with high-tech or offensive weapons is closely tied to Russian reservations about radically shifting the military balance in the region and exacerbating tensions in the Persian Gulf. As Anton Marasdov, an expert on the Russian military, correctly points out, “[t]here is an obvious tension between Moscow being interested in supplying Iran with defense equipment and Tehran’s wish to purchase offensive arms,” which would provoke staunch opposition amongst the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel. Moreover, Samuel Ramani, a researcher of Russian foreign policy at the University of Oxford, has argued that Russia’s security cooperation with the UAE, which includes prospective joint fighter jet development projects, further provides a restraint on Moscow’s security cooperation with Iran.

Nonetheless, it will sell Tehran purely defensive weapons while engaging in legitimate technology transfer. Such an arrangement can keep the relationship intact without endangering China’s vital interests. Russia, however, is likely to take a more adventurous course. 

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