Iran shopping for Su-35, missile defense system amid U.S. sanctions

When Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi visits Russia later this month, it is expected to deepen bilateral ties between the natural allies, besides shaping a long-awaited defence deal between Tehran and Moscow. 

Raisi is expected to sign a 20-year, $10 billion security and defense cooperation agreement that will potentially include the purchase of a satellite. 

The new pact is seen as an extension of an earlier deal signed in 2001 and automatically renewed every five years. But Tehran slowed down the prolongation in 2020, indicating the need to update the text.

The conclusion of a similar strategic agreement between Iran and China for a period of 25 years had led to a conspiracy boom.  Hypotheses were circulating about the ‘separation’  of a number of island territories from the Islamic Republic in favour of the PRC, and about the deployment of the Chinese military in some regions of Iran. 

A separate atmosphere is created by stagnating Vienna talks on the restoration of the nuclear deal, which, hypothetically, could lead to the lifting of some of the US sanctions on the Iranian economy. 

While diplomats of the Islamic Republic—with their confused understanding of concession tactics—bargain with the Americans to ensure that the agreement will be preserved, Washington is running out of patience. In these circumstances, Tehran has no choice but to look for new financial opportunities within the framework of existing alliances.

Protect the sky

The main intrigue of Raisi’s visit to the Russian Federation is the path along which the development of military-technical cooperation (MTC) between Iran and Russia will move. After lifting of the UN arms embargo, Tehran claims to have acquired advanced products from the Russian defense industry. The emphasis on the uniqueness of contacts in this area was made by the head of the General Staff, Mohammad Bagheri, during his autumn trip to Russia. The military leader, however, then made a reservation: ties between Moscow and Tehran, of course, are strong, but “have not yet reached the stage” of the formation of a military bloc.

Tehran expects to purchase at least 24 multi-purpose super-manoeuvrable Su-35 fighter jets. The seriousness of Iran’s intentions is evidenced by the fact that the Iranian Air Force has already selected three dozen pilots who will learn to fly the Su-35SE. If Moscow and Tehran manage to reach an agreement in January, the preparatory work will begin almost immediately, experts say.

A separate issue is the extension of the service life, repair and modernisation of two dozen MiG-29 and 25 Su-24MK aircraft, which are in service with the Air Force of the Islamic Republic.

At the same time, there is an assumption that the Iranians may request Russian S-400 air defense systems. Nevertheless, in light of the fact that, according to some assumptions, there are gentlemen’s agreements between Russia and Israel to limit the sale of advanced weapons to “unreliable” countries, Tehran may well be given a neat refusal. The question itself is likely to be a test of the level of trust between Russia and Iran.

The Islamic Republic is in dire need of protecting its airspace amid regular rumours about preparations against it for a military operation, but it is fundamentally important for the Kremlin to check the adequacy of the new executive power and its ability to calculate risks at the regional level.

Payment by fuel

Experts have doubts that Iran, which continues to be under Western sanctions, will be able to fully pay off the Russian Federation for all defense contracts. In this regard, the Islamic Republic—with all its large-scale arms requests—is suspected of being ready for a kind of barter: oil resources in exchange for military products. And Raisi’s visit, it seems, should dot all the “i’s” in the situation around these calculation schemes.

This year, against the background of the discovery of the Chalus gas field in the Iranian sector of the Caspian Sea, which, according to Iranian estimates, is capable of covering 20 percent of the fuel needs of European countries, corresponding assumptions have already appeared: Western experts expressed confidence that Tehran could transfer the development and transportation of gas from Chalus to the responsibility of the Chinese and Russian business communities, in return for receiving some form of military-political support from these countries.

The Russian expert community views the idea of such barter with caution. “This country can pay off with Russia and barter — agricultural products, natural resources, etc.,” says military expert Yuri Lyamin. “Apparently, now negotiations are underway on this topic at the level of specialists between Tehran and Moscow.”

However, as Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, notes, the question for the Russian side will not be so simple. “Iran is under sanctions, and Tehran has big economic problems,” the expert admitted in a conversation with reporters. “Of course, the Iranians will beg for discounts on weapons from us.” But Moscow, he said, could just give a loan. “If we gave loans to Venezuela, Jordan, Belarus, why not give Iran?” summed up the researcher.

US Resolution 2231

The Russian Ambassador to Tehran, Levan Dzhagaryan, told Tehran Times that due to United Nations (UN) Resolution 2231, it will be difficult for Iran to acquire Sukhoi Su-30SM Flanker fighters.

Actually earlier this year Iran held negotiations with Russia over the acquisition of Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role fighter jets.

But in April the U.S. Department of State Undersecretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon explained that the Su-30 purchase (as well as those related to other kind of weapons) requires the permission of the UN Security Council.

A claim was confirmed also by Dzhagaryan who, during the 22nd international press exhibition in Tehran said, “As you know, after the JCPOA was signed, the United Nations Security Council adopted Resolution 2231, setting out the restrictions.”

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