From Russia with Love: Su-35s to Iran will strengthen defense ties

The Cradle, February 27, 2023 — Iran’s possible purchase of Russian fighter jets would further solidify the existing strategic partnership between Moscow and Tehran, and impact their global power competition with the west.

The news of a potential deal between Iran and Russia to supply Tehran with 24 Sukhoi Su-35 combat aircraft is significant and not a passing event, as tensions between the two states and western nations continue to escalate.

If Iran also sends short-range precision-guided ballistic missiles to Russia in conjunction with this agreement, those tensions will further intensify.

While there has been no official announcement yet about the deal, Iranian officials have expressed interest in acquiring the Su-30 and Su-35 fighter jets, in addition to the fifth generation Russian Su-57.

On 15 January, a member of the Iranian National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, Shahryar Heidari, confirmed that the fighter jets will arrive next March, and that Tehran requested other military equipment from Russia, including air defense systems, missile systems, and helicopters.

Farzin Nadimi, an analyst specializing in security and defense affairs related to Iran and the Persian Gulf region, tells The Cradle that the deal, “if it takes place, will lead to closer defense relations between Iran and Russia.”

‘Confrontation with the west’

This action coincides with global geopolitical shifts and a deepening of ties between Moscow and Tehran. Today, the Russian-Ukrainian war is the most prominent theater of conflict between two axes: a western one led by the US, and another opposed to western policy that includes China, Russia, Iran, and their respective allies.

According to Muhammad Saif El-Din, a researcher in Russian-Atlantic relations, this arms deal “comes within the broader confrontation with the west,” and the determination of China, Russia, India, Iran, and other countries to challenge dollar dominance through trade in local currencies:

“These factors encourage more countries to coordinate to form alliance blocs, especially in South America, the Middle East [West Asia] and Africa. The outcome of the confrontation in Ukraine will determine the shape of the crises that follow, and thus the shape of the new world order.”

It is highly likely that the Iran-Russia deal will lead to polarizing international reactions as it will be “a great boost to the Iranian Air Force,” says analyst Nadimi. This could potentially spark a “mini arms race” in the region, with the possibility of Washington delivering advanced weapons to Persian Gulf states and accelerating the delivery of F-35 aircraft to the UAE.

Nadimi believes that Arab countries in the Persian Gulf “will try to downplay the importance of the deal, but they will certainly work to strengthen their air defense relations with Israel and the United States.”

Russian reluctance?

Iranian military analyst Amin Berto believes, however, that Russia will not grant Iran fighter jets such as the Su-35, nor the S-400 missile system that “changes the rules of the game in Ukraine.” He points to an understanding between Moscow and Tel Aviv, Riyadh, and Abu Dhabi to contain the sale of qualitative weapons and technology to Iran – which is also a tacit agreement with Washington and NATO. As Berto explains to The Cradle:

“The Russians know that this step may push Israel to provide Ukraine with Israeli weapons, while Saudi Arabia and the UAE may resort to increasing oil production and reducing its price, which would be a fatal blow to the Russian economy.”

Although Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has considered sending military aid to Ukraine, columnist Stephen Cook at Foreign Policy believes that Tel Aviv is unlikely to arm Kiev, given its desire to maintain a constructive relationship with Moscow and “areas of common interest between the two sides, including Syria and security.”

Cook views the proposed sale of Russian fighter jets to Iran as a move to encourage Tehran to provide more assistance in the war against Kiev – although it remains unclear whether Iran is willing to participate further in that conflict.

Growing military cooperation

On 5 February, 2023, the Wall Street Journal reported that Iran and Russia are planning to build a new factory in Russia that would produce at least 6,000 high-speed drones for use in the conflict in Ukraine. Despite this development, Cook believes that Washington and its western allies will not impose additional sanctions on Russia, saying: “What the west will do in response to the agreement is to intensify pressure on Russia by providing Ukraine with combat aircraft.”

The head of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), William Burns, has previously expressed concerns about a “a full defense partnership between Russia and Iran.” In an interview with US media outlet PBS, Burns said that Washington “bears responsibility for the rapprochement between the two countries after its freezing of the Iranian nuclear agreement and its attempt to isolate Russia.”

“The Russians are beginning to look at ways in which, technologically or technically, they can support the Iranians, which poses real threats to Iran’s own neighborhood, to many of our friends and partners in Iran’s neighborhood as well,” he said.

Meanwhile, Iranian observers speculate that Washington will likely send positive signals toward Iranian nuclear talks in order “to destabilize the relationship between Moscow and Tehran.”

Mutual and conflicting interests

Iranian-Russian military cooperation has a long history dating back to the Soviet era, and the two nations have previously concluded deals to supply the Islamic Republic with various types of military equipment, including the S-300 air defense missile system, Su-30 combat aircraft, T-90 tanks, and Caliber cruise missiles.

Despite their cooperation, the relationship between Iran and Russia has been complicated by a number of conflicting interests. For example, Russia has supported some UN sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program, while Iran considers Israel an enemy and supports resistance formations against it. Moreover, Russia enjoys good relations with Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which consider Tehran to be their main rival in the region.

However, in recent years, Moscow and Tehran have developed their cooperation over some key regional and international issues, including mutual political, diplomatic, and military support for Damascus in the Syrian war. The western blockade imposed by Washington and its allies against the two countries has also prompted the strengthening of economic cooperation and financial ties between them.

In terms of finance, Tehran and Moscow have linked their banking systems to circumvent US control and oversight over financial exchanges – in an attempt to mitigate the effects of the western embargo on their transactions after their separation from the global financial network “SWIFT” for bank transfers.

Additional de-dollarization policies include an agreement to transact in the Iranian rial against the Russian ruble in financial exchanges, and the decision to trade in the two national currencies on the Iranian currency exchange.

In 2021, trade volume between the Iran and Russia exceeded $4 billion. That same year, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi announced that his country’s trade with Russia would increase by 80 percent. Russia and Iran have also discussed cooperation on infrastructure projects, including railways, energy, and communications systems. In the field of agriculture, Russia exports wheat and other foodstuffs to Iran, and imports fruits and vegetables in return.

The energy sector represents an area of significant cooperation between the two states. In 2022, Russia loaned Iran $1.4 billion to build the Sirik thermal power plant. A memorandum of understanding was signed between Russian energy giant Gazprom and the National Iranian Oil Corporation last June – worth about $40 billion – to develop the Kish and Northern Pars gas fields, in addition to discussing the development of six oil fields and the establishment of gas pipelines for exports.

Last October, Tehran and Moscow signed an agreement for Iran to supply about 40 gas turbines to Russian thermal power plants. According to Russian media, this deal represents Iran’s largest technology export in modern history.

However, the future of the relationship between Russia and Iran is uncertain and difficult to predict. While their ties have strengthened, the potential for a comprehensive alliance still depends on several factors.

These include their ability to resolve their differences and effectively manage challenges in the region, particularly the ongoing Syrian conflict where their interests have slightly diverged. Despite this, it is not out of the question that a stronger alliance between the two countries could emerge, given the current trajectory of their relationship amid the escalation of global geopolitical conflict.

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