Since the West lifted its sanctions against Iran, that country has managed to significantly improve its political and economic contacts with the western world, but, on the other hand, it is facing constant obstacles and their author is known.
Even though the Americans were among the first to recommend their western partners to restore their economic ties with Iran, they are doing nothing to lift their own restrictions and have even been reproached for this. Still, there is only one sector where they are really cooperating with the Iranians.
Iran needs new planes. So, the Americans have decided to sell or rent them out as many as 109 Boeings. In Jan 2016, IranAir signed a contract to buy 118 Airbuses for $27bn. Here too, the sides need approval from the Americans as Airbuses have components supplied from the United States.
As far as military aviation is concerned, here the Americans are showing no wish to cooperate. The Iranians have almost 350 US fighters (F-14, F-4 and F-5), but most of them are outdated. At the times of Shah Pahlavi, the Americans were ready to sell the Iranians any types of planes. Now the Iranian military air forces are near extinction (1).
Without a strong air force, Iran will fall behind its geopolitical enemies as Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf monarchies keep modernizing their air forces. The Israelis are in the vanguard here: they already have F-35 multi-mission fighters.
And the problem here is not only that the United States and its NATO allies are not willing to revive their military-technical contacts with Iran but that they are restricting Iran’s key alternative in the field, Russia. The “nuclear deal” says that in the next five years, all of Iran’s military deals should be approved by the UN Security Council. This makes Iran’s deals with Russia quite problematic (2).
Iran is trying to avoid this problem by buying Russian defense systems and developing own arms. Russian S-300 systems will help Iran to keep pace with its key rivals in the region, Israel and the Arab monarchies.
In the meantime, the Iranians are planning to start producing own Bavar-373 air defense systems. According to Iranian experts, Bavar-373 is similar to S-300.
In early 2015, the Iranians also started assembling own Saeqeh fighters. The first such planes were designed in 2007 on the basis of US F-5E Tiger II.
These plans are impressive but will take decades to be fulfilled. The Iranians do not have so much time. They urgently need resources for external missions. In late 2015, they were reported to send 20 fighters to the Syrian Tiyas air base.
But later the reports were disproved. In fact, nobody believed them as the Iranians have no resources for such missions.
The last time they bought a big butch of planes was 1991, when the Russians supplied them with 12 Su-24s and 20 MiG-29/MiF-29UBs. In 2003, the Ulan Ude Aviation Plant shipped three Su-25UBKs, in 2005 three Su-25UBTs.
In Dec 2005, Russia and Iran signed a contract for supply of Russian arms worth $1.4bn. This contract included a deal for supply of Tor-M1s worth $700mn and a deal for upgrading of Iranian air forces (repair of 24 Su-24s).
Today Iran urgently needs supersonic tactical aircraft and is going to shortly buy Su-30SMs and MiG-29SMT and to modernize its Russian planes. As of today, the Iranians have 30-48 NMiG-29s. So, they will need $500mn to upgrade them to MiG-29SMT.
Earlier the Iranians were also interested in buying twelve Su-25s strike fighters, which were quite efficient against ISIL in Syria and Iraq (3).
It is known that Iran’s arms imports are controlled by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Over the last few months, his men from the Iranian Defense Ministry have been sending signals to Moscow about their interest in Russian military products. While visiting the Russian capital in early Feb 2016, Khamenei’s foreign affair advisor Ali Akbar Velayati announced Iran’s plans to buy new Russian arms.
In the meantime, Khamenei keeps expressing his doubts about Iran’s “nuclear deal” with the United States. Recently, he even warned that Iran would “burn” the deal, if the next US president breaks it. Experts interpreted this as an address to presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who recently criticized the deal and promised to revise it.
In early June, Khamenei said that Iran will not cooperate with the United States to solve the crises in the region as the Americans have quite opposite goals and have been hostile towards Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979. He said that it would be a great mistake for Iran to trust the “Great Satan.”
Iran needs its own “wings” but the West does not let it open them out. The Americans are doing all they can to prevent the Iranians from any such contacts with the Russians. Their principle is that “if not they, then nobody” and so, they keep pressuring the Iranians and impeding their contacts with other foreign partners.
One of the best examples of this was the adoption of new sanctions based on the nonproliferation law. The sanctions have been imposed on five Russian defense companies because of their contacts with Iranian partners. The companies are 150 Aircraft Repair Plant in Kaliningrad, KBP in Tula, KBM in Kolomna, Kuntsevo Design Bureau and Machine Building Plant in Reutov. The Americans suspect those companies of having supplied Iran, Syria and North Korea with technologies or equipment that may be used for the production of mass destruction weapons and missiles. Also in the list is Belvneshpromservice from Belarus.
(1) David Axe, Iran’s Trying to Rebuild Its Air Force // The Daily Beast, June 27, 2016.
(2) The Russians are not allowed to supply Iran with tanks, armed vehicles, large guns, planes and helicopters, ships and missiles.
(3) Iran-Russia: Analysis of Military-Technical Cooperation since 1990 // Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, Feb 16 2016.
EADaily’s Middle East Bureau