After numerous trips by political and military officials of the Islamic Republic to Russia to finalize the sale of Russian weapons to Iran, it is now clear that, for the moment at least, the dream of equipping Iranian armed forces with the latest Russian armaments will not come true.
Brigadier General Mohammad Reza Ashtiani, the Islamic Republic’s Minister of Defense, has tacitly confirmed that the deal to buy long-sought Sukhoi su-35 fighter jets from Russia has collapsed. After a meeting of the Iranian cabinet, in response to a question about the "latest status of the purchase of Sukhoi fighters," the general said: "When we have a series of capabilities, we may not feel the need to purchase equipment in many fields. Some countries even come to Iran to purchase armaments.”
To buy military equipment from Russia, not only the defense minister, but also President Ebrahim Raisi and Major General Mohammad Bagheri, Chief of the General Staff of the Armed Forces of the Islamic Republic, have traveled to Moscow. News agencies affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) have published a military shopping list and officials have talked so much about the finalization of an arms purchase agreement that it seemed they had no doubts it was a foregone conclusion.
The expensive and unbelievable level of cooperation of the Islamic Republic of Iran with Russia in its invasion of Ukraine was seen by Iranian officials as a confidence-building measure guaranteeing Moscow's agreement to sell Iran what it wanted.
A Partner to Russian Aggression
Since the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, the Islamic Republic has taken actions that are contrary to its slogans opposing any military aggression by one country against another. Supreme Leader Khamenei has taken positions in support of Vladimir Putin and praised the invasion of Ukraine. What is more, Iran has sent drones to Russia that have been used to attack Ukrainian military positions and civilian targets.
Perhaps 10 years ago, if somebody had asked what would be the reaction of the Islamic Republic if Russia invaded another country, not many would have imagined it would give its full support to Moscow.
For all practical purposes, the dream of close relations with Russia has made Iran a partner in its aggression. But although Iran’s support for this invasion was unexpected, Russia’s refusal to sell equipment that the Iranian military needs was not so surprising.
At the time when Russia was supposed to deliver the S-300 missile air defense system to Iran to protect the Russian-built Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant, it delayed the delivery for years, and when it was ready to deliver the system, S-300 was no longer Russia’s best or most modern air defense system.
Since 2015, according to media outlets affiliated with the IRGC, Iran’s military shopping list from Russia has included some important items, none of which have been delivered to Iran, including the Klub anti-submarine rocket, the T-90 tank, the Su-35 and Su-30 fighter jets, the Ivan Rogov amphibious assault ship and the Iskander short-range ballistic missile.
In 2017, two years after the military shopping list from Russia was published, Brigadier General Ahmadreza Pourdastan, the deputy commander-in-chief of Iran’s armed forces, said this about the purchase of Su-30: “We negotiated with the Russian side and came to an agreement, but UN Resolution 2231 prevented this from happening. However, we shall continue negotiating with the Russian side to obtain approval for the purchase of the Sukhoi Su-30 fighters in the coming years."
Resolution 2231 made the sale of heavy military equipment to Iran conditional to the approval by the Security Council. This restriction ended in 2020, but Russia still refused to deliver heavy military equipment to Iran.
Except in a very few cases, the Iranian air force was not able to purchase new aircrafts after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the jets it already had were either lost during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s or became useless as a result of wear and tear.
One of the reasons behind the Islamic Republic's vast investment in the missile industry was to compensate for the lack of fighter jets and the dilapidation of its air force. During the war, Iran managed to buy US military planes once, and that was done through Ethiopia.
In an interview earlier this year, Bahman Hosseinpour, former ambassador to Tanzania, Ethiopia and Turkey, said that the initial price was $23 million for four F-4 fighters, five F-5 fighters and four engines: "At that time, this price was very high and after a year and several months of negotiations, we brought down the price to about $9.5 million and purchased the fighters. Colleagues came from Tehran and packed the planes on a ship and took them to Iran. The late Hashemi Rafsanjani also announced during the Friday Prayers: ‘We bought F-4 and F-5 fighters, much to the dismay of America.’”
After the end of the war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic managed to strengthen its air force to some extent thanks to the miscalculation of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. On the eve of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Saddam Hussein entrusted a part of his air fleet to the Islamic Republic for safekeeping but, after the coalition forces drove out Iraqi forces from Kuwait, the government of Iran confiscated Saddam's planes and added them to its own air force.
Among these planes were French-made Mirage fighters, Su-24s and Su-25 fighters and two Russian-made Ilyushin planes that were outfitted to function.
The Most Important Military Purchase
The Islamic Republic’s most important purchase of Russian armaments took place just a few days after the 1989 death of Ruhollah Khomeini.
The contract was signed in Moscow in June 1989 by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, speaker of the Iranian parliament, and it remained secret at the request of the Russians.
“We had two consecutive meetings with Gorbachev,” Rafsanjani wrote in his diary. “The first one was public and was for putting together the results of the committees’ negotiations. It was productive. The second was private and…they were happy to tell us that their politburo had agreed to give us whatever we asked for: MIG-29s, SAM 5 missiles, T-80 tanks and sea-to-sea missiles.”
In August 1989, a few weeks after this agreement was inked, Rafsanjani became president. According to the constitution of the Islamic Republic, any agreement with foreign governments must be approved by parliament but, Rafsanjani wrote, it was instead sent for approval to the unelected Expediency Discernment Council because the Iranian leadership wanted to keep it secret.
Even today, after 34 years, the volume of Soviet armaments purchased at that time is unknown, but there can be no doubt that it remains the most important acquisition of military technology by the Islamic Republic.
A part of the Iranian Air Force fleet has since been destroyed due to aerial accidents and wear and tear. One of these fighters has crashed in a residential area of Tabriz and a number of others have been grounded to prevent similar disasters.
The Islamic Republic has an urgent need for military aircraft.
The United States, Iran's most important arms supplier until the 1979 revolution, has imposed a total embargo on weapon sales to Iran.
Russia, which became the Islamic Republic’s biggest weapon supplier at the time when Ali Khamenei assumed the leadership, has now entangled itself in a war against Ukraine and, in the past year and a half, it has shown that it does not have the wherewithal to grant Iran’s requests for armaments.
When Russia could have sold lighter and defensive armaments to the Islamic Republic, it showed no interest in doing so. And it is unlikely that, at a time when the Islamic Republic’s legitimacy is challenged both inside and outside the country and Russia itself is facing international isolation, Moscow will fulfill the supreme leader’s dreams of getting his hands on heavy armaments such as Su 35s and T-90 tanks.