BEIRUT — With an international arms embargo lifted, Iran is likely to start buying armed drones, air defense systems, fighter jets and tanks, according to one expert, with another analyst linking the passage of Chinese defense export legislation on Oct. 28 with the embargo’s expiration.
Iran previously showed interest in Russia’s Su-30 and Yak-130 jets, T-90 tank, S-400 air defense system, but was prevented from purchasing such items under a multinational nuclear deal.
“Iran’s priority is to increase the efficiency of its short- and medium-range missile capabilities; the Russian 9K720 Iskander missile will be at the top of that list," Abdullah Al Junaid, a Bahraini strategic expert and political researcher, told Defense News. "Despite its need for an air force competitive with its neighbors, Iran realizes that the introduction of air combat systems such as the Chinese J-10 will not close the required qualitative gap with its neighborhood — Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates — not to mention the air and naval forces of the United States in the region.”
Al Junaid predicts Iran will try to buy missile guidance system technology for civil and military applications, sensors and space monitoring systems, digital communication systems, and cybersecurity technology. “As for developing its naval power capabilities, Iran has high ambitions in this regard, but submarines will be its priority,” he added.
On Oct. 18, a conventional arms embargo on Iran ended, with its foreign affairs minister, Javad Zarif, praising the “normalization of Iran’s defense cooperation with the world" as "a win for the cause of multilateralism and peace and security in our region.” The United Nations banned Iran from buying major foreign weapon systems in 2010 amid tensions over its nuclear program. An earlier embargo targeted Iranian arms exports.
But where will this defense cooperation come from?
Turning to Moscow
“Chinese and Russians are going to look at Iran as a market they want to pursue. In terms of conventional systems, both the Islamic Revolutionary Guard and the regular military, particularly in the Air Force but not limited to it, have aging systems that were delivered in 1970s and 1990s,” said Douglas Barrie, a senior fellow focused on military aerospace at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
“Iran will seek defensive capabilities in terms of defending against the airstrikes and air attacks, so more capable surface-to-air missiles, combat aircraft (obviously expensive), longer-range air-to-surface weapons, and anti-ship weapons — the kind of weapons that would make a potential improvement,” Barrie told Defense News.
Added Mohamed al-Kenany, a military affairs researcher and defense analyst at the Cairo-based Arab Forum for Analyzing Iranian Policies: “Iran is mainly interested in the Russian Su-30 fighters, especially the latest version S-30SME, advanced training and light attack aircraft Yak-130, and may request medium tactical fighters such as the MiG-35, along with the T-90MS main battle tanks and long-range S-400 air defense systems and Bastion-P coastal defense systems, armed with Yakhont hypersonic anti-ship missiles."
In 2016, Russia announced it will to provide Tehran with the capacity to license and manufacture the T-90 MBT when the embargo ended.
“Iranian Minister of Defense Brig. Gen. Amir Hatami visited Moscow in late August this year to attend the state-organized ‘Army 2020’ defense exhibition and hold talks with Russian defense officials,” Barrie said, noting that this signals Iran is turning to Russia to recapitalize equipment.
With limited financial resources, Iran might try to upgrade its existing systems by improving weapons performance to fill short-term gaps, "but in the medium term it will have to start thinking about replacing a lot of the platforms themselves,” Barrie explained.
Meanwhile, China would have to tread carefully if it decides to supply Iran with major defense capabilities, Al Junaid said.
“China realizes that its interests may be at risk if it loses the ability to maintain balance in its relationship with Iran and its regional trading partners — Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates — as well. Through [China’s] announcement of the new arms control legislation, it sent [a message] to the United States that it realizes its international responsibility and that the strategic agreement with Iran will not harm international security,” Al Junaid explained..
In early July 2020, Iran’s foreign affairs minister announced that his country was nearing completion of a long-term strategic partnership agreement with China. Then in August, a leaked document between the two nations suggested they were entering a 25-year security and economic partnership. And on Oct. 28, 10 days after the arms embargo on Iran was lifted, China enacted the Export Control Law to strengthen its military export control regime.
“From the Russian and Chinese perspectives, Iran represents the biggest factor of weariness for the United States in the Middle East — political, military and moral attrition," Al Junaid explained. “This alliance also provides a tool for Chinese-Russian pressure on the United States."
Iran’s interest in procuring loitering munitions (otherwise known as kamikaze drones), UAVs and armed unmanned boats means China will likely supply modern technologies to help the Middle Eastern country develop unmanned naval vessels and aerial drones, al-Kenany said.
An arms race in the Gulf
Gulf states are also keeping an eye on Iran’s defense capabilities, but not because of industrial opportunities. A regional arms race is ongoing, Al Junaid said, arguing that Iran is building up its military strength for expansionist purposes while neighboring countries are bolstering capabilities to prevent future conflict.
“Even if Iran possesses some qualitative capabilities in all its sectors, its access to operational field efficiency and human capacity will require more than two decades,” he added.
Ask about the possibility of reviving the Middle East Strategic Alliance, nicknamed the Arab NATO, Kenany didn’t refute the move completely.
“It is possible to revive the Arab NATO, but it will be subject to many regional and international circumstances and political considerations for each country, and there is already [the Peninsula Shield Force — a joint military venture under the Gulf Cooperation Council] — for the Arab Gulf states, which began some time ago to enhance their military capabilities, especially in the field of missile defense, air and sea forces, and command-and-control systems with the United States, France, Italy and others,” Kenany said.
However, Barrie doubts a revival of the alliance because of multilateral disagreements.
“I think the reaction will be on a national level rather than in a collaborative level in the region.”
Made in Iran
The expiration of the arms embargo also provides Iran the opportunity to export defense systems.
“Iran’s exports in this aspect might be drones, surface-to-surface missile systems, anti-ship missiles, anti-tank missiles, and short- [and] medium-range air defense systems,” Kenany predicted.
Asked about Iran’s stance on the recent Azeri-Armenian conflict, Kenany said it’s “unlikely that it will export any weapons systems to Armenia" to avoid upsetting Azeri ally Turkey and the balance of power. Furthermore, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has Azeri origins, the analyst noted.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Agnes Helou is a Middle East correspondent for Defense News. Her interests include missile defense, cybersecurity, the interoperability of weapons systems and strategic issues in the Middle East and Gulf region.