BEIRUT — Russian media reports are claiming Iraq is interested in purchasing S-400 and S-300 air defense systems as well as Sukhoi Su-57 fighter jets, but experts say Moscow is facing competition due to increased cooperation between Iraq and two regional powers: the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
“While there was some discussion in [Iraq’s] parliament a year ago, I am not aware of any genuine interest in these systems then or currently in the [Ministry of Defence]. There’s also been no recent discussion of purchasing such items in parliament since early last year,” said Norman Ricklefs, head of the geopolitical consultancy NAMEA Group as well as a former adviser to Iraq’s interior minister and to the secretary general of the MoD.
He told Defense News that there doesn’t appear to be negotiations for the purchase of the S-300 or Sukhoi aircraft, though the MoD did previously consider the two platforms.
“Clearly the S-400 is a red line for the U.S.,” he said, referring to America sanctioning fellow NATO ally Turkey for purchasing the system. “But any other Russian weapons system purchases will probably be examined on a case-by-case basis, noting that the main U.S. intent is for Iraq to build the capacity to defend itself.”
Virtual talks were held between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Iraqi Foreign Minister Fuad Hussein in April, during which the two countries agreed to embark on technical talks aimed at establishing a timeline for U.S. combat troops to leave the country.
U.S. forces entered Iraq in March 2003 to destroy alleged weapons of mass destruction reportedly owned by Baghdad, and American forces ousted the country’s leader, Saddam Hussein. After 17 years of conflict, “the mission of U.S. and Coalition forces has now transitioned to one focused on training and advisory tasks, thereby allowing for the redeployment of any remaining combat forces from Iraq,” according to an April 7 statement issued after the bilateral talks, pointing to the “increasing capacity” of Iraqi security forces.
Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of U.S. Central Command, said that as the U.S. reduces its military footprint in the Middle East, competing world powers Russia and China will seek to expand their regional influence.
“The Middle East writ broadly is an area of intense competition between the great powers. And I think that as we adjust our posture in the region, Russia and China will be looking very closely to see if a vacuum opens that they can exploit,” McKenzie said, per a report by The Associated Press.
Iraq’s attempts to find new sources of defense materiel are not new, and it already operates Russian military systems.
“Indeed, there has even been talk in the past of the MoD buying Mirage jets from France. The Iraqi MoD currently has the Russian Pantsir-S1 mobile anti-air defense system and is happy with it,” Ricklefs said. “There has also been talk of purchasing more Russian ‘Hind’ Mi-24 helicopter gunships for Army aviation. ... I don’t think this has reached the stage of serious negotiation.”
Aram Nerguizian, senior adviser with the Program on Civil-Military Relations in Arab States at the Carnegie Middle East Center, told Defense News that Russia could certainly play a role in upgrading or replacing some of Iraq’s aging systems.
“Iraq continues to operate Russian-sourced attack helicopters. Russia has already sold a variant of its T-90S main battle tank, but the larger question of how Iraq can effectively maintain a mixed fleet of U.S. and Russian armor is unclear. Russia also could try to sell Iraq systems that can augment armored mobility, fixed-wing multirole aircraft — 4.5-generation aircraft like the Su-35 and its derivatives — and continue to explore ways to offer Iraq options for layered air defense systems,” Nerguizian said.
One issue Iraq is currently grappling with is maintenance of its F-16 fighter fleet following Lockheed Martin’s announcement that it is withdrawing its maintenance teams for security reasons amid rocket attacks by militias.
“I don’t know what Lockheed Martin will do,” Ricklefs said.
Ricklefs noted that Iraq wants to expand its relationship with Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and that efforts appear to be developing well.
In January, an Iraqi delegation led by the country’s defense minister, Juma Inad Saadoun, visited the UAE to strengthen bilateral collaboration, with a focus on military cooperation.
On March 31, Saudi Arabia and Iraq agreed to boost security cooperation after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi met and agreed to continue coordinating counterterrorism efforts. A joint statement issued after the meeting also revealed an agreement to boost economic cooperation, starting with the creation of a joint fund worth $3 billion.
In addition, Ricklefs said on May 31, “Iraq’s defense minister has just traveled to [the kingdom of Saudi Arabia] in the last few days. No contracts were signed, but discussions on expanding the defense relationship will continue.”
“The Iraqi MoD has a professional system for evaluating military requirements, and they will normally examine a number of options for any requirement. Often there are Russian options on the table,” he added.
But Theodore Karasik, senior adviser at the U.S. think tank Gulf State Analytics, disagreed with the first point: “Above all, two things must be settled. First a restructure of the defense procurement process should take place to end the corruption in this process and to increase transparency and supervision. Second, Iraq should evaluate the needs of its security environment to envision the future of the battlefield.”
Karasik also doesn’t expect Iraq to buy the Russian S-300, but he believes the two countries might cooperate in the field of counter-drone technology.
Can Iraq afford the systems?
Iraq’s economy has suffered from a devaluation in its currency since the beginning of the year. Asked about the country’s ability to pay for new defense systems, Ricklefs said it would be a stretch.
“It is possible that it might make a deal to exchange energy resources like crude oil or gas for defense equipment as part of an advance purchase agreement. However, Iraq has struggled to finalize a similar deal with China, and Russia has little requirement for either Iraqi oil or gas,” he said, adding that Iraq needs to expand its naval forces to protect oil facilities in the Arabian Gulf.
“But there is every chance that the U.S. will continue to provide a security umbrella for the maritime oil terminals until Iraq has the capability to do so. Most of the rest of Iraq’s oil infrastructure is in the southern provinces where the security is reasonably good,” he said.
“Due to the budget crisis in Iraq, which really began with the collapse in the oil price in 2014 and was then exacerbated drastically by [COVID-19], Iraq does not have the capital funds available for major purchases at this time. If the oil price rises in the next year or two, then I think Iraq will seriously consider upgrading its fleet of armored personal carriers and infantry fighting vehicles, which remains a critical gap in capabilities currently being filled mostly by aging BMPs and modified M113s. It also probably needs to upgrade its helicopter fleet to support counterinsurgency operations.”
Russian or American?
Alexander Jalil, an analyst at Gulf State Analytics, noted that Russian arms are usually cheaper than American ones, which helps the case for a pivot toward Russian weapons.
“The Iraqi government will be under a lot of pressure to use existing funds to improve the living standard for their citizens. Another arms deal is therefore not advisable. In my opinion, Iraq’s defense allocations are too large for their faltering economy, and more arms procurement is not necessary with regards to the threat image. Sukhoi fighter jets and S-300s are not necessary given the internal financial problems Iraq is facing,” Jalil told Defense News.
In January 2020, Russian media reported Iraqi lawmakers were pushing to buy the S-400. And in August that year, the military inspector for the Iraqi MoD, Imad Al-Zuhairi, said the government was interested in procuring Su-57 jets.
“Russia uses their arms exports as a game of optics with all of the U.S. allies. Moscow is quick to go to media whenever there are initial talks of any type of arms export to a U.S. ally,” Jalil said.
He added that there is a real possibility these deals go through, foremost because there is political will in the Iraqi government — mainly from Iran-affiliated individuals — to diversify arms imports from Western companies to Russian and Chinese manufacturers.
But it’s the U.S. government’s process that makes the case for sticking with American arms, according to Ricklefs. He said Baghdad is actively trying to fight corruption involved in defense procurement programs, which is why the Pentagon’s Foreign Military Sales process is so attractive.
“The downside is that FMS is generally a little more expensive, but its transparency and ease of use for the customer still makes it attractive,” he said.
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.