ABU DHABI — Arabian Gulf countries are closely watching Iran's anticipated re-integration into the international community as it may develop into a Russian-Chinese-Western battleground for arms sales, regional experts said.
Since the announcement of the Lausanne agreement, Russia has lifted its weapons exports ban to Iran and announced it will supply the S-300 missile system purchased in 2010.
And on April 5, the head of the Iran-China Joint Chamber of Commerce, Asadollah Asgaroladi, CQ announced that Chinese President Xi Jinping will visit Iran in the "near future," according to the Fars press agency.
Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries disapprove of this Russian arms sale,
UAE political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla CQ said.
"I believe the view in gulf capitals [is] that the S-300 agreement has been made too soon and it may be, for a number of reasons, like Russia trying to strengthen its relations with Iran, Russia trying to show its independence of the American political influence in the region, or even the Russians trying to pave [the] way for deals with Iran ahead of the nuclear agreement signing," he said.
Despite Russia and the GCC tendering a strong relationship since 2009, where the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have struck a number of arms deals with their Russian counterparts, Iran remains Russia's largest customer in the region.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov CQ said the recent Russian-Iranian reversal of the S-300 export ban has been due to the nuclear agreement, signaling Russia's intent to intensify arms sales to Iran ahead of competition.
"Initially, the decision to suspend the implementation of the contract, which was already signed and came into force, was made in September 2010," he told Russian news agency TASS. "It was done in the interests of support for consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran's nuclear program."
Asgaroladi stated in the announcement of the Chinese president's visit that China is looking to increase its annual trade with Iran from $52 billion to $60 billion.
"Asia is a hot market more for Russia than China with sales to countries such as Malaysia and India, but the competition is also showing a mixed sales picture of various types of systems that are, at the end of the day, interoperable," said Theodore Karasik, CQa gulf-based geopolitical affairs consultant.
"The Chinese-Russian competition in Asia, when it comes to arms, is not in sales," he said. "It's in technology and politics. Over the past decades, both Moscow and Beijing have engaged in a race, if you will, for sales of equipment versus modified technology."
Karasik said Iran is actually a nexus of Chinese-Russian cooperation.
"The Chinese-Russian calculus regarding Iran is all about integration because of ongoing shifts in the geostrategic environment, the Chinese-designed ballistic and cruise missiles complement other inventory of Russian-designed small arms, and now anti-aircraft systems are the norm," he said.
"The Chinese approach is unique to Beijing where Norinco, Aviation Industry Corp. of China, Poly Technologies and China South Industries Group outsmart the competition by selling package deals that fits the requirements of the current tactical environment where Chinese political and economic interests are most intense," Karasik added.
Sources close to the Russian Defense Ministry believe Iran is unlikely to start buying Western and US weapons once the sanctions get lifted, said Yuri Barmin CQ, a Russian political and military analyst.
"Tehran would be better off purchasing Russian arms and there are in fact existing contracts that need to be implemented first," Barmin said.
Igor Korotchenko, the head of the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade, assessed that Iran needs $11 billion to $13 billion in Russian arms, Barmin said.
"Iran has an ambitious program to rearm its Army, and Russia could become Tehran's main arms supplier," he added.
Russia's strong resurgence in the geopolitical scene and the changes in and around the Middle East will make Iran a field of intense competition between Moscow and Washington in the foreseeable future, said Muhammed Bin Saqr al-Sulami, a Saudi Arabia-based Iranian military and political affairs specialist.
Al-Sulami wrote in a paper published last month that Iran's nuclear deal may open business and arms trade while Russia, a long-term supplier, may lose ground.
"From my understanding of the Iranian political mentality, Iran's political, intellectual and ideological leadership does not trust Moscow, but [they still] benefit in times of crises for many reasons, including the intersection of their national interests," he said.
"Currently, there is a good political and economic relationship between the two countries, however that does not wipe the bloody history between the two as the Russian presence on the Iranian arena was very negative," he wrote. "Russia defeated Iran in two major wars during the first half of the nineteenth century and carved out parts of the Iranian territory as well as sharing the influence with the British on Iranian territory during the era of their Constitutional Revolution between 1905-1911, therefore this will not change the Iranian public mood toward Russia."
China has been equipping the Iranian military since the 1980s, but their sales have dropped since the turn of the millennium.
"Chinese arms sales to Iran fell off sharply around 2000," said Richard Bitzinger CQ, senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Singapore. "I think this was in part Beijing trying to demonstrate to the world that it was not supporting a supposed terrorist state, to appease Israel, which has been an important if sporadic supplier of military technology to China; and also to perhaps to curry favor with conservative gulf states.
"China and Iran had a very close arms-collaboration arrangement in the 1980s and 1990s, where China was a significant supplier of conventional armaments to Iran, used during the Iran-Iraq War," he said.
"During the 1990s, China became a pretty significant supplier of systems that Iran subsequently license-produced or reverse-engineered," Bitzinger said. "In particular, it manufactured Chinese-developed anti-ship cruise missiles, particularly the C-802 and C-70, and surface-to-air missiles, the Chinese FM-80, which was a reverse-engineered French Crotale. China also exported its Houdong-class fast attack craft to Iran."
However, he said, the Iranians already have a "good enough" arms-manufacturing industry for armored vehicles, tanks and other equipment, allowing them to decide to cut out the Chinese. "Chinese arms sales to Iran are negligible these days," he said.
Russia is potentially a more important supplier, Bitzinger said, but even then, Iran will not be a major buyer of Russian equipment, mostly due to money shortages and the desire to build up its own industry.
Despite the fact that Iran has more than 300 American military aircraft and is the sole foreign customer of the Grumman F-14 Tomcat, the sanctions lift will not pave the way for US military sales — yet.
"In any event, the US has committed only to lift its nuclear-related sanctions," said Daniel Waltz CQ, partner at Washington-based legal consultancy Squire Patton-Boggs. "It has not committed to lifting those sanctions that relate to other subjects, e.g., proliferation or terrorism. Cooperation between the US and Iranian defense sectors will be among the last of the US barriers to Iranian trade that will be removed."
European and American aircraft manufacturers, however, will be more focused on providing services and upgrades to the large Iranian civil aviation sector for the time being.