Iran And Russia Strengthen Military Ties With New Weapons Deals

Yves here. Perhaps informed readers will deem otherwise, but the article posted below struck me as an an evenhanded account, by Western standards, of a step forward in the relationship between Iran and Russia. Iran is reported to be en route to buying Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. The article points out that the collapse of the JCPOA ended restrictions on Tehran’s ability to buy conventional weapons as of 2020. Well done, teams Trump and Biden!

The story does note that the Sukhoi Su-35s will be comparatively pricey for Iran, even before getting to the fact that Iran already has both Western and Russian-make fighters, which no doubt complicates training and maintenance. It also treats allegations that Iran is swapping drone for fighters as unproven. However, it does repeat a claim from a source at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs that Iran won’t get that many fighters. Supposedly, Russia has limited production capacity because sanctions have limited access to “technology” necessary for some parts. Perhaps I have become overly counter-suggestible, but this strikes me as the cleaned-up version of Ursula von der Leyen asserting that Russia’s military was scavenging washing machines for chips.

By the Jamestown Foundation. Cross posted from OilPrice

  • Iran and Russia are strengthening their military relationship.
  • The geopolitical shift caused by Russia’s war against Ukraine has brought  Tehran and Moscow closer than ever.
  • Iran is now planning to purchase Russian Sukhoi Su-35 advanced fighter jets from Russia.

The news of Iran’s planned purchase of Russian Sukhoi Su-35 advanced fighter jets is the latest sign of deepening relations between Tehran and Moscow. This development is significant, as in recent years, similar contracts were canceled for the sale of Russian Su-35s to Algeria, Egypt and Indonesia under pressure from the United States and the threat of economic sanctions (The Eurasian Times, November 7, 2022). As a result, these countries bought US F-15 fighter jets or French Rafale fighters instead. Thus far, China is the only country that has succeeded in buying Sukhoi Su-35s from Russia, and India’s negotiations with Moscow have yet to make any notable progress (The Diplomat, April 17, 2019).

But in the new geopolitical environment brought on by Russia’s war against Ukraine, Iran may indeed become the new destination of the Russian fighter, which underlines a burgeoning military relationship between Moscow and Tehran. For the first time, the commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, officially announced on September 4, 2022, that “the purchase of Sukhoi Su-35s is currently being discussed, rather than Sukhoi Su-30s. This issue is on the agenda, and we hope to be able to get these 4++ generation fighters in the future” (Tehran Times, September 4, 2022).

While official Russian sources neither confirmed nor denied this announcement, Shahriar Heidari, a member of the National Security and Foreign Policy Commission of the Iranian Parliament, confirmed on January 15 that “the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets that Iran has ordered from Russia will arrive in early 1402 [Iranian calendar that begins on March 21, 2023].” The lawmaker noted that Tehran has also ordered other military equipment from Russia, “including air defense systems, missile systems and helicopters, most of which will be received soon” (Tasnim News Agency, January 15).

Some sources have alleged that Iran is receiving the Su-35s in exchange for its drone exports to Russia (Euromaidan Press, December 15, 2022). However, as of now, it is difficult to find evidence of a formal contract between Moscow and Tehran regarding the purchase. Thus, the key sources here remain Vahedi’s and Heidari’s public confirmations. While Russia has yet to react publicly in rejecting or confirming the existence of such a contract, Moscow’s confidentiality could be the result of deepening relations between the two countries on defense and security matters. Hamidreza Azizi, an Iranian expert at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, believes that “Russia will deliver 24 Su-35s to Iran but probably not more than that. … The sanctions imposed on Russia mean it cannot produce Sukhoi-35s. Some parts require special technology that cannot be found in Russia” (Donya-e-Eqtesad, January 11).

Perhaps, the most immediate reason for Iran’s purchase of the Sukhoi Su-35s is the strong need of the IRIAF to modernize its fighters. According to recent media reports, “Iran’s air force heavily relies on overhauled US-made planes, including F-5 and F-14 fighters purchased prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution” (Amwaj Media, January 17). Furthermore, largely due to hostile relations between Iran and the United States, Tehran “has not acquired any new fighter aircraft in recent years, excluding a few Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum fighters.” Other than the MiG-29, Iran mainly utilizes “locally modified F-4 Phantom II, F-14 Tomcat and F-5E/F Tiger II planes from the 1970s” (, December 28, 2022). As such, Tehran’s purchase of Su-35 fighter jets would facilitate the renewal of some of the IRIAF’s capacities and possibly lay the foundation for further cooperation in defense production between Russia and Iran. According to Russian-outlet Sputnik, “Even though the cost of maintaining and operating this jet appears to be high for Iran, these costs could be reduced if there are agreements on the joint production of the Su-35 engine in the Islamic Republic” (Sputnik, January 20).

From another angle, purchasing the Su-35s would represent one of the most important results to come thus far from the lifting of Iran’s arms embargo. United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, in July 2015, endorsed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) regarding Iran’s nuclear program. However, as the JCPOA broke down, “all restrictions on the supplies of major arms to and all arms from Iran expired in October 2020. This means Iran will be legally able to buy and sell conventional weaponry, including small arms, missiles, helicopters and tanks” (Al Jazeera, October 17, 2020). Additionally, the embargo on the export of Iran’s ballistic missiles is set to be lifted in October 2023.

Regarding the wider implications, as mentioned, the Su-35s will strengthen the capabilities of the IRIAF. In a recent interview with Sputnik, Iranian military expert Mohammad-Hassan Sangtarash stipulated that “this aircraft will be especially effective if Iran can install original weapons on it. The Super Flanker Su-35 can play the role of a combat mini-AWACS [airborne warning and control system], and if connected to Iran’s radar network, it will acquire unique point defense capabilities. If Iran purchases [Russian] technologies and kicks off joint massive production [of the Su-35], it can gain a certain advantage over the fighters and warships” of its neighbors, including Azerbaijan (Sputnik, January 20).

Furthermore, Iran’s purchase of the Su-35 fighter jets will affect the balance in regional air power vis-à-vis the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, especially the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all of which have fragile relations with Iran. As a result, these countries, and possible others, might turn to more weapons from the West, especially the US F-35 fighter jets. Relatedly, simmering tensions with Tel Aviv—including the alleged Israeli drone attack on Iranian territory in January 2023—may also influence this deal, as the advanced fighters will improve Iran’s defensive and preventive defense against possible Israeli attacks (, February 2).

Although, Iranian expert Mohsen Jalilvand presents a different point of view: “Iran’s defense and military power is based on deterrence, relying on missile and drone power. This means that Iran’s military and defense deterrence power is not based on the air force and fighters. Therefore, advanced fighters are not a turning point in Iran’s defense deterrence capability” (, October 10, 2022).

Nevertheless, it seems that if and when the purchase of Russia’s Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets is finalized, it will be one of the most consequential arms purchases in Iran since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. While modernizing and increasing the capabilities of Iran’s air force, it will also bring the budding military and defense relationship between Tehran and Moscow into a new stage, which will have key consequences on the balance of power and deterrence throughout the South Caucasus and Middle East.

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  1. The Rev Kev

    More that just a weapons sale. It looks like Iran is being integrated with the east with countries like Russia and China. Of course Iran needs more military gear to make an attack on them by the US or Israel too problematical but from bits and pieces that I have seen, Iran has a lot of industrial moxy that they can offer the east. Iran’s years in the wilderness are now coming to a close and they will become a more important player on the world stage. And then you factor in another story – of how Sudan will buy arms from Russia in exchange for Russia building a naval base and you can see the security architecture for this whole region is undergoing a fundamental change. Of course Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States might not be too happy about these developments but I would guess that the Russians are trying to normalize relations between Iran and its neighbours. There may be still some friction but both are at heart business countries so have a vested interest in peace and not to have things like infrastructure being blown up, especially by itself-

  2. Louis Fyne

    IMO, the real news is is not the Su35. ironically, the western sanctions pushed Iran to lead a new revolution in weapons—-cheap, asymmetric, basic, but effective, drones (both air and sea).

    Even if a defender shoots down a drone, the cost of the missile itself is many times more than the cost of the drone. And simultanesouly degrades a defender’s ability to defend against more sophisticated weapons

    The Su35 is a big deal for the reasons stated above, but the humble, loud, effective Shahed/Geran is a bigger deal. (and Iran’s homemade tactical ballistic missiles)

    1. tevhatch

      I always thought the cheap and loud pulsejet (V1) was a template for overwhelming any nations defense, particularly as the distance/efficiency was much improved, and more importantly cheap and far more accurate inertial guidance can now be put on a single chipset. My guess is the MIC-IMATT knows it too, and had worked hard to suppress it, but Iran is outside that dynamic.

    2. TimH

      One lesson from Maggie’s hissy fit in the Malvenas is that Exocet missiles are cheap and Navy vessels expensive.

  3. Polar Socialist

    For what it’s worth, regardless of the lack of technology the KNAAZ aircraft factory delivered the latest batch of new Su-35s in December. The same factory has invested on new production lines in the last few years – especially on Russian made machining tools – and hired 500 new workers last year. they are planning to hire another 500 this year.

    While it may not be the case here, sometimes the way these Russian fighters are named can be a cause of confusion. It is completely possible that the 24 (according to that Tasnim news article) Su-35 fighters that Iran will receive are Su-27 fighters taken from storage, refurbished to Su-27SM standard with some of the latest Su-35S features and deliver it as Su35 export version. After all, the differences between the models are mostly in the avionics, radar and engines, not in the frame.

    Regarding Mr. Sangtarash’s vision, Mig-35 would maybe be a better candidate for Iran for point defense purposes, since that was the sole purpose of Mig-29 and this latest model has been specially developed for easy installation of clients weapon systems. Besides, the dedicated Mig factory, Sokol in Nizny Novgorod, may have more capacity available. Mini-AWACS it will not be, having too small air frame for most powerful radars – but no fighter really will ever be any kind of AWACS.

    1. tevhatch

      Thank you for the detailed information. I wonder if S-500 or even the S-400 might do to traditional AWACS what the Kinzal has done to the aircraft carrier battle group, make them only useful for limited wars like Ukraine or against under-developed nations. Separately, probably the ability of the MIG-31 to carry Kinzal was considered an over provocation in terms of plucking the eagle’s feathers in the Gulf.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, Russian aircraft nomenclature is all over the place (because: marketing). Refurbed Su-27’s would make sense for a country like Iran, it would allow them order a significant number pretty quickly. They may even be able to do the refurb work in Iran, they have plenty of experienced engineers.

      There is also the stalled Indonesian order. Its possible that the airframes are prepared and waiting and Iran could simply take that capacity. Given the very high price of gas and oil, the Iranians may not necessarily be all that short on foreign currency right now.

      One thing Iran is very good at is mixing and matching aircraft to create an air force that punches above its weight considering how archaic much of its fleet is. The Iranians used F-14’s as sort of airborne protectors/Awacs to allow cruder aircraft attack Iraq during the first Gulf War. By blending in drones, cruise missiles, their simple domestic aircraft, and a handful of more advanced aircraft, they could potentially overwhelm more sophisticated defenses just through the variety of means they could attack. Because of this they would not necessarily need the most advanced versions of the Su-35. They could use them to fill a gap somewhere between their aging F-4’s and F-14’s. They probably would not use them for ground attack against an advanced enemy like Israel or a Gulf State, it would be too risky.

      I assume Russian defense production capacity is pushed to its limit right now, and there will inevitably be choke-points, and this is most likely to be in the most high tech areas, such as targeting pods. A Rusi study from a few months ago identified Russian weapons dating from around the 1995-2014 period to have much more western off-the-shelf parts – these are the weapons the Russians will most struggle to ramp up as it can take time to test new components even in proven weapons.

      I wonder if the Russians see a virtue in allowing the Iranians to copy some Russian designs and so become a sort of shadow manufacturer that could be plugged into in an emergency. Sukhoi was badly burned when the Chinese broke all agreements and reverse engineered the Su-27 into an aircraft that is probably even better now than the Su-35, the J-11. But Iran probably doesn’t have the technical capability to do this.

    3. NN Cassandra

      I think it was article mentioned in links that claimed these are Su-35 originally intended for Egypt. It appears about ~20 were built and ready to go, but Egypt, on the advice of US, didn’t take them, so another customer was found. It would also suggest that Russia Air Force problems and losses are greatly exaggerated by MSM, if they are shipping brand new aircrafts abroad.

  4. Willow

    The other big development is Iran’s access to Russia heavy lift space transport. Heavier satellites mean better surveillance capability & targeting for Iranian drones & missiles.

    1. JamesT

      If Iran can get Russian satellites that will be a game changer for them. Also – having the Russians do the launch for them will result in fewer “accidents” than Iran has experienced in the past.

      Satellites are key to Iran being able to field “long range precision strike”. I assume Iran wants to be able to do LRPS in partnership with Hezbollah – with Iran providing the sensors and Hezbollah launching the missiles.

  5. Kouros

    The restrictions on buying weapons by Iran didn’t come from the breaking down of JPCOA. The article is not clear and one might think that is the case, but it was that UNSC resolution that had a time limit which, once passed, Iran was scot free. One should remember Mike Pompeo’s efforts to reinstate through the UNSC that restriction on Iran, inventing all sorts of reasons and trying to work with European countries on some administrative mechanism to re-impose that UN resolution restricting weapons purchases, but to no avail. It was the US that was in breach of the JPCOA…

    Mr. Badrakumar also has an article touching on the issue:

  6. noonespecial

    From above: “Iran’s purchase of the Su-35 fighter jets will affect the balance in regional air power vis-à-vis the Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, especially the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, all of which have fragile relations with Iran. As a result, these countries, and possible others, might turn to more weapons from the West, especially the US F-35 fighter jets.”

    A few days ago, National Interest published a piece by Will Wechsler (senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center and Middle East Programs, and the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Combatting Terrorism.)

    IMO a cursory read of Mr. Wechsler’s piece may serve to buttress the idea that ever since Ike (I think) shook hands with the family of Saud, the US and its coalitions of the willing have to play the long game. And if I may be so bold, procurement and and contract persons at those places so keen on making weapons for peace may need to convene a strategic planning committee ASAP.

    From Wechsler:

    It is also a stubborn fact that the market price of this global commodity [oil] remains disproportionately driven by actions taken in the Gulf, especially by Saudi Arabia. This reality is unlikely to change materially for decades to come…Given this, the United States long ago decided that protecting the free flow of oil from the Gulf to locations determined by market demand—a historically atypical anti-mercantilist approach—would best protect that core interest…The first and most critical policy decision is for the United States to commit to a future in which it remains intimately bound to Gulf security…Gulf leaders must openly commit to a future in which the United States remains their primary—and, in certain aspects, their sole—security partner.”

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