Since Iran accepted the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it has been looking forward to the scheduled lifting in October 2020 of a UN embargo on arms transfers. This would help modernize elements of Iran’s conventional military equipment, some of which dates to before the 1979 revolution.
Iran has shown a significant ability to develop systems on its own, reducing the need for expensive imports. Its purchases will likely be limited, therefore, by both economic and geopolitical constraints, including the impact of US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic and caution on the part of potential suppliers.
Iranian officials pride themselves on developing a military strategy that has defended their country’s territorial integrity and expanded regional influence at a fraction of the cost of the defense budgets of their Arab neighbors across the Persian Gulf. According to the latest figures, Iran had the eighteenth largest military budget in the world last year—$12.6 billion—compared to Israel’s $20.5 billion (fifteenth largest); Saudi Arabia’s $61.9 billion (fifth largest) and the largest spender, the United States, at $732 billion.
In a scathing op-ed piece published in The New York Times in 2017, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif asserted that the sale of billions of dollars’ worth of what US President Donald Trump has called “beautiful military equipment” by his administration and its predecessors to the Arab states of the Persian Gulf had not resulted in greater security for that country or the region. Iran has relied, instead, on asymmetric means, especially, militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and other countries to project influence and, raise the cost of potential attacks on itself through proxy attacks. Strategic blunders by adversaries and the dislocations caused by the 2011 Arab Spring created numerous opportunities for Iranian intervention, while discrimination against Shia in the Arab world and South Asia—and the lack of alternative employment for youth—produced a steady supply of militia recruits. Iran has managed to transfer arms to these militias despite UN and other arms embargos.
Iran has also developed significant cyber capabilities—in part, in reaction to the Stuxnet attacks on its nuclear infrastructure a decade ago—and has made advances in ballistic and cruise missiles and unarmed aerial vehicles, building on Russian, Chinese, and North Korean platforms. Many observers were stunned by the accuracy of the cruise missile and drone attacks on Saudi Arabia’s Abqaiq stabilization plant in September 2019, which temporarily put half the country’s daily production out of commission, and by the missile strikes against bases housing US forces in Iraq in January in retaliation for the US assassination of Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani. More recently, Iran has also lifted a military satellite into orbit after several failed launches that may have been sabotaged by the United States and Israel.
Where Iran has fallen short is in the area of missile defenses—which are not covered by the UN embargo. The poor state of its ground-based air defenses was tragically demonstrated by the shoot-down of a Ukrainian passenger airliner in January, when a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) mistook it for a hostile US missile. Iran might like to purchase the Russian S-400 system but may have trouble coming up with the funds. Russia may also be reluctant to antagonize Israel by selling such advanced equipment to the Islamic Republic. Sirous Amerian, a guest lecturer at the Center for Defense and Security Studies at New Zealand’s Massey University, told this author that Iran might only seek to acquire some components of the S-400, as it did with Russian Kasta and Nebo SV radars.
Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Military and Security Studies Program at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy and a long-time student of Iran’s capabilities, reminded this author that Tehran and Moscow haggled for a decade over the S-300 system. He predicted that Iran would go after “niche systems to provide niche capabilities and will not seek or be able to achieve the recapitalization of the Iranian military inventory or a total makeover of the Iranian military.” Iran will look for components—navigation, guidance and propulsion technologies—to improve its indigenous drone, cruise, and ballistic missile programs, Eisenstadt added. Iran has provided some of this technology to regional partners, defying the UN embargo and other sanctions.
Amerian said Iran wants fighter jets, logistics aircraft, and helicopters. Russian Su-30SM fighters or the Chinese JF-17, which China co-produces with Pakistan, have been mentioned as possible purchases. Amerian says the latter is more likely because the JF-17 is $10 million cheaper than the Sukhoi, easier to maintain, and uses the Klimov RD-33 turbofan, which Iran already has experience working with from its fleet of Mig-29As.
Eisenstadt said Iran would also like to purchase intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance technology so it no longer has to depend on Russia to support ground forces, as has been the case in their mutual intervention in Syria to prop up the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Furthermore, Iran is looking for new radar-guided air-to-air missiles, such as the Russian R-77-1 or the Chinese PL-15 and has expressed interest in the Russian T-90 main battle tank.
Desire is one thing—reality another. Eisenstadt has estimated that it would cost Iran $100 billion to refurbish its air force, which still includes stripped-down American F-14 Tomcats manufactured in the 1970s before the shah was overthrown. That sum is equivalent to Iran’s entire hard currency reserves.
A key priority for Iran is to be able to build and revamp equipment domestically. According to Farzin Nadimi, an associate fellow with The Washington Institute of Near East Policy, Iran made upgrades to Iraqi Su-22 Fitters—which Iraqi pilots flew into Iran during Operation Desert Storm in 1991 and Iran never returned—with the help of Syrian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian experts. Nadimi wrote, recently, that the IRGC has claimed that these planes will soon be equipped with 1,500-km range cruise missiles that can hit targets in the middle of the Arabian Sea and in the sensitive Bab al-Mandab Strait, which connects the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden.
Iran has tried and failed, before, to revamp its conventional arsenal. In the 1990s, it sought East bloc equipment after the end of the Cold War but was stymied by US political pressure and a lack of funds. One question, now, is how influential the US will be in dissuading arms transfers given international anger at the Trump administration for unilaterally withdrawing from the JCPOA while Iran remained in full compliance. The Trump administration has threatened to snap back pre-JCPOA sanctions—a dubious strategy since the US quit the deal—and to use other means to block arms sales if the UN Security Council balks. Iran has threatened to leave both the JCPOA and Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty if those sanctions are extended.
Iran could incentivize Russia to supply new arms by granting it more access to Iranian military bases. That would risk provoking domestic opposition, however, since such access violates the Iranian constitution. Moscow’s revelation that Russian planes refueled at Iran’s Hamadan airfield en route to Syria in 2016 led to so much criticism in Iran that permission was abruptly revoked.
Retired Vice Admiral John Miller has noted that Russian “advisors” would need to be present in Iran should Tehran buy the S-400 system or Yakhont anti-ship missiles. The Yakhont system, Miller says, “would be especially troublesome to coalition maritime commanders as the system would provide anti-ship coverage over the entire [Persian] Gulf.”
It remains doubtful, however, that new conventional arms will change the balance of power in the Persian Gulf. The United States and its allies remain dominant in terms of hardware, while Iran’s asymmetric capabilities will stay its most potent weapon for the foreseeable future.
Barbara Slavin is director of the Future of Iran Initiative at the Atlantic Council. Follow her on Twitter: @BarbaraSlavin1.
United Nations arms embargo on Iran
How will the world react? The Middle East Programs presents a series of global perspectives on how the world is approaching the October 2020 expiration of the UN arms embargo on Iran.