Can Iran Trust Russia Over Su-35 Sales: Here is Every Time Moscow Pulled Out of Major Fighter Deals

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Reports from official U.S. sources in the final quarter of 2022 that Russia and Iran had concluded a deal for the sale of Su-35 fighters, and corroborating prior reports from Iranian Air Force officials that Su-35s acquisitions were under consideration, have led to expectations that the first two dozen of the aircraft could be delivered in 2023. Russia is expected to deliver 24 fighters already built for the Egyptian Air Force before Cairo pulled out of the deal, with some reports indicating that Iran will purchase 64 aircraft under a contract valued at $5 billion – much of the costs of which will be covered by Iranian arms exports to Russia. Although the Su-35 sale represents the first contract for the sale of Russian fighter aircraft to Iran, it follows three decades of attempted Iranian purchases which have consistently been rebuffed by Moscow due primarily to Western pressure on Russia to eschew defence ties with its Middle Eastern neighbour. Although a sharp deterioration in Moscow’s ties with the West following the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War in February 2022 is expected to improve Russia’s relations with other NATO adversaries considerably, Tehran is expected to still have grounds for doubting Russia’s reliability as a defence partner due to its record in handling previous export contracts. Reports that Iranian officials believed Russia provided Israel with air defence codes to allow the Israeli Air Force to strike Iranian positions in Syria in the mid-late 2010s, if true, would be another factor that could lead Iran to seriously question the wisdom of relying on Russian equipment. Providing key context to an anticipated deliver of Su-35s to Iran, a look at the history of Russian-Iranian fighter deal proposals is given below:

Soviet MiGs and Sukhois

Iran began to acquire Soviet fighters in 1990-1991, when it became a leading client for the Su-24M strike fighter and MiG-29 medium weight multirole fighter purchasing one and two squadrons of each respectively. The death of Iranian Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini in 1989 was seen to have paved the way to a strengthening of security ties between the two U.S. adversaries, with ties having formerly been tense due to Khomeini’s outspoken hostility towards the USSR. The MiG-29 was at the time in high demand across much of the world, with over 1000 being produced in the USSR’s final decade. The Soviet Union’s disintegration in December 1991 led to an effective halt in MiG-29 production for domestic use, although Iran was still expected to continue purchases to replace its obsolete Vietnam War era F-4 and F-5 jets with acquisitions speculated to reach over 100 forming around a third of the country’s total fleet. In parallel to the MiG-29, Iran also showed interest in acquiring the higher end MiG-31 interceptor – the direct predecessor of which the MiG-25 had made a strong impression on the Iranian Air Force when operated by Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s. Soviet MiG-31s notably landed in Iran in October 1991 while en route to the Dubai Air Show, and were expected to be exported alongside more MiG-29 units

The USSR’s disintegration and Moscow’s realignment with Washington under the Boris Yeltsin administration led post Soviet Russia, under pressure from Washington, to cut defence ties which was agreed to by Moscow under the Gore-Chernomyrdin Protocol in 1995. The result was a sharp erosion of trust which had begun to be built up between the two countries after 1989 and the loss of several billion dollars worth of arms contracts to Russia’s defence sector, with Iran previously having been a leading client for Russian arms alongside China and India. Further results included that the MiG-29 program losing much needed funding, Russia retaining very large numbers of surplus MiG-29s, Su-24s and MiG-31s in storage which Iran would otherwise have been willing to purchase, and the Iranian Air Force quickly becoming obsolete as its neighbours rapidly transitioned more of their fleets to rely on fourth generation fighters. Iranian efforts to acquire MiG-29s from other sources were consistently thwarted by U.S. and Western interventions, a notable example being America’s purchase of Moldova’s entire MiG-29 fleet to end the possibility of its sale to Iran.

Early Putin and Medvedev Eras

In December 2000 the new administration of Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a normalisation of defence ties with Iran, and further MiG-29 sales soon began to be speculated as did possible sales of the higher end Su-27/30 – which had already been sold to Ethiopia, Eritrea, India, China and Vietnam. Possible joint MiG-29 production, which had already been set up with North Korea in the 1990s, was also considered a significant option, particularly after expected MiG-29 sales to South Korea had been derailed by U.S. pressure on Seoul. Iran nevertheless proved reluctant to resume acquisitions after what was seen as a breach of trust by Moscow in 1995, and Iranian interest in the MiG-31 was reportedly rebuffed by the Putin administration. Despite claims by the Kremlin to the contrary, whether Russia would have been wiling to sell more MiG-29s remains uncertain. Iranian suspicions proved far from unfounded in the late 2000s after a major order for S-300 air defence systems was frozen in 2009 under the Dmitry Medvedev administration, reportedly under Western and Israeli pressure in order to ensure that the U.S. and its allies would retain the ability to launch strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities if needed. S-300s were eventually delivered from 2016, albeit after the threat of a Western attack had expired and long after Iran was seen to have most needed them. Iranian acquisitions of new fighter aircraft was impeded by Russian support for UN arms embargoes on the country in the 2000s which prohibited fighter acquisitions. The embargo only expired in October 2020.

Later Deals and Chinese Competition 

Iranian interest in the Su-35 and Su-30 fighters in the mid 2010s was reportedly also rebuffed by Moscow which offered to provide only the lower end Su-27 – although these reports were not confirmed. Iran was thus expected to look to China rather than Russia to provide its new generation of fighters, with the Chinese J-10C having been considered a frontrunner to equip the Iranian fleet. Chinese combat aircraft were widely seen by the late 2010s to have eclipsed their Russian counterparts in performance, with the J-10C’s AESA radar, PL-15 missiles, advanced network centric warfare capabilities and stealth coatings providing many capabilities which Russian fighters lacked. The outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian War, however, which strengthened defence ties between Moscow and Tehran significantly, as well as the ability for Iran to barter for new fighters with exports of its own hardware that Russia now needed urgently, provided an opportunity for Russia to return to the Iranian market. While China reportedly did not offer the J-10C as part of barter agreements, Iran had a stronger negotiating position over Russian in 2022 which allowed it to obtain aircraft with few constraints imposed by Moscow and at a modest cost. The fact that other prospective Su-35s clients across the world had been deterred from going through with deals due to Western pressure is likely to have further influenced Russia to disregard Western efforts to prevent it exporting high end hardware to Iran. 

The Su-35 is currently the most capable Russian fighter which can be rapidly delivered abroad, and although the fighter’s developer and producer Sukhoi in the 2010s projected that Iran would be a leading export client for the more capable Su-57 fighter in the 2020s delays to the program mean it is less ready for high intensity combat and will not be available for delivery as quickly. Had the Su-57 been further along in development, there would have been a very significant possibility that Iran would have sought to acquire it rather than the Su-35 in 2022 to strength its air force, with the more advanced fighter expected to remain viable for considerably longer and seen as more cost effective due to its very significant performance advantages over its predecessor. The future of Iranian fighter acquisitions from Russia, including the scale of orders for Su-35s, remains uncertain as does the possibility of either Chinese entry into the market or of later Su-57 acquisitions. 


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