Iran’s arms export boom to Russia could be a sign of desperation


Iran is exporting a record number of its locally produced armed drones to Russia and will soon export its indigenous ballistic missiles to Moscow. A top Iranian general also said 22 countries were interested in buying Tehran’s drones. These developments apparently suggest that the Iranian arms industry is about to experience a boom. However, it could also mean desperation on Tehran’s part.

According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has ordered up to 2,400 Shahed munitions (known as suicide or kamikaze drones) from Iran. Although a huge number, drones are incredibly cheap, with one estimate claiming they cost barely $20,000 each. If Russia buys them at that price, simple math suggests that the acquisition would cost Moscow as little as $48 million, although the price is likely higher since the deal could include support and other services.

All that Moscow pays for this large amount of ammunition lying around is most likely a relatively minor figure compared to most arms sales. In 2019, for example, Ukraine ordered just six Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones under a $69 million deal.

Russia also wants Iran’s Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with ranges between 186 and 435 miles, respectively. A large order of such missiles could give Russia some substitution for its dwindling ballistic and cruise missile arsenal, allowing it to sustain its bombardment of Ukrainian cities.

While Iranian weaponry is relatively cheap, making large purchases economical for the buyer (which, by the way, is a point Russia has touted its hardware in the past), Moscow seems s turned to Tehran mainly out of desperation. Its purchase of large quantities of Iranian arms, and apparently North Korean artillery, apparently indicates that Moscow currently faces a situation not entirely different from that which Iran faced in the 1980s, when it was a pariah state waging a desperate and exhausting war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

To go from a country desperately scouring the world for weapons – and only obtaining them from other unpopular countries like Libya and North Korea – to a country exporting its military hardware in bulk to a former superpower is undoubtedly a remarkable turnaround. At the same time, while Russia arguably took the place of the Iran of the 1980s, Iran perhaps ironically took the place of the former Soviet Union towards the end. Over the past few years, the moribund Soviet Union was eager to extricate itself from a deep economic crisis by selling off so much of its military hardware to anyone who could afford it.

Soviet officials offered Iran 72 MiG-29 Fulcrums, 24 MiG-31 Foxhounds and 36 Su-24 Fencers soon after the Iran–Iraq War (1980-88) ended. However, Iran, cash-strapped after eight debilitating years of war, could only afford 18 MiG-29s and 12 Su-24s. Tehran would also acquire S-200 air defense systems just months before the final collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

When Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Moscow in 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev presented him with a “blank check” for Soviet weapons signed by all 12 members of the Soviet Politburo. “You write down the armaments you want and we will supply them,” Iran’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union, Naser Nobari, later recalled to the Soviets when telling the visiting Iranian delegation. “To date, this is our country’s largest and most important arms deal since the revolution,” Nobari noted.

Several eye-catching remarks by the Soviet delegation at the Paris Air Show in June 1991 also showed how desperate Moscow was to sell its military hardware.

Rostislav Belakov, head of Mikoyan’s design bureau, announced Moscow’s willingness to sell MiG-31s ​​to any country outside of Iraq.

“There are no more political barriers to our sales,” he said. “If you have 40 million dollars, we will sell you a MiG-31.”

“Giving the MiG-31 – which can fly at three times the speed of sound and is said to have radar unmatched in any Western fighter – to anyone who can afford it hardly seems appropriate at this time,” Christoper wrote. Bellamy in the Independent that month. “But the Soviet Union’s desperate need for hard currency makes it eager to export some of its most advanced and unique products – military hardware.”

Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens was surprised when Soviet Aircraft Industry Minister Apollon Systsov suggested that Israel might buy the MiG-31. According to a Reuters report at the time, “Arens’ jaw visibly dropped” when Systsov told him, “With just three MiG-31s, you could protect all of Israel.”

Although Systsov made it clear that such a sale could not begin without the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, he was nevertheless convinced that once the ties were established, “we will be ready to sell to Israel any defensive equipment it needs, and the MiG-31 is a purely defensive interceptor aircraft with no bombing capability.”

Soviet test pilot Valery Minitsky wanted to sweeten the prospect of a sale, telling Arens, “If you’re ready to buy this plane, we’ll give you all the operating codes and procedures.”

Noah Shachar, the spokesman for the Israeli defense technology company Rafael at the time, said that a Soviet defense official had also offered to sell the S-300 air defense missile system to Israel, so the most advanced system of its type in Soviet service. The Soviet official claimed it was superior to the American Patriot missile defense system which became well known for its use in the Persian Gulf War earlier that year.

“We were obviously very surprised because the offer is the first of its kind ever made by Moscow, but the Soviets made it clear in the meetings that everything [in their arsenal] is in the market,” Shachar said. Of course, Israel never became an importer of Soviet or Russian equipment.

It wouldn’t be so surprising if something similar happened today. Iran and Russia recently signed a new 20-year cooperation agreement. There is probably significant technical-military cooperation between the two countries behind the scenes. As part of its wider cooperation agreement, Iran may have offered technology transfers as part of its huge sale of SRBMs and drones – although the low-tech Shahed-136 might not seem so difficult to debone. Russia may soon supply Iran with Su-35 Flanker fighter jets, as has been speculated for months.

In a few years, we might even learn that Iran gave Russia a blank check similar to the one it received from the Soviets in an equally vain hope that Moscow could help it avoid terminal decline.

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