Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Farahi attested to the deal, debunking rumors that the potential purchase fell apart. Included in the deal were Su-35 air superiority/multirole fighters, Yak-130 light fighter/advanced trainer jets and Mi-28 attack helicopters. Tehran's acquisition of aircraft from Moscow occurs amid the backdrop of heightened tensions in the Middle East and increased American military presence in the region because of the ongoing Gaza conflict.
Rumors about Iran's interest in Russian fighter jets have circulated since last year, gaining traction after Egypt withdrew from a similar deal due to concerns about upsetting the United States. The opportunity arose for Tehran to step in and expedite a deal that might otherwise have taken years to materialize.
Speculation intensified throughout 2022, with initial concerns about the Su-35 deal not materializing eventually dispelled. By September, it became evident that the military cooperation between Moscow and Tehran would extend beyond Su-35s, as Yak-130 light fighters/advanced trainers were spotted in Iran. (Related: Iran may provide Russia with short-range ballistic missiles, say U.S. officials.)
The acquisition of Su-35s represents a strategic leap forward for the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF), replacing aging F-14 "Tomcats" and potentially signaling the order of over 60 additional fighter jets. The Yak-130, capable of functioning as both an attack jet and an advanced trainer aircraft, is a crucial element in flight training for pilots transitioning to the Su-35.
The deal also includes the Mi-28 attack helicopter, offering Iran a technological leap in its rotorcraft capabilities. Currently relying on Vietnam War-era AH-1 "Super Cobra" helicopters, the addition of advanced Russian rotorcraft would significantly enhance Iran's capabilities. Reports suggest that Iranian forces in Syria were impressed by the performance of Russian Mi-28s, influencing the decision to acquire them.
While Iran has made significant strides in developing indigenous industries, especially in drone production, its efforts to acquire advanced manned combat aviation have faced challenges due to Western arms embargoes.
As the U.S. escalates tensions in the region, particularly targeting Iran, the move to arm Tehran with advanced Russian weaponry is seen as a deterrent. This not only makes any potential attack more challenging and costly, but also reinforces the defense capabilities of emerging multipolar alliances, countering efforts to undermine their influence.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, senior fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), said Iran acquiring Russian military assets won't turn it into a conventional military superpower overnight.
"However, they will make the Islamic Republic [of Iran] a more potent hybrid military actor," noted Taleblu. " Su-35s coupled with Tehran's domestic and foreign air defense systems would better equip Iran to defend its skies. This, in turn, would complicate Western military planning – which must ensure that a credible threat against Iran's nuclear program remains on the table no matter the regime's evolving military aptitudes."
FDD Senior Director Bradley Bowman meanwhile noted the growth of the security cooperation between Russia and Iran. This could pose a serious problem for Washington's partners in Europe, Israel and the Arab world.
"Su-35s would represent a significant improvement over the aircraft Iran currently possesses, but the degree of improvement will depend on several variables – including the weapons, training, and other capabilities that accompany the aircraft – as well as the degree to which they are integrated with Iran’s formidable integrated air and missile defense systems," he said.
Bowman urged Washington and its allies to act collectively to counter the growing Russian-Iranian axis.
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