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Feb 19, 2016 | 09:15 GMT

Iran's Military Plays Catch Up

The Iranian military has been severely handicapped by aging equipment and decades of sanctions. Now that the international agreement on Iran's nuclear program has been signed, Tehran can import foreign weapons.
(ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)
Forecast Highlights

  • Iran will have to look abroad for the defense equipment needed to modernize its military.
  • Russian arms exporters are the best prepared to provide those weapons.
  • Technologically, Iran's military will soon rival those of its regional competitors.

Iran is home to one of the Middle East's largest militaries, but not necessarily the region's best. That Iran is even capable of threatening regional rivals, at least with the technology it has, is actually somewhat of a surprise: Decades of sanctions have prevented Tehran from effectively upgrading its arms and military equipment, leaving it far behind countries it would consider its rivals. Now that the sanctions have been lifted, Iran is trying to catch up to those rivals, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates, which have spent hundreds of billions of dollars on some of the most advanced weaponry on the international market.

Decades of sanctions have also made it difficult for Iran to source spare parts to repair and maintain its existing military equipment, particularly Western weaponry acquired when Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was in power. Relying on the black market and on their own ingenuity, the Iranians have proved remarkably adept at maintaining their weaponry and machinery, often relying on domestically sourced modifications and upgrades. For instance, to the surprise of international militaries and despite the odds, Tehran has been able to keep its F-14 fighter fleet in service. Nevertheless, maintaining aging equipment from multiple origins (the United States, France, Russia and China, just to name a few) is a burden and serviceability has suffered. Fielding them can also be creating a logistical and training nightmare. It is reasonable to expect that the Iranians will attempt to narrow their weapons suppliers even as they avoid relying on a single source.

Searching for Suppliers

Though in the past Iran has relied on the size of its armed forces and its developed asymmetric capabilities to remain a contender, Tehran appears determined to restore a more conventional balance of capabilities in its military by procuring better weaponry. Its domestic industry is not insignificant, but if Iran hopes to match its rivals, it must turn to outside sources. Iran has renewed access to the international market, but there is little chance that Tehran will be able to procure any significant amount of defense equipment from Western countries. Continued policy differences, opposition from local allies and mistrust on the nuclear program effectively block Iranian access to U.S. and European defense markets.

Iran has renewed access to the international market, but there is little chance that Tehran will be able to procure any significant amount of defense equipment from Western countries.

Instead, Iran must turn to alternative markets for its defense needs. But it has limited options there as well: Russia and China are the only countries that can provide the type of advanced weaponry that will compare with that of Iran's neighbors. For now, Russia appears best positioned to be the primary supplier for Iranian defense needs. For one thing, Russia maintains an edge over China in key areas, including surface-to-air missile technology and air superiority fighter aircraft. Furthermore, Russian and Iranian involvement in Syria has greatly enhanced cooperation between the two states and has contributed to a sense of shared mission. And in Syria, Iran has had a live demonstration of how Russian equipment engages in battlefield operations.

It is little surprise then that the Iranians are in significant negotiations with the Russians for the purchase of defense equipment. A S-300 surface-to-air missile system deal has recently been made and the system appears to be on the verge of being delivered. However, that contract has long been in the works, with Iran first showing interest in 2007. More recently, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan noted that Tehran and Moscow began talks on supplying Russian-made Su-30 fighter jets to Iran. Deputy commander of the Iranian Ground Forces Gen. Kiomars Heidari has also indicated that Iran may purchase Russian T-90 tanks if it received some of the production technology in the deal. The role of Syria in the dynamic cannot be ignored: Russia uses both the T-90 and the Su-30 in Syria, and the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told U.S. lawmakers Feb. 9 that Iran is likely to use recently purchased Russian weaponry in the conflict as well. 

Weapons cooperation benefits both Russia and Iran. Iran is in dire need of upgrading its conventional weaponry, and Russia is looking for stable arms markets as many of its traditional buyers turn elsewhere. Due to a lack of options, a strong relationship with Moscow and a need for reliable advanced weaponry, Tehran will be that stable arms market, at least for the short term. In the longer term, the technological gap between Iran's military and others in the region will narrow, which will have untold consequences for the regional balance of power.

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