Multiple reports suggest that Iran might be poised to radically overhaul its aging fleet of fighter jets, with the transfer of multirole Su-35 Flanker-E aircraft from Russia. Should that deal go through it would represent the first genuinely new fighters for Iran since the early 1990s and could solve Moscow’s problem of Su-35s that were originally built for Egypt, but which now look unlikely ever to be delivered to that country.
Speaking to Iran’s Borna news agency recently, Brig. Gen. Hamid Vahedi, the commander of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, or IRIAF, confirmed that Tehran was looking to buy Su-35s from Russia.
“This issue is on the agenda,” Vahedi said. “We hope to be able to get these 4++ generation fighters in the future.”
The 4++ generation epithet is used, especially in Russia, to describe the most capable fourth-generation fighter jets in production today. This includes the Su-35 and the MiG-35, both of which are considerably reworked Cold War-era designs with advanced sensors and weapons.
Notably, however, Vahedi said that the IRIAF was looking to buy the single-seat Su-35 rather than the two-seat Su-30. In the past, Iran has been linked to possible purchases of both these types, although there are suggestions that, this time, it may be different.
The IRIAF boss also stated that a final decision on buying the Su-35 would have to be made by the General Staff of the Armed Forces, which have formal control over such procurement decisions.
Russia originally developed the Su-35 for export but the first customer was Moscow itself, which placed its first order in 2009. Since then, the type had become established as the most advanced fighter in Russian service, filling in for delays in the Su-57 Felon advanced fighter program. The Russian Su-35S version has been widely used in the country’s war in Ukraine, as well as in its Syrian campaign.
A first export customer for the Su-35 emerged in 2015 when China surprisingly bought 24 examples.
Other potential export customers identified by Russian media reports have included Algeria, Indonesia, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Venezuela, and Vietnam. Then, in early 2019, it was reported that Egypt would procure ‘over two dozen’ Su-35s. Different reports suggest that Egypt may have ordered between 24 and 30 Su-35s, although there has been no official confirmation of the final total, or how many of these aircraft have actually been completed.
Reports suggest that pressure applied on Cairo by the U.S. government has prevented the deal from being completed. Back in November 2019, the then U.S Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper threatened sanctions if Egypt didn’t cancel the Su-35 deal. Had Cairo gone through with the deal, sanctions would have been triggered automatically under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, or CAATSA. In this instance, Washington would have refused to give Egypt a waiver to avoid those sanctions. In past cases, a waiver has been provided to countries buying arms from both the United States and Russia, such as India, which was given one for its S-400 purchases.
Another potential Su-35 export deal, involving Indonesia, was also apparently torpedoed by the U.S. threat of sanctions, this country instead opting for the French-made Dassault Rafale, although a bespoke version of the F-15EX Eagle has also been offered.
As far as Iran is concerned, the Su-35 would provide the IRIAF with desperately needed new fighter equipment. Furthermore, Iran would not be concerned by possible CAASTA sanctions, since it’s not also buying arms from the United States.
This latest iteration of the single-seat Flanker is fitted with a powerful N035 Irbis-E passive electronically scanned array (PESA) radar integrated with a Khibiny-M electronic countermeasures suite. As standard, the avionics suite includes an infrared search and track (IRST) sensor, while an air-to-ground targeting pod is available as an option.
As well as a wide range of air-to-ground ordnance, including precision-guided missiles and bombs, the Su-35’s basic air-to-air armament includes R-77-1 (AA-12 Adder) active-radar missiles and R-73/74 (AA-11 Archer) dogfight missiles, which can be used in conjunction with a helmet-mounted sight. A high level of agility is conferred by the combination of a quadruplex digital fly-by-wire system and AL-41F1S (izdeliye 117S) turbofan engines with thrust-vectoring nozzles.
The Su-35 is at least a generation ahead of the primary fighter jets currently employed by the IRIAF, which comprise F-4 Phantom IIs and F-14 Tomcats that were supplied before the fall of the Shah in 1979, as well as MiG-29 Fulcrums delivered in the early 1990s, or obtained during the 1991 Gulf War when examples were evacuated to Iran by Iraq. The IRIAF also flies F-5E/Fs, some of which have been locally reworked as twin-tail Saeqeh fighters, Chinese-supplied F-7 Fishbeds, and a smaller number of Mirage F1s that were also evacuated to Iran during the 1991 Gulf War.
All of these fleets have struggled with maintenance issues and a lack of spare parts, as well as years of attrition that have reduced their overall numbers. At the same time, domestic upgrade programs have met with very mixed results, with most such efforts being of questionable effectiveness and typically only addressing a handful of airframes before being abandoned or superseded. Meanwhile, local efforts to develop truly homegrown combat aircraft have been singularly unsuccessful, yielding, for example, the prototype Kowsar-88 jet trainer and light attack aircraft and the Qaher-313 “stealth fighter” mock-up that received only widespread ridicule.
On the other hand, the Su-35 would introduce new capabilities both in terms of air-to-air combat, but also long-range precision strike and, potentially, anti-shipping and defense suppression. This would, of course, depend on what weapons were supplied, and the provision for training. There are unconfirmed reports that some Iranian pilots have already begun training on the new jets in Russia.
It would not be a surprise if other potential customers have begun to view Russian defense products with greater skepticism, based on the very mixed results achieved so far in the war in Ukraine. For Iran, however, the Su-35 would undoubtedly provide an enormous boost.
As well as finally providing the IRIAF with long-awaited modernization, a Su-35 sale would further reinforce a burgeoning military partnership between Moscow and Tehran.
In recent weeks there have been multiple reports and Pentagon confirmation that Russia has turned to Iran to provide it with some of its wide variety of domestically manufactured drones that can be used in the conflict in Ukraine.
Last week, NBC News reported that U.S. officials had confirmed that Russia had received its first consignment of Iranian-made drones but that it had “run into technical problems in the initial tests of the unmanned aircraft.”
The drones in question have been reported as Mohajer-6 and Shahed-series unmanned aerial vehicles, both of which you can read more about here. Ultimately, U.S. officials believe that “hundreds” of drones will be supplied.
Clearly, Russia sees Iran as a potentially vital source of defense equipment as it struggles with the effects of Western sanctions. In particular, Russian production of high-end defense equipment seems to have been badly affected, as you can read about here. This makes Iranian drones — presuming they function as advertised — an attractive option.
Despite some eye-catching highlights, Russia’s own UAV efforts — especially involving armed drones — are not nearly as wide-ranging as those of Iran. In terms of UAVs, the Russian Armed Forces have, so far, relied heavily on the fairly rudimentary Forpost, a locally built version of an Israeli design. At the same time, its other drone efforts make extensive use of now-prohibited Western technology and production is likely to have been disrupted as a result.
At the same time, Western sanctions are affecting Russia’s economy, with the result that finding a customer for Egypt’s undelivered Su-35s (and likely more examples in addition to those) would be a very welcome financial injection. On the other hand, a trade-in-kind could also be attractive, with Iran essentially paying for the jets with hundreds of drones, for example, especially since a significant number of the jets have already been manufactured.
The drone deal and possible sale of Su-35s are just the latest expressions of the relationship between Russia and Iran, which has also seen cooperation during the two countries’ involvement in the Syrian civil war, where both support the regime of Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.
More recently, Russia launched an Iranian satellite into orbit, leading to concerns among Western officials that it could be used to provide intelligence on the situation in Ukraine. Iran refuted these claims, arguing that it would be used for non-military research.
Iran, which itself has been subject to Western sanctions for many years, due to its nuclear program, is gradually emerging from the international wilderness and appears to be moving ever closer to Moscow.
With that in mind, a Su-35 sale would certainly follow what’s becoming an established pattern of mutual economic and military assistance.
There are, however, some potential pitfalls that could put a stop to a Su-35 sale to Iran, or even jeopardize a broader alliance between the two countries.
So far, at least, Russia has sought to steer a course in its foreign policy that has maintained relations with other countries in the Middle East, including those more hostile to Iran, like Israel. Most prominently, this has played out in Syria, where both Russia and Israel have been conducting military operations. Russia, however, has kept communications with Israel open and avoided interfering in Israeli airstrikes against Iranian-backed forces.
In May this year, a Russian-operated S-300 air defense system fired on Israeli Air Force, or IAF, fighter jets operating over Syria, according to the Israeli Ministry of Defense. Both Russia and Israel sought to play down that incident, with Israeli Minister of Defense and Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz declaring that it was a “one-off incident.”
More recently, satellite imagery confirmed that Russia had redeployed that S-300 system from Syria, with the expectation that it was going to be used instead to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Nevertheless, there remains the possibility that Russia’s complicated connections between Iran and Israel could lead to a breakdown in one or more of these relationships and threaten a Su-35 sale in the process.
On the other hand, Iran’s decision to sell drones to Russia and a potential deal to buy Russian-made fighter jets could also backfire. Here, officials in Tehran run the risk of jeopardizing a new nuclear deal, around which talks with U.S. officials are still ongoing. An official from the Biden administration told NBC News that the framework of a new nuclear deal would include provisions to stop Iran from trying to violate sanctions against Russia.
The Iranian Flanker deal faces other potential stumbling blocks, too, not least whether Tehran can actually afford the jets. While the value of the mooted deal has not been disclosed, the Egyptian order for “over 20” Su-35s was reportedly valued at around $2 billion. Here, again, a trade-in-kind could provide an alternative, or perhaps one of Russia’s ‘loan’ arrangements, which have proven popular in the past.
Then there is the factor of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC, a separate branch of Iran’s armed forces and one that has a major role in decisions across society, as well as competing with the IRIAF and other services for funding and influence. The IRGC maintains its own navy and air force, among others, including operating its own combat jets.
It seems inevitable that in the short term at least, the interests of Russia and Iran will continue to align, especially on a military level. However, it remains to be seen whether the Su-35 will be the aircraft that finally kickstarts modernization within the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force.
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