Iran's pursuit of advanced warplanes from its ally Russia to modernize its aging fleet has faced numerous hurdles, plunging the regime into a state of uncertainty.
While Iran recently took delivery of a batch of Russian-made Yakovlev Yak-130 pilot training aircraft, these light jet trainers fall far short of the twin-engine, supermaneuverable air superiority Russian fighters, like the Sukhoi Su-35, which Iran had been seeking for years.
For a considerable time, Iran had been making announcements about the "imminent" delivery of Su-35 fighter jets. However, the hopes of acquiring these advanced aircraft were dashed when Iran's Defense Minister confirmed in July that the deal had collapsed. Moreover, Iran's claims of domestic production capabilities for such fighters have yet to materialize. While Iran has supplied Russia with kamikaze drones for its war on Ukraine, these efforts have led to several rounds of sanctions against the Iranian regime.
Paradoxically, Moscow has been unwilling to sell modern fighter jets or advanced aerial warfare systems to Iran. This reluctance stems from a range of concerns, including geopolitical considerations and regional stability.
One primary factor contributing to Russia's hesitancy to supply Iran with high-tech fighter jets is the absence of bargaining leverage on Iran's part. Iran's economic challenges, compounded by international sanctions, have limited its ability to secure favorable terms for such purchases. On a similar note, China has refrained from providing Iran with high-tech fighter jets, as Beijing is wary of potential US retaliation. What's more, China is known to be cautious about jeopardizing its own programs, as it seeks to profit from weapons deals. For example, Iran prefers to pay in oil and natural gas, rather than dollars or euros, in its dealings with China.
According to Zhou Chenming, a Beijing-based defense analyst, China has already accumulated significant energy reserves and is primarily focused on making money through arms deals. Consequently, China has been reluctant to engage in potential deals involving its Chengdu J-10C fighter jets with Tehran. Even attempts by the United States to sell advanced F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan, which concerned China greatly, did not persuade Beijing to offer its Chengdu J-10 fighter jets to Iran in retaliation.
The political climate between Iran and its two major allies, Russia and China, while often collaborative on other fronts, has not yielded significant advancements in Iran's deteriorating aerial arsenal. A significant factor contributing to Russia and China's caution is the delicate balance of their relations with Arab countries in the Middle East. Many Arab nations have expressed their unease and opposition to Iran acquiring fighter jets, fearing that it could shift the balance of power in the region. This apprehension has encouraged Russia and China to tread cautiously, as they do not wish to strain their relationships with key Arab trading partners.
Considering these challenges, the arrival of two Yak-130 light training aircraft in Iran has been portrayed by the regime's media as evidence that Russia would eventually start supplying its modern warplanes to Iran. Some analysts have speculated that the war in Ukraine has disrupted the delivery of Su-35s, leading to delays.
Defense Minister Ashtiani, in an article published in the government's Arabic-language daily al-Vefagh newspaper, claimed that all arms embargoes imposed on Iran are set to expire soon, expressing eagerness to expand military ties. European Union ballistic missile sanctions are scheduled to expire on October 18 under the UN resolution endorsing the 2015 nuclear deal. However, European diplomats are considering retaining these sanctions.
Analysts like Sasan Karimi have suggested that concerns by the US and Europe about Iran's plans to acquire high-tech fighter jets may have eased due to recent reports of behind-the-scenes negotiations between Tehran and Washington. While the exact timing of any Su-35 delivery remains uncertain, some believe that it is more logical for this to occur after the expiration of sanctions in October.
The aging nature of Iran's military aircraft is no secret. Some of Iran's fighter jets, like the F-4 and F-5, are well over half a century old, while the more advanced F-14 was procured before the Islamic revolution of 1979. Given Iran's pressing need to modernize its military fleet, China and Russia currently remain Iran's only options for procurement. This is because other fighter-producing countries, such as the United States, Europe, Sweden, and France, are unlikely to supply any weapons. Additionally, the production of fighter jets in Japan and South Korea is closely tied to joint programs with the United States.
Even if Russia and China were to consider supplying Iran with newer fighter jets, it is highly likely that the numbers would be limited to avoid posing a substantial threat to Tehran’s regional rivals. According to different sources, Russia itself has about 110 to 150 Sukhoi Su-35s.