Iran’s long-awaited arms-buying spree may amount to little ... for now
Cash-strapped Tehran has little money to buy big and too few major suppliers are willing to risk US sanctions – but they’ll be going for select upgrades
After years of being barred from importing weapons, Iran’s generals get a long-awaited boon on Sunday with the lifting of an arms embargo that will allow them to upgrade their decrepit arsenal of tanks, warplanes and other hardware.
Still, defence experts told The National that Iran’s coronavirus-ravaged and isolated economy can ill-afford a big military shopping spree, and would-be suppliers like Russia will be loath to re-arm Tehran even when the embargo is lifted.
Instead, Iran will likely slowly acquire anti-tank missiles, thermal vision kits, portable anti-aircraft arms and other gear that makes its proxies in Syria, Iraq and Yemen deadlier, but does not represent a battlefield game-changer, they said.
“Iran has no money and major military systems are very expensive,” Robert Czulda, an expert on Iran’s military at the University of Lodz in Poland, told The National.
“You can’t just buy an aircraft, you also need missiles, equipment, pilot-training and ground maintenance teams. Also, not so many countries would be willing to sell arms to Iran.”
Iran's 'shopping list'
On October 18, a long-standing United Nations arms embargo on Iran will expire. The end-date was agreed between Tehran, the United States and other powers in a 2015 deal that traded sanctions relief for limits on Iran’s nuclear programme.
The Trump administration walked away from that deal in 2018 and demanded the embargo remain in place. US efforts to extend the embargo were rejected by its European allies, Russia, China and others who wanted to stick to the 2015 deal.
Still, Tehran will not have a wholly free hand. Curbs on Iran’s ballistic missiles programme are locked in until 2023. The European Union has its own arms embargo on Iran, also until 2023.
The US, too, says it will “impose consequences” on countries – and companies – that sell arms to Iran.
Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in September that Iran could “satisfy our needs” by dealing with Russia and China, who need not worry about “secondary US sanctions”, according to a report from Russia’s Sputnik news agency.
Iran’s armoury resembles a military museum. It includes F-14 Tomcats and other gear that the US and Britain sold to the pro-Western shah before he was toppled in the 1979 Islamic revolution. In 2007, the UN-imposed the arms embargo amid growing fears over Iran’s nuclear programme.
Iran's missile programme
Iran has nonetheless flexed its muscles in the region. It builds missiles and drones, acquired the S-300 air defence system from Russia and man-portable air-defence systems, or manpads, from China, said Jack Watling, from the UK based Royal United Services Institute.
Iran can thus defend itself from some air attacks, launch missile strikes like the 2019 hit on Saudi Aramco oil plants and support Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Yemen’s Houthi rebels and other proxy forces.
The prospect of Iran rearming worries the US, its Gulf allies and Israel, which all see Tehran as a threat. That concern is justified, but perhaps overblown as Tehran is “fairly broke” now, said Mr Watling.
Iran’s economy has been battered by the Trump administration’s “maximum pressure” campaign of unilateral sanctions, the Covid-19 pandemic and tumbling oil prices. The rial has lost about 57 per cent of its value this year.
The cash-strapped Iranians will also struggle to find suppliers, said Mr Czulda. Russia does not want to offend Israel and Saudi Arabia by selling arms to their adversary. “China is the most likely supplier,” he said.
Behnam Ben Taleblu, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies, a US-based think tank, said Tehran would likely turn to “informal and black markets” in southeast Asia and central Europe.
“Iran is not aiming to become a conventional military power,” said Mr Taleblu. “It is likely looking to acquire select systems and technologies that can enhance the lethality of existing threat streams while laying the foundation for new capabilities.”
Tehran’s shopping list includes electronic warfare systems, communications gear and upgrades to engines and missile guidance and navigation systems, said Mr Czulda. He also anticipated a small warplane-buying deal for public relations purposes.
“They will continue to pursue their strategy that they've followed quite successfully these past eight years: de-prioritise the traditional army forces and focus on the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, special forces and long-range ballistic missiles,” added Mr Watling.
Iran could slowly acquire basic radar systems and thermal imaging gear to equip such groups as Yemen’s Houthis, who are fighting a Saudi-led coalition that aims to restore the country’s UN-recognised government, said Mr Watling.
"It's not a game-changer," he added. Negotiating arms deals, production, receiving deliveries, training proxies to use new systems and deploying gear to regional hotspots could take as long as five years.
Still, Houthi mountain combat units would then be a harder target to hit.
“It means they’ll see us coming, which means there’ll be a big firefight. So, you need to deploy more resources. Could the US, the UK, the UAE still defeat that tactical Houthi unit? Yes, absolutely. But it increases the cost,” said Mr Watling.
Updated: October 18, 2020 03:32 PM