The ball is in Russia’s court.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi
The word ‘Russia’ doesn’t normally evoke a spirited response from a common Iranian. Far from it, in fact! There is a civilizational memory driving this. Iran and Russia have been competitors in the Caspian Sea and the Caucasian region for a very, very long time now. Common Iranians have historically seen Russia as an imperial force. Not much changed with the 1917 Russian Revolution. USSR was keen to see Iran come under its influence.
The Khomeini Era
When the ruling Shah was toppled in the 1979 revolution, Moscow had its hopes raised. Only that it struck the rock called Ayatollah Khomeini. Since then, it has largely been a nuanced relationship of competition and cooperation – one shadowing the other at different times.
Those close to Ayatollah Khomeini maintained that his hatred and suspicion of the Soviet Union was one of a kind. A part of it was driven by historical memory. However, much of it had to do with the ideological battle lines. When Khomeini decided to chart a course for his country that was away from the bipolarity prevalent at that time, Moscow did not take it well. However, the rancour never graduated to bad blood.
Then, by the end of the 80s, Khomeini passed away. The new administration under Ayatollah Khamenei was now unshackled to pursue a close relationship with the USSR. A brief period of deep engagement started. However, as the USSR collapsed and pro-West Boris Yeltsin came to power, things once again lapsed into what it was during Khomeini era.
It remained so during the first term of President Putin. It is important to understand here that, contrary to the popular belief, Vladimir Putin was once very pro-West in his outlook and politics. In fact, as the right-hand man of the then Mayor of Saint Petersburg, Putin was directly responsible for suppressing the coup the loyal officers of the Red Army mounted against Yeltsin horrified by his capitulation to the West. Putin crushed it in what was Russia’s second most important city. Sources close to Putin in those days maintain that Putin’s role was driven by ideology rather than opportunism. Putin indeed believed in the supremacy of the Western way of life and considered Russia part of the White civilisation of the West rather than the brown and yellow ones in the East.
His successor Medvedev was no different, contrary to his stern anti-West social media posturing today. In fact, it was Medvedev that helped the West trap Iran diplomatically when he voted to send the Iranian nuclear file to the IAEA.
Putin’s second term was no different. He was instrumental in letting the no-fly zone implement in Libya. However, Gaddafi’s brutal murder shook him out of his stupor. It also helped that around this time the US and, by extension, NATO started reneging on several of the arms treaties that it had struck with Russia. Desperate, Putin finally started seeing merit in the proclamations of the Iranian Ayatollahs that “the West cannot be trusted.”
The situation in Syria where sectarian jihadists with the support from Sunni governments and the West were about to run over Damascus brought Iran and Russia on the same page. General Solemani personally flew to Moscow and asked for Russian air and armoured support. The cooperation since that day has reached a point of no return now – much to the West’s chagrin.
However, the Ukraine War has introduced cocaine to this mix. A few weeks into the war, the Russians realised that they needed to get cheaper means to strike the Ukrainian rear. Hitting it with missiles was a costly proposition and using unguided munitions was wasteful.
Iranian Shahed 131 and Shahed 136 drones are interesting weapons. These loitering munitions or suicide drones, as they are called in media parlance, are devastatingly effective. They bypass most radars because of their low thermal signature and small size. They carry around 50 kilos of payload and even if intercepted by a SAM, they just fall where they are leading to detonation. In short, Ukrainians, and by that extension NATO hacks, quickly realised that they had a quandary that was difficult to solve. Let it go unmolested and it will hit a military target and try to molest it and it falls on a civilian one, detonating nonetheless. Coupled with the old-generation Shahed 129 and Mohajer 6, the drones wrought as much destruction on the battlefield as they did on the morale of the NATO. It helped Russia get out of the quagmire quickly and, coupled with decoys and cruise missiles, created havoc upon the West-supplied arms and ammunition.
As far as Tehran is concerned, its motivations were manifold. As much destructive as Shaheds are, Iranians have now in their possession even deadlier drones. Its performance against NATO’s vaunted Electronic Warfare Systems and Surface-to-Air Missiles has rattled not only Tel Aviv and Riyadh but also Washington. One of the most iconic scenes of this war remains a video that shows a Shahed 131 directly hitting and destroying a Western EW system whose only job was to jam the drone.
Second, it is also a great advertisement for future sales. By its admission, Iran has received inquiries from as many as 12 countries for the sale of these drones. It will also draw attention to other weapons Iran is manufacturing. Once it is established that you are a serious player, orders start flowing in – openly and clandestinely.
However, the biggest benefit Iran drew was to wean Russia towards its corner. When the performance of the Shaheds and Mohajers was analysed in Moscow, it was concluded that there might be other solutions in the armoury of Iran that can help Kremlin’s chance in this war.
News has emerged through Western intelligence assets in Iran that the next in line is Zolfaghar and Fateh 110 short-range ballistic missiles. These missiles can carry far bigger payloads and tend to follow a quasi-ballistic trajectory. Like in the case of loitering munitions, these missiles are extremely difficult to intercept. Their destructive power is known to those who follow the regional conflict. Between 2017 and 2018, Zolfaghars thrice hit the Islamic State hideouts deep inside the mountains of Deir Ezzor in Syria. Whereas Fateh 110 was used to successfully destroy an Israeli Intelligence base in Erbil, northern Iraq, only last year. Apart from this, Houthis have been using Fateh 110 to devastating effect against the Saudis. Other smaller, unglamorous systems too are helping Russians fight the NATO. For example, the Iranian Ruyin-3 plate carrier & ACH body armour was seen being used by the Russians on the battlefield.
There are other areas of cooperation as well. Russia is desperate to know the ways through which Iran has managed to bypass the tough sanctions regime via an extensive network of overseas front companies to hide its economic activities from Western sanctions. Many a time, these companies operate in the countries that the US counts as allies such as UAE and Qatar. Iran has also offered Russia turbines for its refineries and extraction sites. In the areas of pharmaceuticals and construction materials, it can teach Moscow a few tricks of the trade. In other areas such as automobiles, they can cooperate to the benefit of both. Other areas of collaboration are also slowly emerging. Russia is integrating its Mir Payment System with the Iranian system. This will help them bypass sanctions. However, an even bigger area of cooperation is the hitherto moribund north-south trade route that connects Iran’s warm water southern ports to Russia. India might also stop dithering and join the project via Chabahar Port. Chinese also appear to be interested.
A few things have started to move. In an out-of-the-box arrangement, Tehran and Moscow struck an oil and gas exchange deal last month. Produces from the Russian refineries around the Caspian Sea regions have to take a long route to reach the Russian ports in the north. As its market shifts towards China and other countries in Africa and Asia, the route undermines the bottom line. Iran, on the other hand, has most of the oil & gas infrastructure in the south while most of its population stays in the north. The exchange deal means that the Russian oil and gas is now doing a minor hop across the Caspian Sea and serving Northern Iran while Iran is exporting the equivalent of the same in Russia’s name from its South. Other creative ideas are also in the pipeline.
However, is it just a one-way street? Not anymore. The Russian-Iranian military relationship has been fraught with Russian betrayals. The brief period of thaw that the two countries enjoyed following the death of Ayatollah Khomeini had seen frantic efforts by both the parties to finalise the sale of MIG-29 fighters. The deal was finalised but, right before the delivery, Yeltsin backed out under US pressure. Russia later became a signatory to the UN weapon embargo bill that restricted the sale of heavy weapons to Iran. While Iran used this pressure to create its own military industrial complex, some cutting-edge weaponry like fighter planes, bombers and SAMs proved to be beyond their means. In between, the Medvedev administration scuppered a deal to supply S-300 SAMs to Iran. When it was finally supplied during Putin’s second term, Iranian generals whispered that the Russians supplied the codes to jam these SAMs to the Israelis. This further increased the distrust.
However, after facing an existential crisis, Russia finally seems to have sense knocked into it. Diplomatically, it sided with Iran when the latter took countermeasures after the US unilateral withdrawal from the JCPOA. However, Tehran has let Moscow know that it is not enough. Russia needs to do tangible stuff to remain in the good books of Iran.
Russia has around 24 Su-35 fighters sitting in the hangers. They were made for the Egyptian Air Force but the deal was scuttled under US pressure. Iran’s obsolete air force needs those fighters. Reports from both Moscow and Tehran suggest that the deal is on and by the start of the next Iranian new year, which falls in March, we can see them at the IRGC base at Qadr in Tehran.
Su-35 is a potent machine. This Russian 4.5-generation air-superiority fighter possesses an excellent thrust-to-weight ratio, is super-manoeuvrable, can attack from very high angles and is supra-agile with Mach 2.25 maximum speed. R-73 missiles that come as part of the package are deadly weapons with over 75 per cent kill probability when used off-boresight.
This will mean that the West’s and Israel’s plan to strike the nuclear facilities in Iran would be an act of suicide. This is how military analyst Patarames explains it: “Iran is a very large country. Its critical objects for a strike are deep inside. It has created a potent, mobile, integrated air defence system in the last 20 years. Terrain-masking into Iran’s vast mountains means fuel-consuming low-altitude flight. So that is out of option. Su-35’s main sensor works in X-band and F-35, Israel and the US’ best bet, is designed to have the lowest RCS in this band. However, Iran’s IADS makes the difference here. Its VHF- to S-band sensors have no problems detecting a VLO/LO target like F-35. F-35 surprise deep strikes become more like one-way missions with Su-35 ready to chase down allowing interceptions at larger distances from Iran’s border leading to mission-kill.”
Once the Su-35 deal is concluded (not a surety as the US might once again dangle a carrot in front of the Russians that they might find irresistible), helicopters, tanks and various SAMs are next in line. Sources in Tehran say that Iran will likely offer 3rd Khordad SAMs to Russia in a barter deal involving the latter’s Buk-M2 SAMs. While the former excels in the area of a more reliable AESA radar, has LPI, covers more frequencies and is agile as it is mounted on small civilian trucks and can hit a target 75 kilometres away, the latter has a more powerful and larger PESA radar – armoured and tracked.
In other fields, Gazprom is planning to invest $40 billion in Iran’s oil and gas sector while the Russian nuclear agency has promised to construct the Sirik power plant. A proposal to entirely electrify Iran’s railways is also being financed by a Russian load amounting to $5 billion.
Clearly, things have started to move in a very fast manner. The existential crisis that both the countries face from the West has helped them overcome the trust deficit and come closer. However, it is still on weaker underpinnings. The ball is in Russia’s court. It needs to give a clear message that it can be trusted. Failing which, its survival shall be difficult.
Saurabh Kumar Shahi has covered The Greater Middle East for over 15 years and has reported from Kabul, Peshawar, Baghdad, Aleppo, Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem among other places.