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Geopolitics

Don't Underestimate Russian Influence Over Iran's Military

Russia's role in in Iranian affairs goes to the highest levels of its military and security structures. But will anyone in Iran dare question Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, in spite of the grave risks to the country's national security?

 A handout photo made available by the Iranian Army Press Office shows Iranian clerics watching during the second day of a military exercise in Makran sea, south of Iran, 08 November 2021

Iranian Army Military Exercise in Makran

Shahram Sabzevari

-Analysis-

LONDON — Several sources recently reported on the sale of 24 Russian Su-35 fighter jets to Iran. These were initially to be sold to Egypt, but that deal was thwarted by the threat of U.S. sanctions on Egypt. Since 15 of the planes were reportedly ready for delivery, they may be sent to the Iranian regime in early 2022.

Reports of sales of Russian commercial or military planes to Iran are not new, though some now qualify them as a consolation for Tehran to make amends for Russia's suspected approval of the strikes that have targeted Iranian Revolutionary guards bases, allied militias and Iranian war material in Syria.


In recent years, officials and media on both sides have admitted that the Russians were ultimately unwilling to face the risks involved in selling the Islamic Republic a range of planes. The promised sale of Russian Su-35 jets was previously reported in April 2016.

Past false promises of cooperation

Aliakbar Velayati, a foreign affairs adviser to Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, said then that Russia was willing to deliver Iran the planes, though months later other officials said otherwise.

Asadollah Asgaroladi, former head of the Iran-Russia Trade Chamber said at the time, "we were ready to buy the Sukhoi planes from the Russians. But they ignored us. They didn't sell, and made excuses. We really did want to buy, but they refused." He went further. The Russians, he said, were not investing in Iran "and have no interest in doing so."

Supreme Leader Khamenei's overall governance strategies, which include a Look East approach in foreign and economic policies, envisage increasing military collaborations with the Russians.

In March-April 2017 during a visit to Russia by former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, Vladimir Putin said that the two sides had discussed increasing cooperation in the building and export of planes, such as Sukhoi fighters, to Iran.

The Russians, from their president to aviation officials, have often made such promises. In October-November 2015, Andrei Boginsky, then Russian deputy-minister for trade and industry, said Iran and Russia would be discussing joint construction of Tupolev Tu-204 passenger planes in late December.

There were also promises on the joint construction of Sukhoi 100 passenger planes, though neither plan went through.

A handout photo made available by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) official website on 23 December 2021 shows the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) taking part in military exercises in three provinces around the Bushehr nuclear power plant, in southern Iran.

Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp Holds Military Exercises

Sepahnews / Zuma

Moscow's footprint

In 2015 at an air fair on the island of Kish, Russia promised to build helicopters in Iran. While Iranian officials consider Russia to be a strategic regime partner, practically all Russian promises relating to military cooperation have turned out to be hollow. The S-300 defensive system, which Russia delivered to Iran a decade later than agreed, has shown its limitations amid the Israeli strikes of recent years against strategic Iranian installations.

Nevertheless, Russia's footprints are unequivocal when it comes to exerting influence on the regime's armed forces and security agencies, as well as in the pro-Russian sympathies of senior Iranian officers.

The officers' affinities are unrelated to any prospects of boosting Iranian technology or military know-how. Instead, their connections are personal and ideological. Khamenei himself now expects so little of the Russians that he is satisfied with low-level training or joint maneuvers, or with sending a warship or a sporting team from the armed forces to Russia.

Is the regime effectively handing Iran's armies over to the Russians?

Indeed, the excuse of inspecting these low-level exercises has given the Russian ambassador in Tehran access to an army base. Dependence on Russia is even discernible in the emblems and symbols of the army of the Islamic Republic. With Khamenei's approval as commander-in-chief, in August 2021 cadets and graduates of the "Imam Ali University," or the Army's infantry academy, were given the Medal of Sacrifice (Neshan-e fadakari). This honors all selfless efforts to preserve Iran's independence and territorial integrity, though its red star is reminiscent of Soviet army insignia.

This is significant because very soon after the fall of the Iranian monarchy in 1979, leftist forces, including the communist Tudeh party, wanted the army dissolved. But developments including separatist unrest in parts of Iran and the Iraqi invasion of 1980 forced the revolutionary government to keep the army. However, it proceeded to cleanse it of all secular and nationalistic traits, turning it instead into an ideological instrument similar to the Revolutionary Guards.

A triangle between Syria and Israel

During the Syrian civil war of the last decade, an air force base in Hamadan in western Iran became a base for Russian planes and bombers. This was against the regime's constitution, but it happened with Supreme Leader Khamenei's approval. Again, contravening agreements signed between Iran and Russia in 1921 and 1940, Russia fired missiles toward Syria from ships in the Caspian Sea.

The Russians have long sought to infiltrate and undermine Iran's armed forces. Before the revolution, there was the famous case of General Ahmad Mogharebi, who was shot after he was found to have spied for the Soviets. The difference now is that while the monarchy bought armaments from the Soviet Union, it made every effort to thwart communist infiltration of its armed forces. Under this regime, there seem to be few checks on Russian agents operating inside the armed forces.

A threat to Iranian national security.

Is the regime effectively handing Iran's armies over to the Russians? Will anyone dare ask Khamenei why he is devoted to a Russian president who agreed to let the Israelis bomb Iranian and allied militia positions in Syria? Will any revolutionary general ask him who tells Israel which containers to strike in the port of Latakia?

Russia's influence at the highest levels of Iran's military and security structures is a threat to Iranian national security. Its sway is enough to change Ayatollah Khamenei's mind on blocking UN inspectorate cameras in Iranian nuclear installations. Did the Russians even tell Tehran to keep quiet about their agreement with the Israelis to intensify strikes on Iranian regime interests in Syria?

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