Last year, Russia surpassed the United States as the developing world’s leader in arms deals, according to a new report by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). But Russia has increased military shipments to anti-U.S. states like Iran and Venezuela, not to mention potential adversaries like China, which concerns U.S. policymakers far more. Experts say Iran—as well as Syria—may have transferred some of these small arms to groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. Also, Russia’s arms relationship with Iran, the thinking goes, further complicates efforts to impose punitive sanctions against Tehran for its alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons.
What kinds of arms does Russia sell to Iran?
Since 1992, Russia has sold Iran hundreds of major weapons systems, including twenty T-72 tanks, ninety-four air-to-air missiles, and a handful of combat aircraft like the MiG-29. Late last year, Russia agreed to sell Iran a $700 million surface-to-air missile defense system (SA-15 Gauntlet) along with thirty TOR M-1 air-defense missile systems, ostensibly to defend its soon-to-be-complete, Russian-built nuclear reactor at Bushehr. Moscow also plans to upgrade Tehran’s Su-24, MiG-29 aircraft, and T-72 battle tanks. Iran has shown interest in S-300 anti-aircraft missiles from Russia and Belarus, which can intercept enemy aircraft ninety to 180 miles away. Michael Eisenstadt, director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Military and Security Studies Program, says Iran is building up its naval presence. In April 2006, the Iranians claimed to have tested a high-speed torpedo—similar to the Russian-made VA-111 Shkval—capable of destroying large warships or submarines. Iran already fields China’s Silkworm anti-shipping missile and an array of mine technologies.
What is the history of Russian-Iranian arms sales?
After the fall of the Shah in 1979, the Islamic Republic of Iran sought to secure itself by purchasing conventional arms mainly from China, North Korea, and, despite prickly bilateral relations, the Soviet Union (under the Shah, its chief supplier had been the United States and Britain). In 1989, following the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Moscow and Tehran negotiated their first major arms deal along with agreements on scientific-technical cooperation, which included pledges of non-interference in each other’s domestic affairs. Relations soon improved. By the end of the 1990s, once Iran’s cooperation with North Korea had slowed, Russia emerged as Iran’s main supplier of conventional arms. Between 1995 and 2000, Russia suspended its advanced weapons trade with Iran as part of a voluntary agreement with the United States. The value of arms transfer agreements between the Iran and Russia ballooned from $300 million between 1998 and 2001 to $1.7 billion between 2002 and 2005.
What explains Russia’s emergence as Iran’s chief arms supplier?
Some analysts see a quid pro quo in place: Iran does not object to Russian interference in the predominantly Muslim Caucasus, while Russia refrains from agreeing to UN sanctions against Tehran. “However, for both parties, cooperation is driven as much by fear and mistrust as it is by opportunism and shared interests,” wrote Eisenstadt in a March 2001 Arms Control Today article. According to Wade Boese, research director of the Arms Control Association, a Washington-based think tank, “Russia, like the United States, sees arms sales as a potential means of influence [over its buyers].” Finally, Russia’s upsurge in arms sales with Iran is part of a concerted move by Moscow to expand its commercial reach to developing markets in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and Latin America.
Do Iran’s Russian-made arms pose a major security threat?
They could, experts predict. “Sales of advanced military equipment to Iran by Russia and others has been an issue of intense interest to U.S. policymakers for some time,” writes Richard F. Grimmett, author of the CRS report. “Iran appears to be interested in air-defense systems, which would pose a challenge to U.S. combat strikes in Iran,” Boese says. Not all experts agree. "It’s been a lot more smoke than fire,” says Eisenstadt. “In terms of Iranian air defenses, [the Iranians are] still pretty weak given the size of the land mass they have to defend.”
Does Iran funnel arms from Russia to terrorist groups?
It’s unclear. During its month-long war with Hezbollah last summer, Israel found Russian-made anti-tank weapons, including RPG-29s, which proved highly effective against Israel’s Merkava tanks. “It was largely the transfer of Iran’s military technology and its asymmetric capabilities to Hezbollah that made it difficult for the high-tech-oriented Israeli military to ‘eradicate’ the fighting capabilities of that organization during the thirty-four-day war in July-August,” writes Ehsan Ahrari, CEO of Strategic Paradigms, a Virgina-based defense consultancy, in the Asia Times. Most experts, however, say these rocket-propelled grenades were likely transferred to Hezbollah by Syria, not Iran. “It is very difficult for those of us looking from the outside to say with any certainty that Iran bought weapons from Russia and sold them to Hezbollah,” says Matthew Schroeder, manager of the Federation of American Scientists’ Arms Sales Monitoring Project. Part of the problem, he says, is that much of Russia’s weaponry is widely proliferated, meaning that dozens of countries have imported it, and a number of them have produced their own variants, with and without Russia’s consent. End-user agreements typically prohibit states from transferring arms to third parties; moreover, states are prohibited from funneling arms to Hezbollah by UN Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in 2004. Interestingly, experts point out that a major weakness in Hezbollah’s capabilities demonstrated last summer was the group’s lack of sophisticated air-defense missiles.
How important is the Iranian market to Russia’s arms dealers?
Not very, experts say, especially when compared to Russia’s arms sales to China and India, which account for approximately two-thirds of Russia’s arms shipments (Russia recently completed a deal to sell Beijing thirty Il-76TD transport aircraft and eight aerial refueling tankers, worth more than $1 billion). “Although Russia may see Iran as an attractive arms customer, I don’t think we should inflate how important this market is to Russia,” Boese says. Schroeder agrees that China and India remain Russia’s most important customers. “If they lose them, they’re in trouble,” he says, but adds that Russia’s “deals with Iran are pretty significant. We’re talking hundreds of millions of dollars.”
How has Moscow’s arms sales to Iran affected U.S.-Russian relations?
They have added to already-strained relations, experts say. “As the U.S. focuses increasing attention on Iran’s efforts to enhance its nuclear as well as conventional military capabilities, major arms transfers [from Russia] continue to be a matter of concern [among U.S. policymakers],” writes Grimmett in the CRS report. For their part, the Russians claim the arms they sell Iran are used for self-defense. “They see the United States as trying to diminish Russian arms sales and marketplace competition,” Boese says. The trick from the Russians’ perspective, adds Eisenstadt, “is to strike a balance in their foreign policy—supporting an Iran that can tie the U.S. down while not creating a Frankenstein that can threaten their own interests.”
Does Russia’s arms trade make efforts to sanction Iran more difficult?
“It makes it harder but not impossible,” Boese says of efforts to enlist Russian support for sanctions. “Moscow clearly has other cooperation with Iran that it sees as much more important than conventional arms sales and there is the general concern about embracing language or actions that could be seen as paving the way for U.S. military action against Iran.” The larger issue for Moscow, he adds, is Bushehr and protecting Russia’s financial stake there. Eisenstadt agrees, while adding that “there are more fundamental principles at stake here: the Russians want to delegitimize sanctions as an instrument of international diplomacy because they’ve been used against Moscow in the past.”
What leverage does the U.S. have to limit Russian arms sales to Iran?
Not much. “Part of the problem, in general, is there are no legal prohibitions to selling conventional weapons,” Boese says, only voluntary—and thereby unenforceable—export-control regimes like the Missile Technology Control Regime or the Wassenaar Arrangement. Russia has come under criticism from the U.S. State Department for its lax compliance with these agreements. On its arms sales to Iran, “I imagine behind closed doors there are negotiations in Washington about it,” Schroeder says, but adds that—like U.S. efforts to dissuade Russia from selling arms to Venezuela, including $3 billion of jet fighters and Kalashnikov assault rifles—they are unlikely to succeed. The United States can also sanction Russian entities for their alleged proliferation transactions with Iran. In total, the White House has slapped sanctions on six Russian firms for delivering arms-related materials to Iran, the most recent being Rosoboronexport and Sukoi this past September. Experts say these kinds of sanctions have little impact. Finally, the Russians might be willing to rescind their arms trade with Iran, says Eisenstadt, in exchange for American promises to block NATO expansion eastward and to “stop meddling in [Russia’s] near-abroad,” something Washington appears unwilling to do.