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Jul 13, 2023

Iran Paid for Su-35 Jets, But Russia Won’t Deliver Them

Earlier this month, Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, Iran’s air force commander, ended weeks of speculation about the imminent delivery Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. “Regarding the purchase of Su-35 fighter jets [from Russia], we need them, but we do not know when they will be added to our squadron. This is related to the decision of [Iran’s] high-ranking officials,” he stated in an interview on state TV.

Vahedi's comments sparked speculation about dysfunction in the Russia-Iran partnership, including that Israel had successfully convinced Russia to postpone delivery of the advanced fighter jets to Iran.

While officials in Tehran continue to pursue a partnership with Russia, it is increasingly clear that Russian officials see their relationship with Iran as little more than a card that can be played according to their needs.

Russia’s potential sale of Su-35 jets to Iran has been connected to the deeper military cooperation between the two countries since the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. Iranian drones are being used by Russian forces to bomb Ukrainian cities. The first drones were transferred from Iran to Russia around one year ago.

But Iran has been waiting for far more than a year to receive the Su-35, which would prove a major upgrade in capabilities for Iran’s aging air force, largely comprised of American jets in service since before the 1979 revolution.

According to one current and one former diplomat with direct knowledge of the matter, Iran made “full payment” for 50 Su-35 fighter jets during the second term of President Hassan Rouhani. The officials requested anonymity given the sensitivity of Iran’s arms purchases. According to the former diplomat, at the time of purchase Russia had promised to deliver the Su-35s in 2023. Neither source expects that the deliveries will be made this year.

A third source, a security official, speaking on background, expressed disappointment that Vahedi’s “uncoordinated interview” had called attention to the fact that the deliveries were now in doubt. Iranian officials feel embarrassment over Russia’s failure to adhere to commitments.

The delay in the delivery could be traced to the strong relationship between Russia and Israel. In June, Axios reported that Israeli officials confronted Russian counterparts over Russia’s growing military cooperation with Iran and the possibility of Russia providing Iran advanced weapon systems.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disclosed the “open and frank” dialogue with Russian officials in a closed-door hearing with Israeli lawmakers on June 13.

In the view of the former diplomat, due to their arrogance, Iranian hardliners “fell into the trap” of believing that they were an equal partner to Russia, simply because “the Russians are queuing up to buy arms from them.”

The drone transfers have contributed to Iran’s political isolation, giving Western officials the impression of deepening cooperation between Russia and Iran, even as the Iranian Foreign Ministry continues to claim that Iran remains a neutral party in the Ukraine war.

According to the security official, neutrality remains the consensus position of the Supreme National Security Council, but he warned that country’s military brass may not share that same view.

Notwithstanding the ambitions of Iranian generals, Russia continues to treat Iran far worse than an ally. Earlier this week, Russia issued a joint statement with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), affirming the United Arab Emirate’s claims on three Iranian islands: the Greater Tunb, the Lesser Tunb, and Abu Musa.

The statement enraged Iranian officials. Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to Iran’s Supreme Leader, called Russia’s assent to the statement “a move borne of naivety.” Iran’s foreign minister and its government spokesperson stressed in statements that Iran will not tolerate claims on the three islands from any party. The officials had made such statements before—a China-GCC joint statement from December 2022 caused a similar public outcry.

As Iranian officials are forced to defend their ties with Russia once again, a question remains. Why does Iran have so little leverage over Russia, even after the Russian invasion of Ukraine? The answer lies in the mindset of Iranian officials.

Back in May, Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamanei, declared that “Dignity in foreign policy means saying no to the diplomacy of begging.” The slogan “diplomacy of begging” has become popular among conservatives and the hardliners, who have used it to condemn the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) and to accuse former Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif of begging the West for sanctions relief. But if begging the West for sanctions relief is wrong, why are hardliners eager to beg Russia for the Sukhoi jets?

Tehran’s ties with Moscow were never built on trust. They were built on mutual fears and mutual needs. Were the administration of President Ebrahim Raisi to realize that looking to the West does not preclude political and economic relations with Russia and China, Iran could strengthen its position in the Middle East and regain leverage in its relationship with Russia. Until then, the Russians will continue to look at their relationship with Iran as a nothing more than playing card.

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