Iran is exporting a record number of its domestically-produced armed drones to Russia and will soon export its indigenous ballistic missiles to Moscow. A top Iranian general has also said that 22 countries are interested in buying Tehran’s drones. These developments seemingly suggest that Iran’s arms industry is on the cusp of boom time. However, it could also signify desperation on Tehran’s part.
According to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, Russia has ordered as many as 2,400 Shahed loitering munitions (so-called suicide or kamikaze drones) from Iran. While an enormous number, the drones are incredibly cheap, with one estimate claiming they cost a mere $20,000 each. If Russia is buying them for that price, then simple math suggests that the acquisition would cost Moscow as little as $48 million, although the price is probably higher since the deal could include support and other services.
Whatever Moscow is paying for this large number of loitering munitions is most likely a relatively minor figure compared to most arms sales. In 2019, for example, Ukraine ordered a mere six Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drones as part of a $69 million contract.
Russia also wants Iran’s Fateh-110 and Zolfaghar short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) with ranges between 186 and 435 miles, respectively. A large order of such missiles could give Russia some substitution for its arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles, which has reportedly dwindled, enabling it to sustain its bombardment of Ukrainian cities.
While Iranian weaponry is relatively cheap, making large purchases economical for the buyer (which is, incidentally, a point Russia has touted about its hardware in the past), Moscow appears to have turned to Tehran primarily out of desperation. Its purchase of large quantities of Iranian weaponry, and reportedly North Korean artillery, seemingly indicates Moscow is presently facing a situation not wholly unlike the one Iran faced in the 1980s when it was a pariah state fighting a desperate and depleting war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Going from a country desperately scouring the world for arms — and only getting some from other unpopular countries like Libya and North Korea — to one exporting its military hardware in bulk to a former superpower is undoubtedly a remarkable turnaround. At the same time, while Russia has arguably taken the place of 1980s Iran, Iran may have ironically taken the place of the former Soviet Union near the end. In those final years, the moribund Soviet Union was eager to dig itself out of a deep economic crisis by selling as much of its military hardware to anyone who could afford it.
Soviet officials offered Iran 72 MiG-29 Fulcrums, 24 MiG-31 Foxhounds, and 36 Su-24 Fencers shortly after the end of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). However, Iran, cash-strapped after eight debilitating years of war, could only afford 18 MiG-29s and 12 Su-24s. Tehran would also acquire S-200 air defense systems mere months before the Soviet Union finally collapsed in December 1991.
When Iranian President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani visited Moscow in 1989, Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev gave him a “blank check” for Soviet arms signed by the 12 members of the Soviet Politburo. “You write whatever armaments that you want and we shall provide it,” Iran’s last ambassador to the Soviet Union, Naser Nobari, later recalled the Soviets telling the visiting Iranian delegation. “As of today, this has been our country’s most important and biggest armaments deal since the revolution,” Nobari noted.
Several headlining-grabbing remarks from the Soviet delegation at the Paris Air Show in June 1991 also showed how desperate Moscow was to sell its military hardware.
Rostislav Belakov, head of the Mikoyan design bureau, announced Moscow’s willingness to sell MiG-31s to any country aside from Iraq.
“There are no more political barriers to our sales,” he declared. “If you have $40 million, we will sell you a MiG-31.”
“Offering the MiG-31 – which can fly at three times the speed of sound and is believed to have a radar unmatched in any Western fighter – to anyone who can afford it hardly seems appropriate just at the moment,” wrote Christoper Bellamy in the Independent that month. “But the Soviet Union’s desperate need for hard currency makes it anxious to export some of its most advanced and unique products – military hardware.”
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens was startled when Soviet Aircraft Industry Minister Apollon Systsov suggested that Israel could purchase the MiG-31. According to a Reuters report from the time, “Arens’ jaw visibly dropped” when Systsov told him, “With just three MiG-31s, you could protect all of Israel.”
While Systsov did clarify that such a sale could not commence without the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries, he was nevertheless confident that once ties were established, “we will be ready to sell Israel any defensive equipment it requires, and the MiG-31 is a solely defensive interceptor aircraft without bombing capacity.”
Soviet test pilot Valery Minitsky wanted to sweeten the prospect of a sale, telling Arens, “If you are willing to buy this aircraft, we will give you all the codes and operation procedures.”
Noah Shachar, the spokesperson for Israeli defense technology company Rafael at the time, said that a Soviet defense official had also offered to sell Israel the S-300 air defense missile system, then the most advanced system of its kind in Soviet service. The Soviet official claimed it was superior to the U.S. Patriot missile defense system that became well-known for its use in the Persian Gulf War earlier that year.
“We were obviously very surprised because the offer is the first of its kind ever made to us by Moscow, but the Soviets made clear in the meetings that everything [in their arsenal] is on the market,” Shachar said. Of course, Israel never became an importer of Soviet or Russian hardware.
It would not be all that surprising if something similar is happening today. Iran and Russia recently signed a new 20-year cooperation agreement. There is likely substantive technical-military cooperation going on between the two countries behind the scenes. As part of its broader cooperation arrangement, Iran may have offered technology transfers as part of its huge sale of SRBMs and drones – although the low-tech Shahed-136 does not look all that difficult to reverse engineer. Russia may soon supply Iran with Su-35 Flanker fighter jets, as has been speculated for months.
Years from now, we might even learn that Iran has given Russia a similar blank check to the one it received from the Soviets in an equally vain hope that Moscow can help it stave off terminal decline.