The UN has lifted its thirteen-year old arms embargo on Iran. Danish investigative media Danwatch and Zamaneh Media have been investigating who has been selling weapons to Iran during the arms embargo and who is likely to do so in the future.
By Charlotte Aagaard with Farzad Seifikaran and Nasim Roshanaei
Research: Sandra Blenner Rasmussen, Infographic: Johan Seidenfaden
State-of-the-art fighter jets, modern tanks and the best air defense system in the world.
These are some of the sophisticated weapon systems on Iran’s wish list when given the opportunity to trade more freely in the global arms market.
For thirteen years, a UN embargo has prevented Iran from buying major arms and sophisticated military equipment but on 18th of October 2020 the embargo was lifted.
For the first time in decades, Iran now has the opportunity to buy everything from tanks to fighter jets, which especially Russia and China are ready to deliver.
👉🏽 About this investigation
For the past thirteen years, Iran has been subject to a UN arms embargo, but on October 18th 2020 it was over. Danwatch and the Iranian exile media Zamaneh have been investigating who has been selling military equipment to Iran during the embargo and talked to experts about the possible outcome of lifting the embargo.
Especially American experts have been alarmed by Iran’s ability to buy sophisticated weapons warning that it might spark a new arms race in the Middle East.
One of these experts is Ilan Berman, vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council and a former adviser to several U.S. governments as well as the CIA.
“Iran will have the opportunity to buy weapons systems and so-called dual-use equipment on the open market, which will trigger a new arms race in the Middle East. If Iran rearms the country’s opponents, especially Israel and Saudi Arabia will do the same to make sure they can defend themselves against a possible Iranian attack” he says.
A number of European experts on Iran and Middle East security believe however that the risk of a significant Iranian rearmament is exaggerated.
Both the EU and the US have arms embargoes in place that will prevent Iran from acquiring advanced weapons systems from Western arms manufacturers, they say. And in addition, Iran’s economic crisis will hamper the dream of a major shopping spree.
“Lifting the UN embargo will give Iran an option to buy sophisticated weaponry from Russia and China but it will not allow Iran to shop freely on the international arms market in the foreseeable future”, says Iran specialist Ellie Geranmayeh from the reputed think tank European Council on Foreign Relations (EFCR)
She expects that Russia and China might sign some agreements on future deliveries of more sophisticated weapons to Iran, but abstain from delivering the equipment.
“Neither Russian nor Chinese state companies will dare being sanctioned by the US,” she says referring to the US embargo that includes so called secondary sanctions against foreign companies selling arms to Iran.
Friends of the past
An investigation into Iran’s arms procurement conducted by Danwatch and the Iranian exile media Zamaneh reveals that Russia and China have been the main suppliers of advanced military equipment to Iran during the UN arms embargo.
Among the equipment that Russia has been supplying to the Islamic government of Iran are ground attack aircrafts, a sophisticated air defence system, surface-to-air missiles, short range air-to-air missiles and a mobile surface-to-air missile system.
- To see the infographic of major arms procurement, click here
Also Russian air search radars have found their way to Iran along with several types of anti tank missiles, parts for infantry fighting vehicles and some portable air search radars, originating in Belarussia, a close ally of Russia.
The second largest supplier to Iran is China, that has been contributing with technology transfers for a number of advanced missile systems allowing Iran to build its quite extensive missile capability, comprising a number of different military missiles types with a range up to 3.000 kilometers according to American intelligence agency DIA.
Also the Iranian army has benefited from chinese technology transfers making Iran able to produce a large number of armoured personnel carriers, according to SIPRI.
A substantial wish list
According to the SIPRI-researcher 96 percent of Iran’s arms imports in 2014–18 came from Russia and the rest from China and this pattern is likely to continue.
“Iran is keen to require new equipment and now when the embargo is lifted, China and Russia will be able to supply Iran with the major weapons it wants.” says Pieter D. Wesemann.
According to other experts Iran’s wishlist does worry the country’s adversaries in the Middle East as well as those being afraid of Iran developing a nuclear capability.
According to press reports Iran hopes to procure the S-400 air defense system from Russia as well as the as the Sukhoi 30 SM fighter jet, an advanced fighter plane which according to military experts is a match to the ultramodern Joint Strike Fighter produced by the US and procured by many allies.
Also the chinese Chengdu J-10 multirole fighter jet is on the wishlist of the Iranian air force, being able to carry a lot of different bombs and missiles.
Iran also has its eye set on new additions to it indiginous procused missile arsenal. Among the systems that Iran has been looking at is the Russian Tor M2 short-range surface-to-air missile system designed for destroying airplanes, helicopters, cruise missiles, precision guided munitions, unmanned aerial vehicles and short-range ballistic threats.
Another is the Russian Pantsir missile system, a family of self-propelled, medium-range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft artillery systems.
And for the army Iran is looking to acquire the modern RussianT90 M tanks which is described by experts as “head and neck higher than previous tanks and its class.”
The one thing that might prevent Russia and China from actually delivering on Iran’s wishes is the unilateral embargo imposed by president Trump in September 2020 in defiance of the UN planning to go through with the planned lifting of the thirteen year old UN-embargo.
The unilateral US embargo is designed to prevent US as well as foreign companies from supplying or in any other way assisting Iran’s nuclear, ballistic missile, and conventional weapons pursuits.
And it will definitely scare most countries from exporting military equipment to Iran, experts say.
The embargo is part of the so called “maximum pressure” policy that the Trump administration has been adhering to since the US left the nuclear deal with Iran in 2018.
“The United States will not allow the Iranian regime to further advance capabilities to directly threaten and terrorize the rest of the world. My administration will use every tool at our disposal to stop Iran’s nuclear, ballistic missile, and conventional weapons pursuits,” as president Trump put it when introducing the unilateral arms embargo
The aim of the embargo is to keep Iran’s military strength firmly below that of US allies in the Middle East according to experts.
“From a US perspective Iran is the most destabilising country in the Middle East and in outright opposition to its most important strategic allies in the region; Israel and Saudi Arabia,” Ellie Geranmayeh of ECFR says.
“The US aim is to keep Iran at a clear disadvantage by denying Iran access to sophisticated weapons.”
Also the EU is worried about Iran’s role as a destabilasing factor i the Middel East and its missile programme- Since 2007 the EU had its own embargo on arms export in place prohibiting “the supply, sale or transfer to Iran of all arms and related materiel” to the Islamic republic.
The embargo has been preventing European companies from selling arms to Iran and will likely remain in place also after it is due to expire in 2023, according to experts.
Naysan Rafati, Iran senior analyst with the International Crisis Group think tank says that the EU is somehow caught in the middle trying to limit Iran’s procurement of sophisticated weapons and at the same time salvaging the nuclear deal reached in 2015 after a decade of negotiations.
“The EU is trying to provide some of the dividend that Iran was expecting from the nuclear deal and at the same time hoping to prevent an renewed arms race in the Middle East making Russia and China abstain from any major arms sales to Iran, either officially or unofficially”, he says.
The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JPCOA) was signed by the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, Germany and Iran imposing strict control of Iran’s nuclear programme. But in 2018 the US withdrew from the deal imposing unilateral trade sanctions on Iran that have made European trade with Iran plummet and the nuclear agreement on life support.
Pushing Iran to the East
The experts that Danwatch and Zamaneh have spoken to agree that continued US and EU sanctions will push Iran into an even closer alliance with Russia and China in the future.
“The embargoes are pushin Iran into the arms of Putin and Xi Jinping. This has been the case so far and this is still the case,” says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, senior Iran expert at the british Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI).
“When every other ally is closed this will be the only option left for Iran.”
The most likely deal to be signed in the near future is Iran’s purchase of the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft weapon system, which according to SIPRI researcher Siemon Wezeman is one of the most advanced air defense systems available.
As the S-400 is a defensive system such a deal might be less controversial than any offensive weapons system finding its way to Iran.
According to the expired UN-embargo certain defensive weapon systems were allowed, but it seems not to be the case according to the recently imposed US embargo.
“Iran would surely like to purchase the S-400 air defense system from Russia but it might take awhile to deliver. The previous S-300 delivery took a decade and happened during the UN embargo, which was possible because that embargo excludes defensive weaponry”, Ellie Geranmayeh says suggesting that Russia might follow “a similar line now.”
Massive investments underway
Also China seems keen to expand its cooperation with Iran.
Four years ago China offered Iran a 25 year strategic cooperation agreement with Iran, which according to a leaked draft includes everything from increased trade and oil purchases to massive investment in Iranian infrastructure.
The deal is being described as a landmark expansion of bilateral relations between the two strategic partners comprising massive chinese investment in Iranian “railways, ports, energy, industry, commerce and services”, as a joint press release from the Iranian and Chinese governments have stated.
The details of the agreement are unclear, but experts expect it to include military cooperation like sharing of military bases, transfer of advanced military technology as well as arms sales.
“The chinese offer is substantial and likely to include military cooperation as well as investments in infrastructure and trade,” says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi of RUSI.
Chinese aid can also be expected to help bolster the Iranian regime’s hold on power.
More than a decade ago, Chinese tech conglomerates played a crucial role in assisting Iran’s government in reasserting domestic control in the wake of the 2009 “Green Movement.”
And this activity and assistance has persisted, despite U.S. sanctions, according to US Iran-specialist Ilan Berman.
👉🏽 The UN arms embargo on Iran
In 2006 the UN Security Council imposed an arms embargo on Iran, which banned the export to and import from Iran of certain items and technology potentially related to nuclear weapons or delivery systems. Included in the ban was ballistic missile systems, space launch vehicles and sounding rockets, unmanned aerial vehicle systems, cruise missiles, target drones and reconnaissance drones capable of delivering at least a 500 kg payload to a range of at least 300 km.
In 2007 the UN Embargo was tightened to include an embargo on the export from Iran of all arms and related materials, thereby banning all states and groups from purchasing or receiving arms from Iran. In 2010 the embargo was amended to prohibit the supply of major conventional weapons battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, certain missiles and missile launchers. THe bean included spare parts, assistance and maintenance of the same items.
Not included in the ban were some weapons including larger land based Surface to Air Missile systems and most Small Arms and Light Weapons.
In 2015 when Iran signed the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also known as the nuclear agreement, the embargo was relaxed, allowing all member states to supply major conventional arms to Iran after receiving a case-by-case approval from the Security Council.
In 2020, on October 18th, the UN embargo on Iran was lifted. Until 2023 all transfers of goods and technology that could contribute to the development of nuclear weapons must still be approved by UNSC on a case-by-case basis.
Source: SIPRI: UN arms embargoes on Iran
Iran in defiance
As this investigation shows Iran does not respect any of the international arms embargoes and have consistently attempted to procure missile technology and other military equipment from Russia, China and at least five European countries.
A modus operandi that Iran is expected to continue, according to experts.
“Iran does not recognize the sanctions, so it is only natural that they will try to find a way around them”, says Ellie Geranmayeh.
“Oil exports might be more important to Iran than arms, but surely Iran will try to obtain the same advanced technology that European companies have been delivering to Iran’s adversaries Israel and Saudi Arabia during the years“.
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi fron RUSI agrees and predicts that Iran will also succeed.
“Iran will probably continue trying to breach the embargo. European export control regimes are quite strict, but no embargo will ever hold 100 percent”, says Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, senior Research Fellow at the International Security Studies department at RUSI.
Iran’s economic situation
From an Iranian perspective the continued arms embargoes are only one of many obstacles to the procurement of sophisticated military hardware.
The general trade embargo that the US imposed in 2018 is targeting all kinds of foreign companies doing business with Iran, making it virtually impossible to find an international bank willing to facilitate financial transactions with the Iranian state or Iranian companies.
The result is a rapidly developing economic crisis in Iran.
According to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) Iran’s oil revenues have declined to just 19 billion dollars in 2019 down from 110 billions dollar in 2011.
According to the U.N. Conference on Trade and Development, foreign direct investment in Iran has also declined to a mere 1,5 billions dollars in 2019. The amount is down from five billion dollars in 2017 leaving Iran with the lowest level of direct foreign investment in nearly two decades.
Experts believe that the economic crisis will also limit Iran’s purchasing power on the global arms market, even if Iran so far has prioritized defense spending in spite of the economic crisis.
“The economic crisis that Iran is facing will of course have an impact on procurement, but during sanctions Iran’s defense spending has been quite constant”, says Ellie Geranmayeh.
“So far the Iranian government has prioritised defense spending over other expenditures, making the country able to develop quite an extraordinary indiginous missile capability”, she says.
Predicting the future
Decades of sanctions and international isolation has made Iran develop a socalled asymmetric defence strategy consisting of a significant missile capability, which came to the test in january, when a US drone killed the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps elite forces general Qasem Sulaimani.
The attack was retaliated by Iran attacking the American Ain al-Asad base in neighbouring Iraq, killing no one but injuring more than 100 US servicemen.
Iran also supports, trains and arms a number of loyal proxy forces in friendly Middle Easterns countries, Hezbollah of Lebanon and the Popular Mobilization Forces or Hashd al-Shaabi of Iraq being the most famous.
Beside conventional army, air force and naval forces Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps are running a parallel military structure comprising among other forces of a socalled “guerilla” navy based on small vessels and speed boats patrolling the Persian Gulf and a significant cyber warfare capability, that has been used to attack Iran’s adversaries, among them US banks and Israeli water supplies.
The latest branch on the asymmetric military tree is the development of a military drone programme according to experts and intelligence reports.
Large scale shopping out of reach
In the long term Iran will want to bring its military capabilities up to standard after decades of modernizing and amending and copying old military equipment, experts agree.
“Iran is keen to require new equipment”, says Pieter Wisemann from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
“It will most likely be looking for items to improve its armed forces, to strengthen its defence and to improve its prestige”.
But experts also agree that for the foreseeable future large scale shopping on the global arms market is neither likely nor possible.
“US intelligence is warning that Iran will go on a shopping spree once the arms embargo is lifted, buying tanks, fighter aircrafts and other major weapons but the Iranian economy is not in great shape so we might not see any huge orders signed – at least not in the immediate future” says Naysan Rafati from the International Crisis Group.
He does however predict that Iran might sign Memos of Understanding with Russia and China about future deliveries.
Ellie Geranmayeh from the European Council of Foreign Relations stresses that Iran will want to catch up with its main adversaries in the Middle East who have been free to build their military arsenals, outgunning Teheran on all parameters.
“The US and Europe have been arming Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE heavily in the last years. The arms race genie has already left the bottle and Iran will want to follow to keep up with the advanced technology their adversaries have acquired as soon as it is possible”, she says.
Waiting for Biden
The financial crisis in Iran is sure to affect the ability to procure everything ton the Iranian wishlist, experts are stressing.
“It is unlikely that Iran will have the financial capacity to buy a large quantity of major weapons” Pieter D. Wesemann from SIPRI says.
“Iran might buy two or three eskadrons of modern combat aircrafts, but I think that will be it for now”, he says warning that when talking about “massive” Iranian rearmament “it is all in the eye of the beholder.”
“Saudi Arabia is in the process of buying 150 modern combat aircrafts at the moment and I don’t think Iran will come anywhere near those figures. Iran might buy 30 which is nothing compared to 150”, he says.
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi from Royal United Services Institute predicts that Iran as well as potential suppliers will wait for the result of the upcoming US elections before taking any decisive steps.
“All parties will wait and see what happens on november 3rd. If Joe Biden wins the American elections the whole Iran game might change” she says.
According to an op ed at CNN the Democratic candidate wants the US to reenter the nuclear agreement with Iran, opening the door to the lifting of at least some of the many US sanctions on Iran.
“Most sanctions are imposed by executive orders that can easily be ignored by a future president, but he might face political problems in Congress, especially if the Republicans will have the upper hand in Senat” says Ellie Geranmayeh.
Also Iran is waiting to see who will be in The White House after on the 21st of January 2021 when the next US president takes office.
“Iran has reacted quite moderately so far. The strong opposition in the UN Security Council against a continuation of the UN embargo, as proposed by the US, has shown Iran that there are many countries trying to salvage the nuclear deal” says Naysan Rafati from International Crisis Group.
“Biden has said on CNN, that he wants the US to rejoin the nuclear agreement and Iran expects that to employ lifting the sanctions.”
Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi from RUSI agrees.
“The nuclear deal has been hanging by a thread since 2018, when the US left the agreement. But a lot of countries including Iran want to keep it alive. Just now everybody is waiting to know who wins the American election. If Biden wins Iran expects a more positive approach which will be in its favor” she says.
“If Biden wins it is not a happy go lucky for everyone, but it might bring an end to hostilities towards Iran and therefore a more peaceful situation.”
Iran’s military forces – an overview
👉🏽 Artesh – Iran’s Regular Defence Forces
▪️ Islamic Republic of Iran َArmy Ground Force (IRIGF)
Force type: Regular army
Role: Iran’s first line of defense against an invading force.
Equipment: A 50 combat arms brigades, many of which are light infantry units with a sizable contingent of armored and mechanized infantry units. The army has its own special operations units and helicopter force.
Commander: Brigadier General Kiomars Heidari
Recent theaters: Syria
▪️ Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF)
Force type: Conventional
Strength: 37.000 (Now strength: 52.000)
Role: Operates the majority of Iran’s combat aircraft as well as multiple combat, transport, and tanker squadrons across 11 major fighter bases.
Equipment: U.S. F-14 Tomcat, F-4 Phantom II and F-5 Tiger II; Russian MiG-29 Fulcrum and Su-24 Fencer; and Chinese F-7 Airguard
Commander: Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh
▪️ Islamic Republic of Iran Navy (IRIN)
Role: Protection of the Gulf of Oman and Caspian Se, safeguarding the flow of commerce in the region from piracy and interdiction, out of area operations and naval diplomacy in the region and beyond.
Equipment: Smaller and larger surface ships, eight corvettes, coastal defense cruise missiles (CDCMs), naval mines, surface combatants and 16 submarines.
Commander: Rear Admiral Hossein Khanzadi,
Recent theaters: Counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and the Persian Gulf
▪️ Islamic Republic of Iran Air Defense Force
Role: Part of ‘’Khatam Al-anbia Air Defence Force’’ of IRGC and military branch split from IRIAF that controls Iran’s military land-based air defense established in 2008.
Commander: Brigadier General Alireza Sabahifard
👉🏽 The Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps
▪️ Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Corps Ground Force (IRGCGF)
Role: Counter ground invasion and internal unrest,
Equipment: 31 provincial corps and a Tehran city corps consisting of primarily light infantry and commando units. Has its own artillery and helicopters
Commander: Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpur
Recent theaters: Syria, Iraq, Iran
▪️ Revolutionary Guards Corps, Quds Force:
Force type: Elite force
Strength: 3.000 till 5.000+
Role: financial, training and materiel support to regional Shia militant groups ideologically aligned with Iran
Commander: Major General Esmail Ghaani
Recent theaters: Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afgnaistan, Bahrain, Palestinian Terrritories
▪️ Islamic Republic Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Force (IRGCASF)
Role: Controls Iran’s missile program (Al-Ghadir Missile Command (AGMC), primary operator of Iran’s growing fleet of UAVs
Equipment: A substantial inventory of close-range ballistic missiles (CRBMs), short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) that can strike targets throughout the region up to 2,000 kilometers from Iran’s borders, as far as Israel and southeastern Europe.
Commander: Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh.
Recent theaters: Iraq, Syria
▪️ Islamic republic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy (IRGCN).
Role: Responsible for protection of the Persian Gulf and the Iranian coast.
Strength: 20.000 (Now 23.000)
Equipment: Hundreds of small, fast attack vessels armed with guns, rockets, torpedoes, and missiles.
Commander: Rear Admiral Alireza Tangsiri.
Recent theaters: Persian Gulf
▪️ Basij – Organization of the Oppressed
Role: Iran’s voluntary reserve paramilitary force tasked to counter internal threats and social outreach. It is a core part of the regime’s internal security apparatus used to quell domestic unrest.
Strength; 450.000 plus 500.000+ inactive members
Commander: Brig. Gen. Gholamreza Soleimani
Recent theaters: Iran and Syria
👉🏽 Other forces:
Iran’s regular military and the IRGC also command each of their special operations forces and intelligence services.
Source: US Defense Intelligence Agency, DIA, 2019