The sale of Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets to Iran saw limited coverage in Russia. This semi-covert approach to military transfers between the two countries has become established practice. The announcement that the deal was concluded was not made in Moscow or Tehran, but by the Iranian mission to the UN that stated: "The Sukhoi-35 fighter planes were found to be technically acceptable to Iran and Iran has finalized a contract for their purchase."
Su-35 fighter plane (Source: Iran.ru)
The deal has long been in the works. The Russian outlet Avia.pro cited a Bulgarian military publication in reporting last December that Iranian pilots have already begun training on Su-35 fighters. According to that report, Iran was the only country interested in acquiring 24 fighter jets, originally ordered by Egypt. The Egyptians, citing technical problems, had pulled out of the deal.
Another Russian publication reported in February that the delivery of 24 planes will begin in mid-March 2023, provided Russia itself did not require the planes for fighting in Ukraine, and that Iran can produce the payment.
Russian newspaper "Izvestiya" cited the Iranian press agency IRNA on the deal and added that the groundwork for the deal was bolstered by talks between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and by Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev's visit to Iran to confer with his Iranian counterpart Ali Shamkhani.
Two publications, "Vzglyad" and "Voennoe Obozrenie" ("Military Review") broke with the low-key laconic approach and discussed the deal in detail. Both journals noted that the sale represented a major boost to Iranian airpower, given the obsolete aircraft currently fielded by the Iranians.
However, the "Voennoe Obozrenie" piece primarily viewed the sale as a shot in the arm to Russian arms exports. It detailed the history of orders of the planes: "The Su-35 multipurpose fighter jet was developed in the 2000s and first got off the ground in February of 2008. Already in 2009 the first contract for serial production of these vehicles was signed: the Russian Aerospace Forces [VKS] ordered 48 aircraft. This order was fulfilled in 2015, and the VKS soon contracted another 50 aircraft. Deliveries were completed in 2020. A possibility of additional orders was mentioned."
It continued: "Since its introduction, the Su-35 has been actively promoted on the international market, and in the mid-2010s this process yielded the first results. In late 2015, for example, the first foreign order was received. China purchased 24 aircraft at a total cost of about 2.5 billion USD. The delivery was split into several batches, the last of which was supplied in the autumn of 2018."
The article then mentioned two deals aborted in 2018, with Egypt and Indonesia, and summarized: "Thus, to date, the Su-35s have been delivered to only one foreign country; it received 24 aircraft. A new contract has been signed with Iran for an unknown number of aircraft. Two more contracts for 35 vehicles were cancelled due to the actions of a third party. In fact, these were unfair competitive steps and attempts to free the market for U.S. products. Be that as it may, the Su-35 is still on the market and may find new buyers."
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The recent sale to Iran, therefore, broke a long drought in sales of the plane. The article concluded on an upbeat note: "This contract again demonstrates that the Su-35 multipurpose fighter jet is of interest to foreign customers and can find a buyer. The vehicle is capable of demonstrating the desired commercial results, even under pressure by third party countries, amidst sanctions and other detracting factors."
It is superfluous to note that given the huge cost of developing new combat aircraft, a high volume of sales helps reduce the unit cost. The Su-35's sales record can be compared to sales of the American F-35. There are 875 F-35s in service today and that number will soon be augmented by new contracts with NATO members rushing to modernize their air forces following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
In contrast, an article in "Vzglyad," titled "Russian Fighter Jets Will Be a Game Changer in The Middle East," ventured beyond the commercial aspect. The introduction to the article stated:
"The sensational news was announced by official sources in Iran — it is alleged that Moscow agreed to sell Su-35 fighters to Tehran. If this information is correct, the Russian military-industrial complex will earn billions of dollars, Iran will have a powerful tool to counter Israel, and U.S. influence in the Middle East will decrease."
The article cited with satisfaction the alarm voiced by United States Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin, at a joint press conference with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant, over Iran's "growing strategic partnership with Russia."
This was followed by recounting the Su-35's stellar combat record, which, according to the article, was the primary factor in Iran's purchasing decision: "The Su-35s performed well during the counter-terrorist operation of the Russian Aerospace Forces in Syria. Furthermore, President Vladimir Putin called the performance of Russian aviation during the special military operation [SVO] in Ukraine very good... In other words, the Su-35 jets showcase the beauty and pride of the Russian defense industry, and are one of the most advanced fighters in the world at the moment." The Iranian military involved in the Syrian campaign had a chance to witness the plane's performance firsthand, it added.
"Vzglyad" salivated over the commercial implications: "Provided that the news [of the sale] is confirmed, this will signify a major achievement for the Russian arms trade system and will incur significant profits for domestic combat aircraft manufacturers. We could be talking about a deal worth billions of U.S. dollars."
The sale could also herald further military sales, it said, quoting flight instructor Major Andrey Krasnoperov: "'This deal is a good step in the further promotion of Russian military-industrial products to the Middle East, [...] especially if we assume that several dozen planes are supposed to be delivered, and the contract itself allows for additional purchases of vehicles. Besides, this means that Russia will train Iranian pilots. [...] We are talking about long-term programs, about enhanced cooperation between the countries.'"
Major Krasnoperov also claimed that the Su-35 is more than a match for competing American aircraft: "The Su-35 possesses good maneuverability and capabilities for waging aerial combat. For instance, there were cases when the F-16 jet tried to intercept it, but the Russian machine easily cut behind the American fighter."
Alexei Leonkov, Editor of "Arsenal of the Fatherland" magazine, told the publication he believes that the Iranian Su-35s will change the balance of power: "Iran possesses S-300 and Tor M1 SAMs. Now they can establish an integrated air defense system, where the Su-35 will be meeting the aggressor at the forefront. In addition, this fighter jet is called a 'hunter' for its capabilities of gaining air superiority. In general, Tehran's deal with Moscow changes the balance of power in the Middle East region and becomes a serious challenge for Israel. [...] Israel possesses F-16s and F-35s. They were buying them in order to keep the neighboring Middle Eastern countries, who have no response to a fifth-generation fighter, on a 'short leash. Iran will now have the Su-35s, which can 'see' further and are superior in maneuverability to the U.S. fighters," stressed Leonkov.
Beyond its military dimension, the deal has geopolitical implications. Rajab Safarov, Director General at the Center for the Study of Contemporary Iran explained: "This deal demonstrates that the Middle East is no longer unipolar. [...] Therefore, the delivery of the Su-35 to Iran can be perceived as one stage in strengthening the new Middle Eastern pole, as an alternative to the American one. [...] The delivery of fighter jets to Tehran demonstrates the decline of U.S. influence, both in the region and around the world. We witness China and Russia 'entering' the Middle East. The U.S. and its Israeli partner can no longer feel at ease on the border with Iran, as they used to, and will also be much more cautious in pursuing their desired policy in Yemen," opined Safarov.
Rajab Safarov (Source: Metronews.ru)