FILE PHOTO: Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif attends a news conference following a meeting with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Moscow, Russia September 24, 2020. Russian Foreign Ministry/Handout via REUTERS

October 26, 2020

Iranian weapons exports will have lasting effects on regional dynamics

[Notice: The Critical Threats Project frequently cites sources from foreign domains. All such links are identified with an asterisk (*) for the reader's awareness.]

The Iranian regime’s exportation of weapons may have a larger effect on regional dynamics than its military procurement following the expiration of the UN arms embargo. Much discussion of the end of the 13-year UN arms embargo, which expired on October 18, has focused on Iran’s ability to buy advanced defense systems and weapons such as fighter jets and tanks. The embargo’s expiration has also created an opportunity for Iran to sell domestically produced weapons, however. Senior Iranian military officials are *promising to sell more weapons than they buy.

Ideological and budgetary restrictions may limit Iran’s procurement from Russia and China. Iran’s foreign ministry has recently negotiated deals with both *Russia and *China that likely include weapons sales. The official responsible for Iran’s defense industries said Iran will aim to *be a net exporter of weapons, however. Iran faces unprecedented economic constraints; the rial is valued at historic lows, and Iran’s foreign currency reserves are dwindling.

Beyond the economic constraints, Iranian leaders also perceive a *self-sufficient defense industry as a key investment to make Iran immune to US and international pressure. Senior military officials *unanimously *maintain *that Iran does not need to buy weapons abroad and frame domestically produced weapons as a symbol of national pride and resilience to US-led international pressure.

The emphasis on domestic production also reflects past sensitivities with Iran’s attempts to procure advanced weapons systems from Russia. Iranian officials weathered a nearly decade-long legal battle before Russia finally delivered S-300 air defense systems to Iran. Russian President Vladimir Putin later refused to sell the more advanced S-400 system to Iran in May 2019. The Russian ambassador to Iran *said for the first time that Russia will consider proposals from Iran to buy the S-400 in October, but the military advisor to the Supreme Leader *rejected the idea just days later. Russia’s flaky commitment to delivering air defense systems to Iran in the past could sour future air defense deals. Alternately, this open refusal to buy the S-400 could be a negotiation tactic to get Russia to lower its hefty price tag.

Iranian officials will try to make a net profit with exports by capitalizing on their expanding domestic defense industry. Iran *invested in its defense industry after the arms embargo disrupted attempts to purchase vital defense systems since 2007. Iran started building the indigenous Bavar-373 air defense system in 2010 to *rival the S-300 after Russia backtracked on a contract to sell Iran the system. Iranian media reports *claim the Bavar-373 can detect three times more targets than the S-300 can.

Iranian officials are likely preparing to sell weapons in Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan, and Mauritania. The leader of Iran’s defense industries *stated that Iran will sell its homegrown weapons to “countries despised by the US” the day after the arms embargo was lifted. Iranian foreign ministry officials renewed diplomatic efforts in Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria and Mauritania leading up to the expiration of the UN arms embargo. Iran’s ambassador to Mauritania *announced for the first time that Iran is ready to develop a defense cooperation with Mauritania in October. Iran finalized a defense cooperation deal with Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria in July. An Iranian media op-ed additionally *speculated that Afghan leader Abdullah Abdullah’s October *visit to Tehran could result in Iranian weapons exports to Afghanistan.

Iran has also beefed up its diplomatic presence in Yemen, *sending an ambassador to the Yemeni capital for the first time in five years on the same day the arms embargo expired. Tehran has an interest in expanding its cooperation, to include arms sales, with its Yemeni partner to pressure Gulf countries after the UAE normalized relations with Israel. The Colombian President has also claimed Venezuela was looking to buy long range missiles from Iran. Iranian weapons exports could facilitate the objectives of destabilizing actors around the world against US interests.

Iran stands to gain regional prestige, battlefield testing of its systems, and profits from weapons exports. Iranian leaders likely seek to export Iranian weapons to regional allies to cement Iran’s role as a regional hegemon. Iranian weapons systems in war-torn countries, such as Syria and Yemen, provide Iran with long-term strategic assets that can maintain Iran’s footprint even if the countries’ political leadership changes. If Iran manages to sell and transport advanced systems, such as Bavar-373, Iran will not only yield significant profits but also gain valuable battlefield test cases facilitating further improvements to its domestic defense industries.