Iranian arms exports


The first issue of the magazine "Arms Export" for 2023 published an article by Yuri Lyamin, senior researcher at the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, an expert on the Middle East, on the export of arms of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

Historically, Iran (Persia) was one of the ancient centers of cold weapons production, and the damask steel produced there and the cold weapons created by Iranian craftsmen were valued far beyond its borders, including in Russia. However, by the XX century . Iran has lagged far behind the leading powers in scientific, technical and industrial development and has become a net importer of weapons. Despite the efforts of the Shahs of the Pahlavi dynasty to create a modern defense industry, this situation persisted for most of the XX century. At the same time, individual successes were also noted. So, in the first years of the Great Patriotic War, the USSR acquired some of the rifles and cartridges available in Iran, and the production of Shpagin submachine guns for supplies to the USSR was organized at the machine gun factory in Tehran[1]. However, in general, this did not change the situation.

The massive investments made by the last Iranian Shah in the development of the defense industry in the 1960s and 1970s yielded results, but the large-scale production facilities created remained in huge dependence on supplies from abroad and the work of numerous foreign specialists, primarily from the United States and Western Europe. All this had an extremely negative impact on the Iranian military-industrial complex after the 1979 revolution, which was followed by the severance of ties with the United States and the departure of Western specialists. Thus, by the beginning of the Iraqi aggression against Iran in the fall of 1980, even many previously operating enterprises of the Iranian defense industry, built for the production of Western weapons, were unable to meet the needs of the country's armed forces, which required emergency measures to remedy the situation.

Over the more than four decades since the 1979 revolution, Iran has been able to gradually not only meet the most basic needs of its armed forces, but also move to increasingly noticeable supplies of these weapons to other countries. Although the supply of weapons abroad for Iran was primarily a means of ensuring security and strengthening Iranian influence through the support of friendly organizations and countries (which can count on the supply of the most modern Iranian weapons), over the years there has been a gradual expansion of both the product range and the range of customers.

Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, the supply of Iranian defense industry products abroad mainly concerned various ammunition, mines, mortars, grenade launchers, etc. But already in the 2000s. Iran gradually began to switch to the supply of more sophisticated weapons and equipment, including agreements on their export and license assembly, especially with friendly states to Iran. In 2006, it was reported that the volume of Iranian military exports exceeded $100 million.[2]

Against the background of the crisis over Iran's nuclear program in 2007, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) imposed sanctions prohibiting the export of Iranian weapons to other countries. These restrictions were de facto in effect until the fall of 2020[3], and the unilateral US sanctions imposed earlier, including those threatening any buyers of Iranian weapons, remain in force today. These sanctions certainly hit Iranian defense exports, but did not lead to its complete cessation and only contributed to a complete retreat into the shadows, as happened in the case of similar sanctions against the DPRK. It is not surprising that at the end of 2009, the UN Security Council Sanctions Committee on Iran's nuclear program could only state the fact that the ban on arms supplies from Iran was being violated[4].

Syria, which has been a key ally of Iran in the region for many years, has traditionally acquired mainly Soviet/Russian and to a lesser extent Chinese, North Korean and European weapons. However, after the cessation of military aid from Russia in the 1990s, Syria slowly and gradually switched to the purchase of Iranian weapons. This process accelerated after the signing of the agreement "On Military Cooperation and Countering common threats" between Iran and Syria in June 2006. The details of the document are still unknown for sure, but even after its signing, the Iranian Defense Minister said that Syria had already bought Iranian military products, and also expressed hope that cooperation in this area would continue[5].

Military-technical cooperation in the missile sphere was the most active. In the 2000s. In Syria, with Iranian help, the licensed production of some Iranian missiles was organized, such as variants of the Zelzal-2 unguided missiles and the Fateh-110 guided tactical missiles[6].

Apparently, Iranian specialists helped other Syrian missile projects, along with North Korean specialists (with the help of the DPRK in Syria, the production of missiles for operational and tactical missile systems "Elbrus" was created).

In addition, six Iranian-made small missile boats were delivered from Iran to the Syrian Navy, each of which was armed with two Noor anti-ship missiles[7], and the Syrian coastal defense was strengthened by Iranian mobile anti-ship coastal defense missile systems with the same missiles[8].

There may have been other supplies, but today it is difficult to separate them from those that were made before the start of the 2011-2012 civil war in Syria and later as part of military assistance to the Syrian government to fight the militants. The Iranian Defense Ministry has long denied any arms shipments to Syria[9]. Back in the spring of 2014, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-Ravanchi stated that there was no need to supply weapons to the Syrian government[10].

However, as the scale of the conflict expanded, the supply of Iranian weapons and equipment, from ammunition to unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also increased. Thus, since the beginning of 2012, the government forces have been actively using Iranian Ababil-3 reconnaissance UAVs in Syria[11], and then others. The breadth of Iranian military assistance was fully manifested after Iran actually switched to open military support for the Syrian government in combat operations against militants.

In general, the volumes of Iranian defense industry products transferred to Syria over the past decade can be estimated as very large. The bulk of them are various ammunition, equipment, small arms, recoilless guns, grenade launchers, mortars, as well as some artillery systems, such as mortars and multiple rocket launchers. However, against the background of the presence in Syria of a significant contingent of Iranian military advisers and instructors, as well as thousands of volunteer formations controlled by Iran, staffed by Shiites from Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, it is difficult to determine which weapons were supplied from Iran for them, and which directly for the Syrian troops and militia. It is reliably known that the large Iranian Shahed-129 reconnaissance and strike UAVs have been used in Syria since 2014 only by the Iranian military of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps[12], there is no detailed information on other weapons and military equipment.

Another buyer of Iranian weapons among its closest neighbors in the 2010s was Iraq, which sought to diversify arms imports after the first withdrawal of American troops from the country, and the Iraqi security forces needed more and more new weapons against the background of a new strengthening of the Islamic State terrorists (a terrorist organization banned in Russia).

The first information about Iraq's purchases of Iranian weapons dates back to the beginning of 2014. According to documents obtained by Reuters journalists, despite the UN sanctions against Iran in force at that time, at the end of November 2013, Iraq and Iran concluded eight agreements on the supply of Iranian weapons and equipment manufactured by the Iranian Defense Industries Organization and Iran Electronic Industries. The total value of the contracts was $195 million, and they provided for the supply of Iranian small arms and light weapons, mortars, various ammunition, night vision devices and communication systems[13].

In the spring and summer of 2014, the collapse of the Iraqi government forces in the north-west of Iraq occurred, and neighboring Iran became one of the first countries to provide it with large-scale military support. In many ways, it was with the help of Iran that the detachments of the People's Militia Forces created in Iraq were armed and trained. Among the Forces of the People's Militia, as well as the Federal police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of Iraq, Iranian mortars and grenade launchers, sniper rifles, Safir army SUVs with 106 mm recoilless guns or 107 mm rocket launchers, 122 mm HM20 MLRS, Iranian copies of TOW-Toophan ATGM, Iranian copies of Kornet-E ATGM became conventional weapons - Dehlaviyeh, etc. Deliveries of Iranian unmanned aerial vehicles such as Ababil-3 and others have also begun.

Deliveries from Iran continued further. In recent years, the Iraqi People's Militia Forces have been armed with Mohajer-6 reconnaissance and strike UAVs, other Iranian UAVs (including kamikaze UAVs), 122-mm Raad-24 MLRS, Toufan armored vehicles with increased mine protection and other armored vehicles, electronic warfare and communications systems. In addition, some of their T-72 tanks were upgraded, apparently, according to the Iranian project[14].

Unlike Syria, Iraqi oil revenues allow the Forces of the Iraqi People's Militia not to depend on pure military aid. Therefore, apparently, they are purchasing Iranian weapons.

For a long time, Sudan was one of the largest buyers of Iranian weapons. The export of Iranian weapons to the North African country began in the 1990s[15] and peaked in the second half of the 2000s and early 2010s after the signing of the agreement on military cooperation between Iran and Sudan in March 2008[16]

Although the Iranian side officially denied arms supplies to Sudan in 2012[17], the range of Iranian weapons transferred to the country was very wide, from small arms and artillery mines and ammunition to unmanned aerial vehicles, artillery and armored vehicles. A study by experts of the Small Arms Survey indicates that according to the information provided by Sudan for the UN Statistical Database on Trade in Goods, Iran's share in Sudanese arms imports for the period from 2001 to 2012 was 13%[18].

Among other things, Iranian Ababil-3 reconnaissance UAVs[19], Rakhsh armored vehicles and Boragh infantry fighting vehicles[20], Iranian copies of 122-mm D-30 - D30I howitzers[21] and much more were supplied to Sudan. They were usually given local Sudanese names. Thus, Ababil-3 in Sudan received the designation Zagil, Boragh - Khatim, etc. Iran also helped with the development of the Sudanese defense industry: to organize the repair or licensed production of supplied weapons and equipment, some Sudanese specialists were sent to Iran for training, and Iranian technicians worked at Sudanese defense enterprises[22].

Apparently, military-technical cooperation between Iran and Sudan ceased in the mid-2010s, when official Khartoum joined the Saudi coalition, took an active part in the war against the Houthis in Yemen and eventually severed diplomatic ties with Iran in early 2016.[23]

In exchange for participating in the Yemeni conflict and severing ties with Iran, Sudan received financial assistance and loans from the Arab monarchies of the Persian Gulf, and the United States eventually excluded it from the list of countries sponsoring terrorism and lifted many other sanctions. For Iran, this has certainly become an unpleasant indication of how quickly the long-standing friendly ties between the countries can be severed.

In addition to Sudan, there were probably other purchasers of Iranian weapons in Africa. In 2010, it became known about the detention in the port of Lagos (Nigeria) of a cargo of 13 containers with Iranian ammunition. The cargo included 7.62 mm cartridges, grenades, mines for 60 mm, 81 mm and 120 mm mortars and 107 mm rockets. The cargo was sent from Iran to the Gambia, but by that time UN sanctions against the export of Iranian weapons were already in effect, so the supplies were hidden[24]. Moreover, shortly after the cargo was detained, the Gambia hastily and without explanation announced the severance of relations with Iran[25].

There have been other examples of the discovery of Iranian ammunition in some African countries, but it is unclear whether they were purchased directly or got through third countries and other intermediaries[26].

In recent years, Ethiopia has become a new client of the Iranian defense industry in Africa. Against the background of a bloody war with rebels from the Tigray region, the Federal government of Ethiopia in 2021 purchased a number of reconnaissance and strike UAVs[27] - Chinese Wing Loong-1, Turkish Bayraktar TB2 and Iranian Mohajer-6. In addition to unmanned aerial vehicles, some samples of Iranian small arms began to appear in Ethiopia, such as Iranian copies of SVD sniper rifles[28].

As for the New World, so far the only known buyer of Iranian military products is Venezuela. In the second half of the 2000s, under President Hugo Chavez, a contract was signed for the purchase by Venezuela of a batch of Iranian Mohajer-2 UAVs with their licensed production in the South American country from kits supplied from Iran. This UAV received the Venezuelan name Arpia and was first shown in 2012[29]

Western sanctions imposed against Venezuela have pushed it to strengthen military-technical cooperation with Iran. Venezuela is modernizing the Mohajer-2 UAV[30], has acquired 107-mm Iranian Fajr-1 MLRS with launchers for placement on boats and SUVs [31], and Iranian technicians are helping Venezuelans repair Western-made aircraft, such as C-130 military transport aircraft and others[32].

Venezuela may have acquired Iranian reconnaissance and strike UAVs Mohajer-6, according to the same scheme as the Mohajer-2. There is no direct evidence of this, but in November 2020, when the current president of Venezuela, Nicolas Maduro, announced plans to produce unmanned aerial vehicles, a reduced model of the Mohajer-6 standing next to him got on the broadcast footage[33].

Moreover, at the end of 2021 Guided bombs for UAVs were seen on footage from Venezuela[34], in which Iranian guided bombs Ghaem-5 are easily identified. These munitions are one of the standard weapons of the Mohajer-6, and they cannot be used with those UAVs, the presence of which Venezuela is definitely known.

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