The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) plans to purchase Russian Su-35 Flanker-E fighter jets, according to its commander, Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi. It would constitute Iran’s biggest acquisition of fighter aircraft in over 30 years if authorized.
“The issue is on the agenda and we hope to be able to get these 4++ (4.5) generation fighters in the future,” Vahedi told Borna news agency on Sept. 4.
He stressed that the Armed Forces General Staff Headquarters would make the final decision rather than the air force. Furthermore, the IRIAF will most likely require an additional green light from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) paramilitary, the most powerful armed force in the country. The IRGC has invariably favored other projects, such as developing indigenous armed drones and ballistic missiles, rather than importing weaponry to modernize Iran’s regular armed forces.
Vahedi also clarified that the IRIAF now wants Su-35s rather than Su-30s. Since late 2021, there have been rumors that Iran would buy 24 Su-35s Russia had initially built for Egypt. These rumors have resurfaced in light of Vahedi’s latest statement and amidst heightened and unprecedented Russia-Iran military cooperation since the former’s invasion of Ukraine.
In mid-August, Iran gave Russia its first batch of Shahed-129/191 and Mohajer-6 armed drones as part of a deal first disclosed by the White House in July. That delivery and Vahedi’s statement follow speculation that Tehran is providing Moscow with those much-needed attack drones for its war in Ukraine in exchange for Su-35s to upgrade Iran’s antiquated air force.
It’s also rumored that after Tehran acquires its first two-dozen factory fresh Su-35s from Russia, it might aim to locally produce over 30 additional Flankers to meet the IRIAF’s requirement for at least 60 new fighters.
In early 2021, it was reported that Iran sought 36 J-10C fighters from China. Interestingly, those 36 4.5-generation Chinese jets plus the 24 Su-35s Tehran reportedly sought from Moscow later that year also make a grand total of 60 aircraft. If Iran had hoped to buy both, that would have been consistent with very reasonable forecasts made in recent years that Tehran might seek to provide itself a hedge by acquiring a mixture of modern Russian and Chinese jets rather than become too heavily dependent on either Moscow or Beijing.
However, China was reluctant to exchange J-10Cs for oil as part of a barter trade proposed by Iran. On the other hand, Russia seems much more open to extending military-technical cooperation than ever in light of the extensive economic sanctions it has incurred for invading Ukraine. Therefore, Moscow may have offered Tehran more advantageous arrangements regarding the acquisition, and possibly even co-production, of its most advanced 4.5-generation fighter jets.
A series of crashes are increasingly plaguing Iran’s vintage air force. One of its legacy F-14A Tomcats acquired before the 1979 revolution crashed in the central Iranian city of Isfahan in June due to an engine malfunction. Older Iranian American-built F-4s and F-5s, along with Soviet-built Sukhois and MiGs, have also been lost to similar crashes in recent years, a clear pattern that increasingly demonstrates that Iran’s existing fighter fleet is on its last legs.
The last time Iran imported new jets was in 1990 when it bought a mere 18 MiG-29A Fulcrums and 12 Su-24MK Fencers from the moribund Soviet Union. (It later, by chance, confiscated Iraqi MiG-29s and French-built Dassault Mirage F1s, which had flown to Iran from Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and integrated them into the IRIAF.)
As part of its increased defense cooperation with Russia, Iran is reportedly seeking to upgrade its antiquated Fulcrums to the MiG-29SMT standard, which could enable them to continue operating for another couple of years until Tehran finally fields newer, more capable 4.5-generation fighters.
Whatever the case ultimately proves to be, any acquisition of new fighter jets in the near future would undoubtedly be a significant development warmly welcomed by this neglected branch of Iran’s armed forces.