The Ukraine war has enabled Iran to showcase its booming military industry. As the Iranian fiscal year ended in March, Iranian Deputy Defense Minister Seyyed Mahdi Farahi, an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps general, bragged to the Defense Ministry’s official newspaper that Iran had increased its defense exports 2.5 times over the previous year.
While Iran’s provision of drones to Russia is well known, Iran’s military exports go further. The Iranian military has acknowledged providing Hezbollah not only with drones but also with the ability to manufacture them. Its exports increasingly go mainstream. Last year, for example, Iran built a drone factory in Tajikistan.
Iran’s ambitions to proliferate weapons and technology are broader, however. In a speech earlier this month, for example, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei argued that Iran should not only enrich nuclear fuel, but that it should also become a marketer of nuclear technology, isotopes, and equipment.
The Ukraine war may open up another market: manned aircraft. For years, Iran has looked to channel sanctions relief and oil sales into its air force. While the Iranian Defense Ministry briefly looked at Chinese aircraft in the wake of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, it subsequently chose to purchase Sukhoi-35s from Russia. Iran has been in the market for more than just a new generation of fighter jets, however. A decade ago, Secretary of State John Kerry offered Iran sanctions relief of nearly $1 billion per month simply to negotiate with the Americans and Europeans. At the time, Iran began purchasing approximately a dozen AN-140 transport aircraft assembly kits from the Antonov factory in Kharkiv, Ukraine, each year.
Among the targets of Russia’s opening salvo against Ukraine were the Antonov facilities in both Kyiv and Kharkiv, forcing Ukraine’s major aircraft manufacturer offline. It appears the Iranian military now seeks to profit from that destruction. On May 30, Iran’s defense minister was on hand to watch the inaugural flight of the Simorgh, a nominally indigenous production that appears simply to be a knock-off of the Antonovs Iran previously imported. Evidently, as Iran was importing Ukrainian equipment, it was secretly reverse-engineering it so that it could build aircraft for its own economic and military purposes.
With the Simorgh now ready for production, Iran can turn around and supply Ukraine’s former clients — and Russia — with light transport aircraft. As Arab countries seek to normalize relations with Syria and the United Nations prepares to flood that country with billions of dollars in reconstruction assistance, it is likely that Syria could become another client for Iran-manufactured aircraft since the regime can siphon off much of that money for other purposes.
Iran will also likely find a market in Venezuela, Cuba, and other left-leaning Latin American countries. The Simorgh is designed for rough airstrips and so would be the perfect complement to regimes that work hand in glove with drug cartels that could use such aircraft to move their products.
Iranian diplomats and their supporters in think tanks and among journalists have long framed sanctions relief as a humanitarian issue. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ stranglehold over the Iranian economy meant that money was diverted immediately into the military sector. As a result, Iran today is no longer just a consumer, but increasingly seeks to be an export power.
Today it may be drones; tomorrow, it will be crewed aircraft. The only question now, as the Biden administration seeks to rush through a secret sanctions relief deal, is whether President Joe Biden and national security adviser Jake Sullivan care that they set the stage for sparking and prolonging conflicts far beyond the Middle East.
Source » reuters