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What Iran's purchase of Russia's Sukhoi Su-35 jets could mean for the region

Iran has ordered air defence systems from Russia and Moscow's most advanced fighter jet
According to an Iranian member of parliament Russia will deliver Su-35 fighter jets to the country (Reuters)
Russia is set to deliver Su-35 fighter jets to Tehran, according to an Iranian MP (Reuters)

Iran expects to receive cutting-edge Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets as early as spring, according to Iran's Tasnim news agency.

A member of Iran's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Shahriar Heidari, said over the weekend that in addition to the Sukhoi Su-35 warplanes, Tehran has ordered other military hardware from Russia, including air defence systems, missile systems and helicopters.

The comments by Heidari are the first official acknowledgment that the Iranians are expecting to receive SU-35 jets, says Hamidreza Azizi, an expert on geopolitics and security in the Middle East at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

Iran has placed an order for 24 of Russia's most advanced jets. However, despite the regular announcements, Russia has yet to confirm such a deal.

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"On the Russian side, there has been mostly rumours from unofficial channels like Telegram, where information on military matters is discussed," Azizi told Middle East Eye. Similarly, on the Iranian side, "there has been little confirmation from high-ranking Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps commanders", he added.

'Whatever the merits of the reports regarding the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, it's clear that both sides are working on elevating their military cooperation'

- Hamidreza Azizi, analyst

Unlike past statements, this time, talk surrounding the fighter jets is "more serious", said Azizi.

"This is the first time these reports are circulating, and there have been no denials from the Russian or the Iranian side."

Iran has been one of the few, if only, countries to help Russia militarily in Ukraine.

With Russian stockpiles of missiles dwindling fast, Moscow has turned to Iran to quickly and cost-effectively stall Ukrainian military advances and the loss of further territory.

Reports suggest that Russia has bought several hundred Iranian drones, with another 1,000 ordered.

Azizi said the latest deal - particularly regarding the fighter jets, if that sale materialises - would mean that "Iran-Russia military cooperation has entered into a completely new phase, unprecedented in the history of the relationship between the two sides".

Changing balance of power

In the past, Russia has been wary of giving Iran a military edge in the region.

"Russia's Middle East policy has always been based on maintaining a balance between Iran and its rivals, like Saudi Arabia, Israel and the others," said Azizi.

While Iran and Russia have long held good relations and been partners in Syria's war over the past decade, Moscow's global isolation over Ukraine is leading the relationship into previously uncharted territory, given Russia's increasing reliance on Iran.

"The only thing that Iran effectively lacks in the military sphere and really needs to upgrade is its air power, because of a lack of advanced fighter jets," said Azizi.

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A lack of air power has primarily driven Iran's drone and missile advances in recent decades.

The number of jets involved in the deal will only partially meet Iran's security needs.

"We should also bear in mind the number of fighter jets which might be provided to Iran by Russia is not so considerable," added Azizi. "Therefore, it's not a substantial boost to Iran's air power."

However, the deal could mean that Russia might increasingly align with Iran on regional issues, or it could result in regional countries hedging against the increasingly close ties between the two sides.

"It will certainly result in changes in the way that Moscow is seen and treated," said Azizi.

"Whatever the merits of the reports regarding the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets, it's clear that both sides are working on elevating their military cooperation."

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