Difficulties Refitting the Iranian Air Force Stem from Greater Commitment to IRGC

On one hand, Iranian military officials have already identified the aircraft that they would like to obtain from foreign partners. Chief among them is the Russian Su-30, which is comparable to the American F-15 and which would replace the 1970s-era F-14s that were purchased by the government of the shah prior to the Islamic Revolution. This model constitutes many of the 348 fighters that make up the current Iranian air force.

The Daily Beast points out that in terms of raw numbers this makes Iran’s the ninth most powerful air force in the world. But the country’s military technology has not meaningfully advanced for the past three decades, and many of Iran’s outdated fighter jets, like its commercial aircraft, are aging and in poor repair. The acquisition of Su-30s would prevent Iran’s air force from being threatened by much smaller forces that utilize more advanced jets and weaponry.

The article suggests that this is serious ground for concern among American and European policymakers. But it also indicates that the West has already expressed commitment to restraining Iran’s military growth, at least over the short term. Although critics of the Obama administration’s nuclear agreement and associated diplomatic policies toward Iran are concerned about Iran being given too long a leash, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action has established that restrictions on weapons sales to Iran will continue at least until 2021 – after an entire term in office for whoever takes over for the Obama administration in the White House.

On the other hand, Russia has already engaged in talks with Iran over Su-30 sales and has expressed interest in making those sales as early as 2018. This reflects the often close relationship that Iran has had with the Islamic Republic, especially in military matters. Last year, Iranian influence reportedly persuaded Moscow to more directly intervene in the Syrian Civil War by conducting bombing raids in coordination with Iranian ground operations.

But the Daily Beast provides considerable reassurance to anyone who is concerned about the implications of the Iran-Russia weapons talks. The US has made it clear that it would block approval of any fighter sales, meaning that a deal could not actually go through before 2021. And even after that, Iran might lack the money or the internal approval to pay for the expensive fighters. This is in part because of the apparent lack of domestic economic recovery for the Islamic Republic, but it is also because of the unquestioned authority that Iran’s “bewildering internal politics” give to its supreme leader over such deals.

While the air force may be a priority for some Iranian officials and military leaders, it is not for Khamenei, least of all when Iran is clearly capable of relying on partners like Russia for air support in some of its regional interventions. “The ayatollah has a habit of only approving arms deals that boost his own political allies, especially within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps,” the Daily Beast explains, referring to Khamenei. And even if other officials had a greater say in final policy decisions, it is unlikely that they would skew from this pattern.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, regarded by some Western policymakers as a moderate, is currently under fire from political rivals and Iranian citizens following reports of staggeringly high and apparently illegal compensation packages being given to Iranian business executives who are close to his administration. Such reports demonstrate a pattern of cronyism that also existed under the administration of Rouhani’s firebrand predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and under others before him.

Somewhat surprisingly, this trend has apparently made it more difficult for the Islamic Republic to make key investments in its regular armed forces. But it has delivered a steady stream of capital to the paramilitary Revolutionary Guards, as well as to IRGC-affiliated proxies beyond Iran’s borders. The budget for the previous Iranian year saw the Rouhani administration deliver a more than 50 percent increase to the IRGC’s budget, at a time when the president was attempting to cut government subsidies for a largely impoverished population.

This increased budget has certainly allowed the IRGC to carry on with its sponsorship of foreign terrorist organizations including Lebanon’s Hezbollah. And this helps to explain why Hezbollah’s leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah was able to boast on Friday that new US sanctions efforts will not affect the Shiite militant group.

“We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, are from the Islamic Republic of Iran,” he explained, according to The Tower. “As long as Iran has money, we have money.”

The Tower adds that Iran recently declared that its overall defense spending would increase by 90 percent this year. No doubt a very large portion of this will go to the IRGC, even at the expense of hoped-for projects and acquisitions for the regular armed forces. The IRGC financing, furthermore, will go a longer way toward serving ideological purposes for the Iranian regime. This is well evidenced by the fact that Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s made a statement last summer assuring Sheikh Nasrallah that the nuclear agreement with the West would give Iran and Hezbollah an “historic opportunity” to confront Israel.

As well as financing and collaborating with Hezbollah, the IRGC has its own foreign operations division, the Quds Force, which has been strongly involved in Iran’s interventions in Syria and Iraq. This has encouraged recruitment for Shiite militias fighting in parallel with IRGC forces, and has in turn given a more sectarian character to the fight against Syrian rebels and Sunni ISIS militants.

Iran and Russia have been sharply criticized for putting the focus of their operations on the moderate rebels against Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, and not on ISIS. This situation apparently persists to the present day, as suggested by a report at the AntiWar website indicating that against the backdrop of the ISIS conflict in Iraq, the Iranians have been bombing Kurdish territory out of fear that Kurdish successes against ISIS will further encourage the Kurdish separatist movement inside Iranian territory.