March 15, 2023 | Flash Brief

Iran Agrees to Purchase Russian Fighter Jets

March 15, 2023 | Flash Brief

Iran Agrees to Purchase Russian Fighter Jets

Latest Developments

Iranian media reported on Saturday that Tehran has agreed to purchase 24 advanced Sukhoi Su-35 fighters from Russia, significantly upgrading the capabilities of the Islamic Republic’s air force. Egypt originally agreed to purchase the planes but canceled the deal after pressure from Washington. U.S. National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby confirmed in December that Iran would likely be the new buyer. Iranian pilots have been training in Russia on the Su-35 since last spring.

Expert Analysis

“While the Su-35 will not make the Islamic Republic ditch ballistic missiles or become a conventional military power overnight, when married with its patchwork of foreign procured and domestically produced surface-to-air missiles, it can make penetrating Iran’s airspace an increasingly challenging operation should kinetic action ever have to be considered to thwart Tehran’s nuclear march.” Behnam Ben Taleblu, FDD Senior Fellow

“Russia and Iran’s Su-35 deal reflects a deepening security partnership between the two authoritarian powers. Since it invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Kremlin has doubled down on relations with Tehran, boosting their defense-industrial ties and seeking closer economic cooperation. The Su-35 deal will presumably also bring Moscow valuable export revenue to support its defense-industrial base while allowing Russia to unload export-version warplanes initially intended for Egypt.” John Hardie, FDD Russia Program Deputy Director

A Big Upgrade

If used correctly, the Su-35 is an extremely capable fighter plane, possessing superb maneuverability and similar radar performance to some of the best Western designs. It also has modern avionics and radar systems. The Su-35, like its Western counterparts, uses a phased array antenna that can track and engage multiple targets simultaneously.

Iran’s Old Fighters

Iran regards its air force as secondary to its internally developed or modified Russian surface-to-air missile platforms. The air force consists largely of older American fighter aircraft, most of which Tehran acquired before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The fighters in Iran’s fleet likely include the Vietnam-era American F-4 Phantom and F-5 Tiger II; some locally produced versions of the F-5; F-14 Tomcats, few of which are likely still operational due to international sanctions preventing Iran from acquiring replacement parts; and handfuls of Russian Mig-29s, Su-24s, French Mirage F1s, and Chinese J-7s.

Investing in Asymmetric Tactics

Instead of designing, funding, or purchasing high-tech military equipment, Iran’s offensive capabilities have generally relied on asymmetric tactics — producing inexpensive drones such as the Shahed-136 and its variants in large numbers in order to overwhelm their adversaries’ technological advantage. Russia’s willingness to provide Iran with a high-end fighter like the Su-35 indicates how much Moscow values the low-tech Iranian drones it receives from Iran for use in Ukraine.

Related Analysis

Further Evidence Emerges of Iran’s Support for Russia’s War in Ukraine,” FDD Flash Brief

Iran, Russia Expedite Building Drone Factory in Russia,” FDD Flash Brief


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