Speculation Iran Will Swap Drones For Russian Su-35 Fighters

The latest speculation about the future of Russia-Iran defense relations is that Tehran might procure Russian Su-35 Flanker fighter jets in return for supplying Moscow with various types of its indigenously-produced drones.

On Aug. 2, an open-source intelligence Twitter account cited unofficial sources claiming that “Iran has sent the first batch of UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) to Russia for field testing.”

“Also Iranian pilots and technicians sent to Russia for training on Su-35,” the tweet added.

While it could not independently verify this claim, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) think tank noted it “is consistent with recent reports that Tehran and Moscow are pursuing greater aviation cooperation in order to circumvent international sanctions on Russia and Iran and support Russian operations in Ukraine.”

“If true, this claim suggests that Iran may be receiving Russian Su-35 aircraft in return for the drones, which could have been part of an agreement signed by Moscow and Tehran on July 26,” ISW added.

“Tehran may seek to use this agreement to facilitate the acquisition of Russian combat aircraft,” it concluded.

In mid-July, the White House said that Russian officials visited the Kashan airfield in central Iran to view Tehran’s locally-developed Shahed-129 and Shahed-191 armed drones. The White House claims that Russia is procuring “hundreds” of Iranian-built drones.

In December 2021, it was also claimed that Russia and Iran would sign a 20-year $10 billion defense agreement in January 2022. Russia would supply Iran with two dozen Su-35s and S-400 air defense missile systems as part of that deal.

Of course, nothing has been heard about this purportedly impending agreement since. One should also be skeptical about this latest claim.

Still, such a swap would make a lot of sense. Iran is proficient in building armed drones but hasn’t acquired any new fighter jets since the early 1990s. On the other hand, Russia built some relatively advanced fighter jets, later model Sukhois such as the Su-35 and the Su-34 Fullback fighter/strike aircraft, but was relatively late to prioritize its own drone development.

Iran has recently demonstrated its preference for bartering for military hardware rather than using hard cash. For example, in 2021, it reportedly sought 36 advanced Chengdu J-10C fighter jets from China and offered to pay for them with oil or natural gas, something Beijing has been reluctant to accept.

Tehran may well, therefore, be willing to trade a fleet of its homegrown drones — possibly along with technology transfers and training on the combat-tested tactics Iran and its proxies have employed over Middle Eastern battlefields — for modern jets from Russia.

Or the situation might be a lot simpler than ISW’s swap theory. After all, Tehran could be merely sending advisors to train the Russians on how to operate their drones while simultaneously sending pilots and technicians to familiarize themselves with the Su-35 ahead of any potential procurement. Moscow may even have invited these Iranian military personnel to pitch the jet to Tehran by allowing them to evaluate its capabilities closeup.

Either way, Iran fielding new fighter jets for the first time in 30 years and Russia a fleet of Iranian drones for the first time ever would signify that the nascent extended aviation cooperation ISW mentioned has gotten off to a good start.

Iran could certainly do with some new fighter jets. On Aug. 3, a vintage Iranian Soviet-built Su-22 Fitter crashed at an airbase in Shiraz following a “technical failure.” That followed a June 18 crash of one of Iran’s iconic U.S.-built F-14A Tomcats and a series of other similar crashes in the preceding months.

Procuring Russian jets at the moment is risky considering the long-term supply chain issues Moscow will likely have for years to come — which will undoubtedly significantly affect the supply of spare parts and technical services for foreign operators of Russian military hardware.

Nevertheless, Tehran might not mind if it can get a favorable deal for new jets. After all, it successfully kept a large part of its U.S.-supplied air force operational for decades in the face of a U.S. arms embargo actively aiming to ground it.

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