Iran’s air force may receive Sukhoi Su-35 fighters from Russia, previously wanted by Egypt. 

Tehran has been negotiating the acquisition of new fighters for over a decade now, with the latest candidate being the Sukhoi Su-30 multirole fighter.  

However, Brigadier General Hamid Vahedi, the head of Iran’s air force, told Borna news agency that the purchase of the Su-30 was not in the plan anymore and instead, the acquisition of Su-35 air superiority fighters was being discussed. 

“This issue is on the agenda, and we hope to be able to obtain these 4+ generation fighters in the future," Vahedi said. 

Rumors emerged in January 2022 that Iran could quickly receive 24 Sukhoi Su-35SE fighter jets from Russia, as it would take delivery of aircraft originally built for Egypt. Cairo had placed an order for Su-35s in 2018, but the deal was reportedly dropped because of pressure from the United States. 

In July 2022, United States National Security Advisor to President Joe Biden, Jake Sullivan, told reporters that Russia was in the process of acquiring a range of reconnaissance and combat drones from Iran.  

Citing unconfirmed open-source information, the Institute for the Study of War, a US-based think tank, suggested the drones may be used as a form of payment for the Su-35s, along with broader support for Russia in its invasion of Ukraine. 

The Iranian Air Force under pressure 

The Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) is in dire need of new aircraft, especially fighter jets. It currently operates an array of antiques acquired prior to the Islamic revolution, such as the F-4 Phantom II, the Mirage F1, the Northrop F-5, and the Grumman F-14 Tomcat. Iran was the sole foreign customer of the Tomcat and, since the US Navy retired the aircraft in 2006, it is the last to operate the iconic air superiority fighter from Top Gun.  

With no way for the IRIAF to procure parts for 42 years due to international sanctions, the number of jets still flight-capable is unclear. On June 18, 2022, an Iranian Grumman F-14 Tomcat fighter jet crashed after suffering an engine failure, minutes after the aircraft took off from Isfahan, central Iran.  

IRIAF aircraft and personnel in Tehran (Credit: Tasnim News Agency / Wikimedia Commons)

Both Iran and Russia are listed in the Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA), and thus nations involved in defense acquisitions with either country expose themselves to sanctions from the United States. Sanctions have made the renewal of the Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force (IRIAF) fighter fleet especially difficult.  

Iran and China signed a historic trade agreement on March 27, 2021, with reports that it included the acquisition of 30 Chinese-made Chengdu J-10C multi-role fighters for a contract valued at $2 billion. But since then, Beijing seems to have given Tehran the cold shoulder on this front, probably not to throw oil on the fire amid already tense relations with Washington.  

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China is reportedly reluctant to sell new fighter jets to Iran, which could open a trade opportunity for Russia.