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Iran Tries on the Middle East Leader's Jersey

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Photo: Tehran's Rocket Arsenal: Demonstrators and members of Iran's paramilitary force, Basij, march near the fourth-generation Khaibar ballistic missile displayed during an anti-Israeli rally in Tehran, November 2023. Khaibar boasts a range of 2000 km and can carry a 1500 kg warhead. Source: Getty Images.
Photo: Tehran's Rocket Arsenal: Demonstrators and members of Iran's paramilitary force, Basij, march near the fourth-generation Khaibar ballistic missile displayed during an anti-Israeli rally in Tehran, November 2023. Khaibar boasts a range of 2000 km and can carry a 1500 kg warhead. Source: Getty Images.

On November 28, Iran officially announced the termination of the agreement with Russia for the purchase of Su-35 fighters and attack helicopters. A week before that, the White House had declared the risk of Tehran supplying medium-range ballistic missiles to Moscow. There is a tight connection between these two events, just like the connection between Tehran's ambitions and the events in Gaza and northern Israel. Iran is increasingly asserting itself as a regional superpower in the Middle East. In this sense, Tehran is competing with Ankara. However, it seems that the two contenders have entirely different intentions and means.


At the end of November, the office of the Turkish president announced that Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi would not visit Ankara. Although the visit on November 28, 2023, had been announced on November 11 by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who said that both leaders would focus on a joint response to the war between Israel and Hamas. It is also known that Erdogan had a phone conversation with Raisi on November 26. Both countries are trying to play a decisive role in the region. However, while Ankara is working to calm the situation, Tehran seems inclined towards escalation.

On the same day, Iran's Deputy Defense Minister Mehdi Farahi informed the Iranian news agency Tasnim that Tehran had finalized agreements for the supply of Su-35 fighters and Russian helicopters. Currently, the Iranian Air Force has only a few dozen combat aircraft, including Russian jet planes and outdated U.S. models purchased before the Islamic Revolution in 1979.

There was no confirmation from Moscow regarding the supply of aircraft and helicopters in the agency's report. However, a week before Farahi's statement, White House spokesman John Kirby stated that Iran is considering providing ballistic missiles to Russia for use in Ukraine. He also warned that the United States would monitor the situation and take appropriate measures if necessary. Kirby noted that in response, Moscow provides Iran with "unprecedented defensive cooperation," including missiles, electronics, and air defense systems.

So, it is quite likely that Farahi's statement about Russian aviation technology signals reciprocal agreements regarding Iranian ballistic missiles as well.


Photo: Iran's Strategic Drones: Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei, visits an exhibition of aerospace achievements by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) at the University of Aerospace Science and Technology in Tehran, November 19, 2023. Source: Getty Images.


A Noteworthy Regional Power Play

The recent outbreak of violence in the Middle East on October 7 has brought attention to Iran, a country that has long been under sanctions. However, sanctions haven't prevented the nation from playing an active role in global politics and even exporting weaponry to Russia.

The most well-known product from the Iranian military-industrial complex today is the UAV "Shahed," which Russia tactfully renamed as "Geran." The Islamic Republic not only sold hundreds of "Shaheds" to Russia but also transferred the technology for their production in exchange for the supply of Su-35 fighter jets. This collaboration enables Tehran to strengthen its position on the international stage.

However, it's not just drones that are within the Kremlin's sphere of interest. As mentioned, Kirby expressed concern about Iran possibly transferring ballistic missiles Ababil and Fateh-110 to Russia. The sanctions restricting such sales to Iran ceased in mid-October 2023, almost intentionally after the Hamas attack on Israel, where Iranian intelligence services likely played a significant role. Hamas and Hezbollah are considered allies of Tehran, sharing a fervent desire to destroy Israel.

The history of a country long under international sanctions due to its pursuit of nuclear weapons deserves attention and study. The first sanctions against Iran were imposed by the U.S. in 1979, and the bulk of global sanctions came in the early 2000s. At that time, the UN Security Council was the lone voice against Iran's nuclear program.

However, the Iranian government effectively uses both the scale of the country and the "siege fortress" regime, which pushes it not so much towards societal consolidation (internal protests against Islamist rules have become routine for Iran) as towards readiness to be part of the "axis of evil." For the Iranian authorities, ideological adversaries include both "godless Kremlin" and "American crusaders," but Tehran finds it easier to find common ground with Moscow and Beijing.

The litmus test for Iran's policy was the downing of the Ukrainian International Airlines plane on the night of January 7-8, 2020, practically over Tehran. As known, 176 people died in the crash. However, attempts by Ukraine, Canada, Sweden, and the UK to obtain a clear explanation of the actions of the Iranian military have not resulted in a concrete outcome. Tehran has been trying to evade responsibility for over three years, and the effective impunity only pushes it towards new actions.

Israeli politician Benny Gantz accused Iran in the summer of 2023 of active actions in the Red Sea, related to the seizure of foreign tankers. The presence of its own oil and the ability to use it as a commodity, playing a significant role in the world market, are essential elements of Iran's independence on the international stage. Therefore, the Strait of Hormuz periodically makes world headlines as a place of pirate attacks on oil tankers. Yemeni Houthi rebels in the region, demonstrating 21st-century pirate skills in the Gulf of Oman, also play an active role.


Photo: Diplomatic Engagement: Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian (left), meets with Hamas' Political Bureau Chief, Ismail Haniyeh, in Doha, Qatar, November 24, 2023. Source: Getty Images.


Tensions Escalate in Gaza

Following the unexpected attack on Israel by Iran's allies, Hamas, on October 7, many analysts speculated about the potential outbreak of a widespread conflict in the Middle East involving Iran. Perhaps not coincidentally, U.S. President Joseph Biden emphasized that the United States is not seeking conflict with Iran but will defend Americans in Syria. This, in essence, acknowledged Iran's influence in the region. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, echoing Biden's sentiment, claimed that Iran funds Hamas to the tune of 90%.

However, Netanyahu, despite his strong statements, must consider Iran's role for decisions about the actions of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) in the Gaza Strip. Iran's Foreign Minister, Hossein Amirabdollahian, pledged intervention in case of active military operations in this region. Tehran sees no need to conceal its increased contacts with Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran utilizes the Middle East conflict not to alleviate sanctions but to secure its position in the global South, where China plays a leading role with minimal publicity. Tehran also remains committed to intensifying ties with Moscow, particularly in the military-technical sphere. This active defence strategy aims to enhance the resilience of the Iranian government amid global turbulence.

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