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Iran ‘Has Shown’ it Would Buy Weapons, Upgrade Defences Even With Nation’s Scarce Budget

Iran’s armed forces have improved over the past 20 to 30 years, but their equipment and technology remain well behind those of other significant military powers in the region, a new report by the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), published on Tuesday, says.

Head of the agency Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley said in the forward to the report that “although still technologically inferior to most of its competitors, the Iranian military has progressed substantially over the past few decades”.

Ashley also pointed out that 21st-century developments in the Middle East had allowed Iran to increase its relative influence and leverage it more effectively.

Dr Rasool Nafisi, a researcher and expert on the Middle East, shares his views on Iranian regional and global policy, providing insight into some provisions of the DIA report.

Sputnik: In the new report by DIA, Iran was considered an “unconventional and conventional threat in the Middle East”. How true is this statement? What is the real role of Iran in the Middle East?

Rasool Nafisi: [Iran has complex] role in stabilising and destabilising the Middle East. In the case of terrorist groups like Daesh* and then in Afghanistan, Taliban* and in some other countries, Iran has a complex relationship with them.

And maybe lots of people don’t remember that prior to 9/11 when the terrorist groups were not really that much in focus, Iran had two meetings with all the terrorist groups in the region and called them revolutionary nations or something of that nature. 

So, but then you have Taliban* who killed Iranians and Iranian diplomats and it is complex. But overall, if you think of relationships that Iran has established with terrorist groups across the Middle East and some groups that are not necessarily terrorist like Hezbollah or others that are called by the United States terrorist, so we come to one conclusion: Iran is establishing international relations based on under the state groups – groups that are not really at the state level but are pretty powerful like Hezbollah in Lebanon or al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Iraq or some other groups in Syria and certainly the groups in Yemen.

And so, Iran has established a complex relationship with these groups that some of them are actually active terrorist groups and some of them are not so but are labeled, of course, by the United States as such.

So, the idea of Iran is to have these various groups across the Middle East as they call it their “buffer zone”. And they call them also the strategic depth of Iran. So, Iran has established a very complex and unusual policy or rather a strategy in the region.

And based on that, they have actually reached a certain level of success too. The recent revelations of Iraqi secret documents show that they have been even able to determine a prime minister for a neighbouring country more or less.

So to me, Iran is successful in its foreign policy by using proxy groups, by using under the state organisations and even having more or less benign relationships with terrorist groups with mutual interest. So, it is one part of it. This is the unconventional part of it.

Now we come to the conventional. And the conventional because of all these limitations by the UN Security Council and also repression from the US, Iran has not been able to secure a lot of regular military equipment such as aircraft and so forth. But they have focused on one area and that is missiles: ballistic and non-ballistic, both of them.

And they basically have hundreds of silos across Iran. And they have in stockpiles thousands and thousands of these missiles. And they have given some, of course, to their allies like in Lebanon. The Hezbollah is supposed to have them now more than 30,000 missiles. 

So, Iran has started a very unconventional approach to foreign policy and defence: one, by relying on these subgroups and sometimes even terrorist groups and organisations that are largely called by international agencies as terrorist or destructive. But on the other hand, they have paid a lot of attention to stockpiling missiles.

And missiles, of course, can be defensive and offensive. But largely to me, missiles are defensive because you cannot really attack by missiles and then occupy a land. So, you can destroy a land but you cannot occupy it. So it is not like conventional helicopters and aircraft and military vehicles. So to me, the role of missiles is more defensive than offensive.

But anyways, the Iranian regime has been able to stockpile all of these missiles and have connections with international organisations and largely be in a way successful, in a way not. Let me explain that too when I say successful.

Iran has been successful in achieving its goals. But whether or not those goals are conducive to any kind of achievement for Iran in terms of industrialisation or commercial interest, or developing its technology, or raising people’s level or a standard of living, now I don’t think it has been successful in those areas. So again, anything I say about Iran I have to qualify it.

Sputnik: You have mentioned the UN resolution. The US has already urged the UNSC to extend a resolution restricting weapons sales to Iran that is due to end in late 2020. How big do you think will be the pressure from the US on the UN close to that date? How likely is it that the UN will extend this resolution?

Rasool Nafisi: [My point], Iran is a very unpopular country in the United Nations. And if you look at the composition of the UN Security Council, it is not very favoured by them either.

Although a veto by Russia or China or any activity by them may help Iran but overall, I think the restriction on weapons procurement and on the type of weapon procurement also still is in place and will stay in place because Iran seems to be not really a destabilising force in the region.

But also, we have had this uprising now in Iran for the fifth day and numerous people are killed, and Iran was reproached by the United Nations Human Rights Council. 

So, that is what I am trying to say that Iran is not very popular. And the pressure by the United States to continue the weapons ban I think will succeed in the UN Security Council.

Sputnik: The DIA’s report also states that Iran’s nuclear programme “remains a significant concern for the United States”. What is the essence of this statement given the fact that the US abandoned the JCPOA last year?

Rasool Nafisi: Yes, it was a very strange decision by President Trump to withdraw from the JCPOA without any particular complaint.

They simply said it had flaws in it and they withdrew. And, of course, it could be expected that Iran will go back to its previous plans. And now Iran has taken four steps to abandon the JCPOA requirements. It was quite expected. 

So, it is largely the US to blame in this case, not Iran. Because Iran came true with its promise and as of today kept a good part of those promises.

And so the US has no right to complain, frankly. If the US was interested in keeping Iran from approaching a nuclear device, withdrawing from the JCPOA was not a very good idea. 

So to me, the approach by the United States was flawed. Iran then backed to plan A to some extent. And now we are in a situation that Fordo is becoming again a station for the enrichment and for those pretty immune from the conventional bombs.

So what I am trying to say is, if you think of Iran as a threat you have two ways to deal with it. Either stay at the JCPOA or attack. And the US under President Trump is basically not into regional wars at all.

So, it is a very contradictory approach by the US that encourages Iran actually to go back to certain levels of enrichment. And in this case, I think I have pretty much support of all the observers of the relationship between the two countries.

Sputnik: Do you think there is any chance that the US and Iran will sit at the negotiating table with a view to a new nuclear agreement alike to JCPOA? If so, what could it be?

Rasool Nafisi: The chances of rapprochement by the two countries are slim because Khamenei has prohibited any kind of negotiations with the US.

But we have seen before that he goes back on his words and sometimes changes his edicts. But at least until now, what we hear probably shows that any negotiations with the US are prohibited. 

And Trump as unpredictable a person as he is he even tried a couple of times or more and said to Iran: “We are ready to negotiate without any preconditions”, but Iran did not hear.

So, chances are not very high for a negotiation leading to something like JCPOA. I don’t see it at least now on the horizon.

Sputnik: This DIA’s report also comments on Iranian achievements in its ballistic missile and UAVs. In which defence areas do you think Iran will expand its development activity?

Rasool Nafisi: Iran has no choice but to focus on low-quality technology and whatever can buy from Russia or North Korea or China.

And they are also pretty much concerned, except North Korea, of course, with what the US would say. So, they don’t want to be in opposition to the US. And also Russia and China like to keep Iran on their side. 

So, I imagine Iran would as usual look towards Russia and China, mainly to Russia for antiaircraft technology, for research and development technology for all sorts of weapons.

So, the weapons procurement in the mind of Iranian strategists should be either local, building their tanks and whatever they claim they have. And the second part is I think, number one, they are looking at Russia and the black market.

Sputnik: You have mentioned Russia as a potential ally in the defence systems. Russia expressed its readiness to discuss the sale of S-400 air defence systems to Iran earlier this year as soon as such a request was received from the Iranian side. What other countries can Russia potentially

Rasool Nafisi: I think today many countries in the world would love to have S-400. And even to my understanding, the US is behind in that technology. So, it is not a question of what countries, it is a question of what countries can afford it, number one. 

Two, what countries are strategically available in terms of procuring such an effective weapon. Especially, remember when Turkey wanted to procure S-400, it faced serious opposition from the US and even NATO because S-400 can target very advanced US aircraft like F-35 that they are providing them to Israel. 

So to me, S-400 is a game-changer and is not easily traded in the international weapons market because it is a game-changer as I said we saw that in the case of Turkey.

So, otherwise, if a country that you can think of being a buyer of S-400 is number one – Saudi Arabia, number two – Israel. These are the countries that are facing threats or perceive threats and also have the money.

But because they are in the weapons orbit of the US, I don’t think they will easily enter into a negotiation to buy weapons from Russia. The same thing can be said about Iran. Iran would love to have S-400.

And of course, they have a serious budget deficit this year that would inhibit them from spending any money really on extra weaponry. But Iran has shown that it would go for weapons even if it is totally broke. So it is not a very important concern. 

On the other hand, the Russians would think that selling weapons to Iran would have multiple effects; I mean S-400 multiple effects.

One, it would really raise the level of military race and weapons race in the region, which is not necessarily against Russian interests because then they can sell more weapons. Two, it may make the Americans pretty unhappy.

They are not much worried about that too because right now it doesn’t seem now that the two countries are in the best relationship military-wise. We can see, for example, from the case of Ukraine right now.

So, to buy and sell weapons or to sell weapons to Iran, especially if the UN Security Council puts all those restrictions back and continues them, I think that is not going to be easy.

But two countries can negotiate for the trade and wait for the time that Iran can actually purchase S-400. And I am sure that S-400 would be one of the major priorities of the air defences of the Islamic Republic of Iran.