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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Patron or Client State?

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This could have been a spectacular triumph for Russia's restored imperial foreign policy: Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani in town at the same time like barbarian rulers crowding into ancient Rome to lobby their case.

Sharon did in fact come to Moscow this week, but it was announced in Tehran that Shamkhani had postponed his visit so as not to be in town at the same time as the leader of the "Zionist regime." Iran is today in the final stages of completing a package of arms deals with Russia to the tune of $10 billion. But the Iranians are not at all a Russian client state and have not hesitated to use the occasion to emphasise this.

In the first half of the 1990s, Iran acquired more than $5 billion worth of Russian weapons. With Russian help, Iran refurbished its army with more than a thousand T-72 tanks and over 1,500 BMP-2 armored combat vehicles. At the same time, Iran purchased long-range (300 kilometers) S-200 air defense missiles, 26 MiG-29 jets, Kilo submarines and guided anti-ship missiles.

An agreement was reached that Iran would get the technology to make up to 130 Mig-29 fighters itself. But the agreement was frozen in 1995 by Moscow because of American pressure.

Today, Iran wants to further advance its army's overall fighting capability by acquiring more armor and also relatively cheap Russian Su-25 armored fighter planes to support its tanks on the battlefield. At the same time, Iran wants to buy S-300 air defense missiles (200-kilometer range), new fighters and sophisticated anti-ship weapons to deploy in the Strait of Hormuz -- the bottleneck of the Persian gulf.

Most of the new air-, land- and sea-based weapons Iran acquired from Russia before were deployed to form an integrated defense structure in the Strait of Hormuz. The most likely scenario is that the new purchases will also go there.

This does not mean that Tehran is imminently planning an all-out war in the area, but such a conflict is not totally out of the question. The religious autocrats that control Iran are increasingly losing public support at home, especially among the educated classes. An armed conflict with "Zionists" and the United States may be a good pretext to crack down on any "liberal" opposition.

In the future, Iran may have the capability to launch several medium-range ballistic missiles at Israel to support the Palestinian cause. In response to inevitable Israeli or U.S. retaliation, Iran could deploy new Russian sea mines, Kilo submarines and land- and air-based anti-ship missiles to close the Hormuz to oil traffic from the Gulf. Iran would also need modern fighters and air defense missiles to defend its naval bases and missiles from American air attacks long enough for the West to feel the pain of an oil embargo.

Such a conflict would send oil prices sky-high. Iran could benefit financially and Russia even more so. It's easy to understand why Moscow is so eager to sell Iran lots of new weapons and technology. Russia has also in principle agreed to sell Syria new fighters and S-300 missiles. At the same time, the Kremlin wants to have mutually beneficial relations with Israel and the United States.

Moscow wants a free hand to play states off against each other in a "multi-polar world" -- maintaining equidistance from all. But in the long run, Russia is too weak to play such an imperial role.

Up to 80 percent of Russia's defense production is today exported. China, India and Iran are the main patrons of Russia's defense industry, which gives these nations increased leverage over Russian foreign and defense policy. In fact, China, India and Iran are increasingly treating Russia as a client state. One of the main arguments today in Moscow for not agreeing with American missile defense plans is that Beijing will be outraged by such a "betrayal" and will punish Russia.

Israel is also trying to use economic arguments, including arms trade, to pull Russia onto its side of the Middle East conflict. In 1997, Israel and Russia signed their first major arms deal to jointly produce an early-warning A-50 "Falcon" plane for China. But last year, Washington pressured the Israelis to cancel the deal. Now Israel and Russia are trying to sell the plane to India.

Arms exports, unlike oil and gas, do not bring a lot of export duties or any other revenues to the Russian budget, since the defense industry very rarely shows any profits. The billions from Russian arms trade with authoritarian Asian regimes are somehow distributed within the Russian bureaucracy without much control exercised by the state. Israel and the United States cannot compete with this to prevent Russia from increasingly becoming a client arms-producing state for various anti-Western regimes.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst.