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Beijing-Tehran cooperation: A loophole in Iranian sanctions

September 30, 2010

The following analysis is reprinted with permission from RIA Novosti.

Beijing-Tehran cooperation:  A loophole in Iranian sanctions
©  RIA Novosti
By Ilya Kramnik
September 29, 2010

On June 9, 2010, the UN Security Council imposed a new slate of sanctions on Iran in an attempt to curb its nuclear ambitions. On September 22, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev backed these sanctions by issuing a decree banning arms deliveries to Tehran.

This means one can now talk about a full-fledged “arms blockade” against the Islamic Republic of Iran. But how effective can this blockade be, and what loopholes are open to Tehran?

The Islamic Republic’s capacity

Iran certainly ranks among the most powerful Middle East and South-West Asian military powers. Tehran’s might is determined by a number of factors, including its vast territory with abundant natural resources, growing population, the lack of a colonial past and the existence of well-developed cultural traditions that enabled it to emulate European military and industrial technology rapidly.

Iran is also one of the most powerful Islamic states. Many analysts believe that its military and political potential dwarfs that of Pakistan, which is a nuclear power. Moreover, the Iranian military potential exceeds that of other Persian Gulf and Arabian Peninsula countries several times over. In fact, none of these countries has a comparable population or industrial potential.

Iran also has a sufficiently well-developed defense industry. The country’s leaders strive for self-sufficiency in this sphere, but Iran is unable to manufacture all the required military hardware independently. Although its potential in this area exceeds that of Pakistan in some respects, it is not self-sufficient.

The threat of military conflicts with countries of the Gulf and the United States forces Iran to maintain its armed forces in a high state of combat readiness, which would be impossible without foreign deliveries.

China is Tehran’s traditional partner in the defense and engineering sectors. Bilateral cooperation peaked after the 1979 Islamic revolution when cooperation with the West and the Soviet Union became impossible.

Technology for oil

Iran started receiving weapons and equipment from China, in addition to the required technology and production licenses. North Korea also provided Tehran with a large amount of technical information and completed models of ballistic missiles, some of which it had produced itself and some were Soviet-made. This assistance allowed Iran to fight Iraq in 1980-1988 from a more equal position. Iraq had a smaller population and size of the army but nonetheless wielded far more advanced military equipment than its enemy.

Iran and China continued to cooperate throughout the 1990s. Beijing needed an independent oil supplier, while Tehran wanted to gain access to more or less advanced military technologies. After recovering from the war with Iraq, Iran began to assess its armed forces’ long-term development prospects. Considering its advanced domestic industrial potential, Tehran gradually began to purchase technology, rather than military equipment. Moreover, Iran began to cooperate with Russia and other post-Soviet republics, subsequently obtaining a number of modern military technologies. However, China remained its main partner. In the late 1990s, Iran and China began to scale down their direct military cooperation against the backdrop of improved Chinese-U.S. relations.

Iran then solved its military-equipment problem by launching production of new systems it had copied from foreign equivalents. But not all kinds of military equipment are easy to copy like that, with air-defense systems and warplanes posing particular difficulties. Tehran found a way out by expanding its cooperation with Beijing in the technological-development sphere, which increasingly replaced direct arms shipments. Iran actively bought devices and technologies that would enable it to enhance its scientific and industrial potential. Tehran managed to acquire specialized Chinese equipment used in this sphere, including X-ray machines for checking the quality of rocket-and-missile engines, high-precision machine-tools for manufacturing elements of gyro-stabilized platforms used in guided weapons, mobile rocket-and-missile telemetry-control systems, in addition to other components and instruments.

International agreements place strict limits on arms deliveries to Iran. Consequently, Chinese-Iranian military-technical cooperation has increasingly taken the form of joint ventures. These deliver dual-purpose systems, equipment and technical documentation to Iran. Moreover, the Iranian government has signed a number of intellectual-cooperation agreements with Chinese universities, which are involved in training Iranian specialists and researchers in various fields for subsequent work at Iranian facilities.

The scale of Iranian-Chinese cooperation in this sphere is largely limited by the Chinese companies’ ability to provide modern technologies and materials. However, there is sufficient potential to enable the development of new types of missiles. But for its cooperation with China, Iran would find it difficult to accomplish that objective.

Iran’s technological cooperation with China has allowed it to launch production of its own short-range surface-to-air missile (SAM) system, a copy of China’s HongQi Red Flag/Banner HQ-7 air-defense missile, and to upgrade older operational SAM systems. Some sources claim that Tehran has come close to developing its own version of S-300-PMU Favorit (SA-10 Grumble) SAM system. This was thanks to its in-depth study of China’s HQ-9 / FT-2000 missile system, right down to the minutest detail. At any rate, launchers closely resembling the HQ-9 system have been repeatedly displayed at Iranian military parades. Analysts continue to argue as to whether they were mockups or live weapons.

What next?

Chinese-Iranian military-technical cooperation will obviously continue into the future. Both partners need each other because Iran requires state-of-the-art military equipment, while China is hard pressed for natural resources. The main aspects of bilateral cooperation are as follows.

China, which implements an ostensibly independent foreign policy, is unlikely to deliver substantial weapons consignments direct to Iran because it does not want to sour relations with the European Union and the United States. However, the situation may change should China’s relations with the West worsen. Analysts believe that Beijing already covertly supplies small batches of military equipment to Tehran, allowing it to study and copy them.

Chinese engineers are expected to help Iran to mass-produce Azarakhsh and Saegheh fighters based on the Northrop F-5 Freedom Fighter and to upgrade its operational warplane fleet. Chinese specialists are also known to service U.S.-made aircraft at Iran’s largest air base, Mehrabad, outside Tehran.

Chinese-Iranian naval cooperation will, most likely, expand in the future. Iran will continue to manufacture speedboats and missiles under a Chinese license. It should be noted that Iran has been trying to expand its naval presence in the Gulf for the past few years by actively developing new types of naval weapons, such as guided missiles and torpedoes, as well as artillery systems. Considering the situation in the Gulf, Iran’s plans can only be implemented either by buying or building a sufficiently large number of heavily armed warships.

Moreover, China could help Iran upgrade its Lockheed P-3F Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft.

[End.]
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Ilya Kramnik is a military commentator for RIA Novosti. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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Categories: CHN, IRN, UN