Russian Arms & Technology transfers to Iran

Columnist Col (Retd) EAS BOKHARI examines Iran’s tapping of Russia to replenish its military arsenal.

For sheer scarcity of published material on Iranian efforts for self-reliance in arms and other related technologies it is not easy to write on the subject. With the suffocation of the US sources and insufficient indigenous infrastructure Iran had to look forward towards Russia and currently a de facto alliance has emerged between Iran and Russia.

“Iran has been seeking to enhance its military capabilities for more than a decade now, in an attempt to increase self-reliance, strengthen deterrence and achieve the status and influence that it believes is its due. “Self-reliance in all spheres of national life, and particularly in the military sector is a fundamental tenet of 1979 Islamic Revolution of Iran.

Iran is, therefore, fast building up a military-industrial base to reduce reliance on foreign arms suppliers and thus increase its military potential. Iran is keen to be in a position to deter potential threats from Iraq, the United States, Israel, and more recently from Turkey, Azerbaijan and Afghanistan. And to enhance its image as a regional power and standard bearer of Revolutionary Islam, Tehran has turned to Russia, the only country that can provide it with arms in the quantity and the quality that it desires.

Consequently Russia has become in the past decade Iran’s main source of advanced conventional arms, an ‘alleged’ supplier of know-how and technology for its ballistic missiles and chemical and biological warfare programmes. Russia is also the sole source of Iran’s civilian nuclear technology.

The breakup of the Soviet Union notwithstanding, Russia is still a key actor on the international scene if no longer a super power and Iran considers Russia as an ally in its efforts to break out of international isolation and an ally in its efforts to counter US influence in the Caucasus, Central Asia and the Persian Gulf.

In a more diplomatic lingo “... For both parties cooperation is driven as much by fear and mistrust as it is by opportunism and shared interests. Moscow sees arms and technology transfers as a means of securing a foothold in Iran, to ensure that the relationship will survive a rapprochement between Tehran and Washington, and as an insurance policy against Iranian meddling in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and perhaps among Russia’s own Muslim population... Ironically Tehran may see the missiles it is developing with Russian help as a source of leverage over Moscow in the event of a return to hostility that has historically characterized relations between the two sides. For both sides, cooperation is at least in part a means to neutralize the latent threat posed by a former (and perhaps future) adversary by creating shared stake in good relations...”

Conventional Arms

During the Shah’s reign, Iran mostly depended on United States and United Kingdom for nearly all its arms. And following the 1979 Revolution, and the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran, the United States halted all sales of arms to Iran. And not much later in 1980 Iraq invaded Iran and this bloody war raged for good eight years. As a result of the above Iran emerged from the Iraq-Iran War greatly weakened with much of its military inventory having been destroyed or captured.

Iran launched an ambitious programme in 1989 to refit itself and rebuild its war-ravaged Armed Forces and transform itself into a regional military force. Its military wish list included:

  • 100-200 Combat aircraft.
  • 1000-2000  Armoured vehicles.
  • Several submarines.
  • A dozen or so missile boats.

With the political and strategic affiliations as these obtained at that time of the major suppliers only Beijing and Moscow were willing to sell large numbers of conventional arms to Iran, and only the latter could provide many of the modern arms Tehran desired.

The first important arms agreement, perhaps the major one between Iran and Soviet Union (and which provided the basis of several other such arms contracts was negotiated during the visit of Rafsanjani to Moscow in June 1989. However with the breakup of Soviet Union and the faltering Russian economy and the Iranian economic problems only a fraction of what had been hoped could be acquired. All the same some of the weapons systems that did find their way in Iran were as below:

  • T-72 tanks - 422

  • BMP-2- 413 (APC types)

  • SP Artillery - Unspecified number

  • SAMs (Surface to Air Missiles) SA-5 and SA-6’s

  • SU-24 - 12

  • MiG-29 - 24

  • Kilo Class submarines - 3 along with advanced torpedoes and mines.

All these transfers were worrisome to the US as these systems enhanced Iran’s sea-denial capabilities, and as it is, some 20 per cent of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz.

Discarding and notwithstanding the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement regarding the transfer of conventional arms the Russians and the Iranian officials met again in early 1997 to discuss fresh deals. The deals were possible transfer of the following hardware:

  • SU-25 Attack aircraft - 8

  • Mi 17 Transport Helicopters - 25

  • An unspecified number of T-72 MBTs

  • SA-16/18 Igla Shoulder Launched   

  • SAMs - 500-1000

  • Several battalions of SA-10 and SA-12 SAMs

  • Air Surveillance radars.

Five Mi-17 were transferred to Iran starting in January 2000. An Israeli source mentioned departure of a ship with a shipment of 700 SA-16/18 Igla missiles. This has not been confirmed. This is to be noted that since last year Iranian economic situation has improved and Iranian Defence budget for the year 2000-2001 has shown a 50 per cent increase over the previous fiscal year.

Perhaps one of the most significant event in this direction is the visit of Russian Defence Minister Igor Sergeyev to Iran last December, the first of its kind since the 1979 Iranian Revolution. He declared that Russia and Iran had concluded a “new phase of military and technical cooperation.”

Ballistic Missiles

The Iraq-Iran war had clearly convinced the Iran’s clerical leaders that an indigenous missile production capability and strong missile force were essential for the security of the country. And some times during the war North Korean supplies of the missiles exhausted and could not keep pace with the demand. It appears that North Korea was the principal missile supplier to Iran then. Consequently Iran has sought the capability to produce everything from short range to intercontinental systems.

The Iranian missile inventory is as below:

Missile Qty Qty Range Notes
Shahab- I


320 Km

Backbone of the Iranian Scud Bs. Variants
Shahab- 2


500 Km

North Korean Scud Cs.
Shahab- 3

a handful

1300 Km

A locally produced version to our ‘Ghauri’
CSS-8 Missiles  200 Chinese


150 Km

SA-2 SAMs modified for Ground-to-Ground role Some of these may be armed with chemical and perhaps biological warheads.

Iran is reportingly working on a still longer range Missile ‘Shahab 4’ which will have a range of 2000 Km. This missile is perhaps based on Soviet SS-4. There are indications of work on ‘Shahab-5’ with an estimated range of 5000-10000 Km, and with this missile major populations in Israel, Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia and smaller Gulf States can be easily reached.

The last two projects apparently are not fully developed and there is heavy reliance on North Korea, Russia and China for these as they need state of the art technology and management. ‘Shahab-3’ is doing well although out of the three test flights in July 1998, July 2000 and September 2000, only July 2000 test flight was a real success.

All the same and notwithstanding the US worry and sanctions (laid down vide MTCR) — there appears to be no effect on Iranian resolve of producing the longer range missile indigenously. The CIA Director George Tenet has testified on 7 February to the US Senate “... that the transfer of ballistic missile technology from Russia to Iran in 2000 was substantial and will continue to accelerate Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and to become self-sufficient in production....”

The US ambassador Robert Galluci who represented US during talks with the Russians says succinctly about the Iranian long-range missiles. “... The assistance in question is sometimes material shipped from a Russian entity to Iran that may be used for parts of a ballistic missile, may be for the warhead, may be for the fuselage... Sometimes components are shipped that may have to do with guidance. The entities have also been training Iranians in Russia in the development, design and manufacture of ballistic missiles....”

He continues and states that the Russian assistance was “extremely important in shortening the time in which the Iranians would be able to develop, manufacture and deploy their own MRBMs (Medium Range Ballistic Missiles)”. Russian assistance will surely speed up the deployment of ‘Shahab-3’ and the development of longer-range missiles. It is to be seen that the engine components of these MRBMs have to come from outside Iran.

For now besides whatever tactical and strategical benefits these missiles might provide to Iran the main value of these monsters is political. They serve as symbolic surrogate for the non-conventional capabilities that Iran possesses, but cannot brandish due to its arms control commitments.

These missiles, however, are of dubious/unreliable accuracy and most adversaries will likely assume that the Iranian missiles will perform in war as intended, as the potential price of being wrong will be too great. Iranian authorities are, however, very sure of the potency of these missiles. The Iranian Defence Minister Ali Shamkhani has stated that the ‘Shahab-3’ provides Iran with a “real deterrent punch”.

Chemical & Biological Weapons

The Iranian chemical and biological warfare programme started in Mid-1980s in response to extensive use of Chemical Weapons (CW) by Iraq. The Iraqis used biological weapons (BW) against the water supplies. This has nearly forced Iran to develop significant resources in CW and BW sectors.

Iran is believed to have stockpiled several hundred tonnes of chemical agents in bulk and weaponised form, including nerve, blister, choking, and blood agents. Bombs and artillery projectiles have been filled with these agents and possible missile warheads too. Much less is known about the BW agents and possibly some weaponisation of these might have been done.

Russian individuals and entities seem to have reportedly assisted Iran’s chemical and biological warfare programmes. According to Tenet’s testimony of February this year “Russian entities are a significant source of duel-use bio-technology chemicals, production technology and equipment for Iran. Russian biological and chemical expertise is sought by Iranians and others seeking information and training on BW and CW- Agent production processes...”

On the whole the information in this sector is sketchy as Iran started these projects shortly after the 1991 Gulf War. It is known that some five Russian scientists are working in Iran while some others have signed to work for Iran while staying in Russia. “The Iranians have reportedly shown special interest in infectious diseases, anti-crop and anti-animal agents, and genetic engineering techniques.”

Civilian Nuclear Technology

This is not strictly in the realm of military affairs but some information in this sector will be useful for the readers. According to US intelligence, Iran is trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability notwithstanding its being a signatory of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) The Russian officials, however, categorically deny that the civilian nuclear technology which they are providing to Iran has anything to do with nuclear weapons.

Historically the Shah of Iran had initiated efforts in the civilian sector (and possibly in the military sector) but the nuclear efforts were discontinued after the Revolution in 1979. It appears that after nearly a decade and a half these programmes are being revived. “Iran has been trying to acquire material and civilian nuclear fuel cycle technologies that could be of use to a clandestine nuclear weapon programme, including fuel fabrication and reprocessing capabilities from Argentina, research reactors from Argentina, India, China and Russia; nuclear power plants from Russia and China, gas centrifuge enrichment technology from Switzerland and Germany and a gas centrifuge enrichment plant from Russia; a uranium conversion plant from China or Russia; and a laser isotope separator from Russia that can be used for enrichment.”

Iran efforts to get ‘nuclear’ continue though much success is yet to be achieved. Iran tried to acquire a cache of highly enriched uranium from a facility in Kazakhstan in 1992 and again in 1998. Iran reportedly acquired some tritium which is used to build boosted weapons from Russia. In 1999 an Iranian living in Sweden was caught trying to smuggle thyratron tubes to Iran.

Then there is the Bushehr electricity plant which was left unfinished by the Germans in 1979 (having begun work on this in 1975.) Moscow had agreed in August 1992 to complete the nuclear plant at Bushehr. The Russians signed a contract for a broader nuclear cooperation in January 1995 for the installation of one VVER-1000 reactor in Bushehr at the cost of $800 million and to train Iranian personnel and provide low enriched uranium fuel to run it. The US efforts, however, complicated the Russian effort by persuading the firms in Ukraine and Czech Republic not to supply vital parts for the reactor. It appears that the Russian efforts continue for extensive cooperation in the nuclear field with Iran.

In a recent Senate statement Assistant Secretary of State for Non-Proliferation Robert Einhorn has stated that extensive Russian nuclear assistance indeed exists and “has accelerated in the last few years... Much of this assistance involves technologies with direct application to the production of weapon grade fissile material... and could significantly shorten the time Iran would need to acquire weapons-usable fissile material.” And if and when that happens, Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons would have a dramatic impact on the strategic environment in the Middle East by altering the regional balance of power and encouraging further proliferation in the region and beyond.


Entity Alleged Activity Action Taken
Baltic State Technical University Training of Iranian personnel Denied US funding (March 1998), sanctioned by the United States (July 1998)
Bauman Technical University Training of Iranian personnel  
Europalas 2000 Attempted transfer of special steel via Azerbaijan Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998)
Federal Security Service (FSB)

Facilitated travel of Russian specialists to Iran

Glavkosmos Transferred dual-use missile production technology Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998)
Grafit Research Institute Transferred graphite ablative materials to Iran Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998)
INOR Scientific Centre Transferred special mirrors, composite materials, foils, and metals to Iran Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998), restrictions lifted (April 2000)
Kominterm Plant (Novosibirsk) Missile specialists travelled to Iran under false documents Suspicions not substantiated, sanctions not imposed
MOSO Company Attempted transfer of special steel via Azerbaijan Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998)
Moscow Aviation Institute Training of Iranian personnel Denied US funding (March 1998) sanctioned by the United States (January 1999)
NPO Energomash Transferred SS-4 engine technology Suspicions not substantiated
NPO Trud Transferred engine components, documentation, and engine test equipment; contracted to manufacture engine turbopumps Lattermost effort thwarted; no recent signs of activity with Iran
Polyus Science and Research Transferred missile guidance technology and assisted with design of Shahab-3 guidance package. Sanctioned by the United States (July 1998), restrictions lifted (April 2000)
Russian Space Agency

According to Israeli Intelligence, Director Yuri Koptev facilitated technology transfers


Rosvoorouzhenie Arms Export Agency

According to Israeli intelligence, recruited Russians to assist Iranians and facilitated several technology transfers

Tikhomirov Institute Unclear

Suspicions not substantiated, sanctions not imposed


TsAGI Central Aerohydrodynamic Institute Contracted to build wind tunnel; transferred model 1998) Denied US funding (March 1998) no recent signs of activity with Iran

Sources: Fred Wehling, “Russian Nuclear and Missile Exports to Iran,” The Nonproliferation Review, Winter 1999, pp. 134-143; “The Russian List,”

The Iran Brief, March 2, 1998, pp. 9-10; The Washington Times, various articles; and interview with senior US government official, February 23, 2001.

Note: This table provides a snapshot of alleged activities based on information primarily from the 1997-1998 timeframe. Some firms listed here may have been involved in activities with Iran on a one-time basis; others may have been involved on an ongoing basis. In general, however, many of the major firms involved very early in the transfer of know-how and technology to Iran have bowed out and have been replaced by smaller companies and individuals providing mainly technical assistance, according to a senior US official.

January 8, 1995

Protocol of negotiations between Professor V.N. Mikhailov, Minister of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation, and Director R. Amrollahi, Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran and Chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran.

From January 5-8, 1995, Minister of Atomic Energy of the Russian Federation, Prof. V.N. Mikhailov, visited Iran at the request of the Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Chairman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, Director R. Amrollahi. During this visit, negotiations concerning cooperation in the peaceful use of atomic energy were held. The two parties expressed their satisfaction with the results of the visit and reached the following agreements:

1. The present protocol establishes that the contract for completing the construction of Block No. 1 at the Bushehr Nuclear Power Plant (NPP), which was signed by the Russian firm Zarubezhatomenergostroy and by the Atomic Energy Organization on January 8, 1995, shall be carried out by the parties.

2. The parties exchanged letters in which the principal questions concerning cooperation on completing construction of Block No. 1 at the Bushehr NPP in Iran were decided.

3. To utilize Iranian personnel, as much as possible, especially for completing Block No. 1 at the Bushehr NPP.

4. The subsequent delivery of fuel for Block No. 1 at the Bushehr NPP will be done as stipulated and at world prices.

5. Within a month, the Russian side will instruct the corresponding Russian organization to submit a proposal for the training of Iranian personnel, so that after a preliminary period of operation, Block No. 1 at the Bushehr NPP can be run exclusively by Iranian personnel.

6. The parties instruct their competent organizations to prepare and sign:

  • in three months, a contract for delivery of a light water reactor for research with a power of 30-50 MWt from Russia,

  • in the first quarter of 1995, a contract for the delivery of 2,000 tons of natural uranium from Russia;

  • in the first quarter of 1995, a contract for the preparation/training for Atomic Energy Organization of Iran scientific personnel, 10-20 (graduate students and Ph.D.’s) annually, at Russian academic institutions;

  • within six months time, a contract for the construction of a uranium mine in Iran, after which negotiations will be conducted on the signing of a contract for the construction of a centrifuge plant for enrichment of uranium according to conditions, which are comparable to conditions of contracts concluded by Russian organizations with firms in other countries.

7. The parties have agreed:

  • On cooperation in the construction of research reactors of low power (less than 1 MWt) in Iran for instructional purposes. Over a six month period, the Russian side will transfer a technical-commercial proposal to the Iranian side on this matter;

  • To examine the issue of cooperation on the construction of a desalination plant in Iran;

  • To carry out meetings, no less frequently than once a year, on the high level of Russia’s MINATOM and the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran for the organization of operational control for the implementing of cooperation, especially for the work in connection with the construction of Block No. 1 at Bushehr NPP.

The discussions were carried out in a friendly manner.

Two copies of the present protocol were signed in Iran, January 8, 1995, one each in Russian and Persian.

V.N. Mikhailov
Minister of Atomic Energy
Of the Russian Federation


R. Amrollahi 
President of the Atomic  Energy Organization of Iran.