On November 27, 2018, Defence Blog reported that the Iranian Air Force is considering the procurement of the joint Pakistan-China fighter jet JF-17.[i] The report noted that importing new fighter jets would allow the Air Force to replace aging jets currently in service. The report referenced several videos released by Pakistani analyst Muzammil Hatami, in which Iranian Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari can be seen at the IDEAS 2018 exhibition in Karachi examining a JF-17 Block II fighter jet as well as a Super Mushshak trainer aircraft. Rear Admiral Sayyari formerly served as the Navy’s commander but now is the Deputy Coordinator of the Iranian Army. Iranian media noted that Rear Admiral Sayyari headed a military delegation to the Pakistani expo.[ii]
The report is noteworthy given that Iran is slated to have an international arms embargo lifted in October 2020, under U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which enshrined the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (commonly referred to as the “Iran nuclear deal”). The U.S. decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal earlier in 2018 may yet impact the lifting of the embargo, but provided Iranian compliance with the nuclear deal’s terms continues,[iii] the embargo may well be lifted in 2020 as planned. Iran has a long list of systems it needs to import – and limited financial resources to do so – but replacing aging fighter jets is one of the more pressing requirements.
The JF-17 can be assumed to be among the fighter jets Iran is considering, but may not be the Air Force’s first choice. Iran in the past has reportedly negotiated with China for the J-10, with headlines every so often referencing sales of either dozens or even over a hundred aircraft.[iv] In early 2016, Russian media reported on a potential $8 billion arms deal with Iran that, if concluded, would see the country acquire the Su-30SM.[v] Russian fighter jets, especially, have demonstrated their combat capabilities in engagements in Syria, whereas the JF-17 has not yet seen combat, making it difficult to gauge whether the jet lives up to its stated specifications. Ironically enough, however, Iran may have some experience being on the receiving end of the JF-17’s air-to-air loadout, being that the jet’s first reported air-to-air “kill” was of an Iranian drone that strayed “deep inside Pakistani airspace” in June 2017.[vi] The Pakistani Air Force, furthermore, is evidently confident enough in the JF-17 to procure it in large volumes.
Where the JF-17 has an edge is in unit cost, as the aircraft carries a smaller price tag than the J-10 and the Su-30SM. Between the regular military and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Iran nominally has a large enough overall security budget to support new imports of military hardware. However, pressure on the national economy – and the cost of Iran’s strategic support for the Syrian government – limits the amount of funding available for new buys. Furthermore, the IRGC is typically prioritized over the regular military, and the Iranian Air Force, in particular, is said to go perennially underfunded. As a result, the cheaper cost of the JF-17 is an advantage, especially as Iran may have greater ability to negotiate involvement for its own defense industry in a JF-17 deal, as opposed to the other fighter jet platforms. For Iran, technology transfer would be the ultimate prize, as the country’s experience under frequent international sanctions has demonstrated to the leadership the need for as much self-sufficiency in defense production as possible.
For Pakistan, marketing the JF-17 to Iran is one matter; approving the sale would be another altogether. With the Pakistani Air Force receiving the JF-17 Block II in serial batches and soon the upgraded Block III, Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) has also heavily promoted the jet on the international market, potentially landing sales to Myanmar and Nigeria. Other customers, like Azerbaijan, may follow in the future, particularly when the Block III enters serial production. For PAC, it is helpful to be able to point to a wide number of countries interested in the jet as part of its sales pitch to potential customers.
But moving forward with a deal for the JF-17 risks ensnaring Pakistan in the Saudi-Iran rivalry, which Islamabad has so far made an effort to steer well clear of even as the two court new Prime Minister Imran Khan.[vii] Pakistan is primarily interested in de-escalating confrontations between the two rivals. On the conflict in Yemen, where Saudi Arabia leads a coalition against rebel forces allegedly supported by Iran, Prime Minister Khan said in October 2018 that Islamabad is “trying [its] best to act as a mediator to resolve the Yemen crisis.”[viii] Riyadh would undoubtedly react negatively toward the sale of Pakistani fighter jets to Iran – especially in sizable volumes – which could upend some of Prime Minister Khan’s domestic economic agenda. He recently traveled to Saudi Arabia to secure a loan to help plug the current account deficit. The Saudi government offered Pakistan up to $6 billion in loans,[ix] reducing the pressure that faced Prime Minister Khan immediately upon his election earlier this year. Selling the JF-17 to Iran could threaten that loan agreement and in general hurt Pakistan-Saudi relations.
Despite the obstacles to the JF-17 sale, Iran-Pakistan defense cooperation may yet yield arms sales, if not of the JF-17, then of the Super Mushshak trainer, the other aircraft that Rear Admiral Sayyari examined in Karachi. It is worth noting that the Iranian Air Force does operate the Mushshak basic trainer already, having acquired several dozen from Pakistan decades ago. A buy of the upgraded Super Mushshak trainer, then, might well be feasible in the future, once the embargo is lifted, particularly as it would be far less controversial among Iran’s rivals than would be the sale of an armed jet.
Iranian and Pakistani officials have held numerous meetings over the last few years geared toward developing joint defense cooperation, not only in the defense industry but also in other areas, such as security along their shared border. Joint production between their defense industries is minimal, but remains a subject the two parties are interested in developing. Iranian Maj. Gen. Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, who is the Chief of Staff of Iran’s armed forces, said at a meeting with then-Pakistani President Mamnoon Hussain in July 2018, “We are endeavoring to produce joint defense products with Pakistan.”[x] In the coming years, assuming the arms embargo on Iran ends in 2020, the two may well put some of those plans into fruition.
Derek Bisaccio has had a lifelong interest in politics and all things military. Currently, Derek is the editor of Forecast International’s International Military Markets – Middle East & Africa and International Military Markets – Eurasia Market Intelligence products.
[i] Defence Blog, “Iran Considers Buying Pakistani-Made JF-17 Thunder Fighter Jets,” November 27, 2018. Retrieved from https://defence-blog.com/news/iran-considers-buying-pakistani-made-jf-17-thunder-fighter-jets.html
[ii] Mehr News Agency, “IDEAS 2018 Opens in Pakistan With Iran’s Sayyari in Attendance,” November 27, 2018. Retrieved from https://en.mehrnews.com/news/139969/IDEAS-2018-opens-in-Pakistan-with-Iran-s-Sayyari-in-attendance
[iii] Francois Murphy and Robin Emmott, “Iran is Complying with Nuclear Deal Restrictions: IAEA Report,” August 30, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-nuclear/iran-is-complying-with-nuclear-deal-restrictions-iaea-report-idUSKCN1LF1KR
[iv] Franz-Stefan Gady, “Will Iran Order 150 New Fighter Jets from China?” The Diplomat, August 4, 2015. Retrieved from https://thediplomat.com/2015/08/will-iran-order-150-new-fighter-jets-from-china/
[v] Sputnik International, “Su-30s, Mi-8s: Iran Considers Inking $8 Billion Arms Deal with Russia,” February 16, 2016. Retrieved from https://sputniknews.com/military/201602161034839542-iran-russia-military-cooperation/
[vi] Syed Ali Shah, “Iranian Drone Allegedly on Spying Mission Shot Down ‘Deep Inside’ Balochistan,” Dawn, June 20, 2017. Retrieved from https://www.dawn.com/news/1340703
[vii] Bruce Riedel, “Saudi Arabia, Iran Battle for Influence in Pakistan,” Al-Monitor, August 27, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/08/saudi-arabia-iran-battle-influence-pakistan.html
[viii] Muhammad Saleh Zaafir, “Pakistan to Mediate in Yemen War: PM,” The News International, October 25, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.thenews.com.pk/print/385109-pakistan-to-mediate-in-yemen-war-pm
[ix] Kay Johnson and Asif Shahzad, “Saudis Offer Pakistan $6 Billion Rescue Package to Ease Economic Crisis,” Reuters, October 23, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-pakistan-saudi/saudis-offer-pakistan-6-billion-rescue-package-to-ease-economic-crisis-idUSKCN1MX2FA
[x] Army Recognition, “Pakistan and Iran Will Produce Joint Defense Products,” July 18, 2018. Retrieved from https://www.armyrecognition.com/july_2018_global_defense_security_army_news_industry/pakistan_and_iran_will_produce_joint_defense_products.html