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what is Tehran’s defense industry really capable of?

Iranian drones are at the center of all controversies. Ukraine and the European Union accuse Tehran of supplying large quantities to Russia to support its invasion of Ukraine. kyiv even claimed on Wednesday, October 19 to have succeeded in shooting down 223 since September. This raises questions about how Iran, a country weakened by more than forty years of sanctions, manages to maintain a defense industry capable of exporting.

Before the 1979 revolution, Iran acquired its armaments abroad. Between 1970 and 1978, at the time of the shah, Tehran bought nearly 20 billion euros worth of equipment from the United States. The coming to power of the mullahs changed everything: Washington imposed an embargo on the imports and exports of arms from the Islamic Republic, quickly joined by the United Nations. Iran is then forced to become one of the rare countries to have an arms industry.

A defense industry despite sanctions

However, the country must develop it in a context of extremely restrictive international sanctions. Worse, Tehran must manage to arm itself in order to be able to fight against two military titans, the United States and Israel.

Listening to Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, the program is proving to be a great success. In a speech on August 22, the latter affirmed that “The country’s successes in armaments were a success not only for Iran, but also for the entire Islamic world.” Iranian armaments have thus made it possible to impose the country as a regional power. Its systems are used in Iraq, Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and now in Ukraine.

Aging Iranian equipment

To achieve its ends, Iran would have devoted nearly 16 billion euros to its defense industry in 2020, according to the American-Iranian Council (AIC), a think tank based in the United States. This would represent 12% of its GDP. By way of comparison, France devotes less than 2% of its GDP to defence.

This apparent success, however, hides a more ambiguous reality. “Iranian industry’s greatest achievement has ultimately been repairing and updating old equipment,” says Robert Czulda, professor at the University of Lodz (Poland) on the Atlantic Council website.

Iran’s heavy weapons deficiency

Indeed, the sanctions imposed on Iran prevent the country from creating heavy armaments. Most planes and tanks in service with the army date from the 1970s, when imports were still possible. This is particularly the case of the F-14, an American combat aircraft, or the AH-1J assault helicopters.

As for the new heavy equipment announced by the Iranian army, they often come from mixtures of old systems. The Tiam, a tank presented as new in 2016, consists of an M-47 tank chassis, produced by the Americans in the 1950s, and the turret of a Chinese Type 59/69, produced from 1963 .

This ability to reuse materials from the past does not solve everything. According to Robert Czulda, the regime’s planes are in a particularly bad state, and the tanks are not at the level of a 21st century battlefield.

Shahed drones, a force for Iran

Iran’s strength therefore lies not in heavy weaponry, but in lighter and less advanced equipment. The regime’s engineers are particularly skilled in the manufacture of drones, such as the Shahed, sold to Russia, and missiles.

An orientation in phase with the asymmetrical doctrine of Tehran: these armaments, inexpensive, make it possible to discourage an American invasion, for example, because they would be quite capable of sinking one of the imposing ships of the US Navy.

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