When Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi visits Russia this month he is expected to seek a deal for the purchase of sophisticated weapons to counter potential Israeli air strikes on Iran’s nuclear facilities.

However, he may come away from his talks with President Vladimir Putin somewhat disappointed.

In the past, Moscow hesitated from strengthening military ties with Tehran while using the Islamic Republic as a counterweight to balance its relations with Western powers.

With talks to revive the Iran nuclear deal in the balance and the US and Russia jostling for position over a feared conflict in Ukraine, Moscow could once again be dangling a weapons deal in front of Tehran to get what it wants elsewhere.

The Kremlin needs to find a buyer for its Sukhoi Su-35 fighter jets. Reports suggest that the governments of Egypt, Algeria and Indonesia have pulled out of deals to buy the jets amid economic sanctions against Moscow. It is believed that the US threatened to punish Cairo, Algiers and Jakarta if they went ahead with the purchase.

Now Russia has a unique opportunity to sell those Su-35s to Iran – a country that has already learned to live under a range of tough international sanctions. Tehran reportedly aims to buy at least 24 of the multi-purpose super-manoeuvrable Su-35s in an attempt to modernize its outdated air force.

Although the 2007 UN Security Council embargo on conventional arms shipments to Iran expired in October 2020, it is still highly uncertain whether the Kremlin would dare sell the jets to Iran, since such a move would further damage its relations with the West.

More important, Russian policymakers allegedly fear that Iran, which continues to be under Western sanctions, would not be able to pay for all defence contracts fully.

Besides the Su-35, Tehran is also interested in Russia’s Yak-130 training jets, T-90 tanks, the advanced S-400 surface-to-air missile defence systems, and K-300P Bastion mobile coastal defence missile systems.

Raisi is certain to discuss an arms sale with Putin during his Moscow visit, which is expected to take place on January 19. According to reports, Raisi hopes to sign a 20-year, US$10 billion security and defence cooperation agreement with Russia. Such a deal could include the purchase of an advanced satellite system.

There is, however, no guarantee that a document will be signed during the visit and it is more probable that the two presidents will only discuss details of a potential agreement.

Even if the two countries sign a defence deal, that does not necessarily mean that the Kremlin will go ahead and provide sophisticated weapons to Tehran. After all, it would not be the first time that Russia has not followed through on its promises to Iran. The Islamic Republic has frequently turned to Russia for arms, but the Kremlin easily found excuses not to go ahead with military cooperation.

In 2010, Moscow refused to sell the S-300 system to Iran, bending to pressure from the US and Israel. Nine years later, Russia turned down a request from Tehran to purchase the S-400 system. It is believed that the Kremlin and Israel reached a tacit deal to avoid selling advanced weapons to certain countries, which is why Russia hesitates from deepening military ties with Iran, and Israel refuses to sell drones to Ukraine.

However, in October the chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, Major-General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, was in Moscow for talks with Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu and the country’s chief of the General Staff, General Valery Gerasimov. It is possible that the generals have already made some significant deals and Putin and Raisi will discuss them in detail.

Still, Russian officials are quite aware that selling advanced weapons to Iran would not only jeopardize Moscow’s ties with Israel, but would lead to additional tensions with Washington.

The Kremlin could therefore try to create a delicate balance, promising to take into account at least some of the American and Israeli concerns regarding Russia’s military cooperation with Iran, in exchange for Washington’s softer approach to Moscow’s ambitions in Ukraine.

This means Russia would continue to use Iran as a trump card in resolving its issues with the US. Tehran, on the other hand, aims to sign a strategic partnership with Moscow, and hopes to join the Russia-dominated Eurasian Economic Union to neutralize, to a certain extent, the cost of US sanctions.

Yet Iran could easily overestimate its economic importance to Russia.

Moscow appears to prioritize trade relations and military cooperation with Turkey over the Islamic Republic. Even though Turkey is a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Russia was glad to sell S-400 systems to Ankara. While the trade turnover between Russia and Turkey reached $16 billion in 2020, the trade volume between Russia and Iran for the same year was just $2.2 billion.

Given Iran’s isolation in the international arena, authorities in Tehran are compelled to deal with Russia, although they are mindful of Moscow’s double game with their country.