Sale of weapons to nations who play both sides of international divides brings in much-needed revenue for the U.S. and other nations, but it also undermines the world order by empowering rogue regimes like Iran.
The porous border between Iraq and Iran, plus Iran’s considerable influence in Iraqi political and administrative circles, is ensuring that circumvention of U.N. and U.S. embargoes via Iraqi routes has become standard operating procedure for Tehran.
Even the Obama Administration, which is notable for ratcheting up sanctions, acknowledges the cat and mouse game afoot as Tehran works nonstop to find ways of acquiring banned equipment and knowledge via its western neighbor. The illicit flows are not one way either.
Western intelligence agencies are of the consensus that Iraq also is the conduit for Iran’s outward shipments of armaments and personnel to sustain the Assad regime in Syria. Equally troubling, the two governments have been expanding their military cooperation after Iraqi Chief of Staff Lieutenant General Babaker Zebari met with Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) General Mohammad Pakpour last November in Tehran.
Now Iraq has inked a contract for another batch of 18 F-16 fighters from the United States. The first order, worth $3 billion, was approved in September 2011 with delivery expected in three years. This second order, which will be delivered through 2018, brings Iraq’s shopping spree for American military equipment to $12 billion.
Granted, the F-16 is no longer cutting edge and its sale to over two dozen nations keeps Americans employed at General Dynamics during harsh economic times. But can the U.S. be sure this technology will not be passed on to or shared in some form with the Iran’s IRGC and air force whose own aircraft are even older?
Faced with a mounting struggle to maintain the combat readiness of its aging fleet of F-14 Tomcats, F-4 Phantoms, MiG-29s, and Mirage F1s, access to F-16 technology for reverse engineering (as Iran appears to have done with downed U.S. drones), would be very much welcomed by Iranian commanders.
Iran, it seems, has already been endeavoring to obtain F-16 know-how from Venezuela. Having access to the latest versions of the F-16, or even pilfering its hardware and software, would enhance Iranian defensive capabilities against U.S. and British forces stationed in the Persian Gulf.
Moreover, it will bolster Tehran against Jerusalem, for the Israeli Air Force still deploys upgraded versions of the F-16. Russia seems to have buckled under international pressure to abstain from directly selling weapons systems to Iran.
Yet Iraq could be the indirect path from Moscow to supply Tehran, or at least turn a blind eye to such technology transfers. Baghdad has reached agreement with Moscow to acquire $4.3 billion in advanced weaponry.
Soon, 30 Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters—the current standard for Russian forces in all-weather, day-night, operations—and 42 Pantsir-S1 short to medium range surface-to-air missile and anti-aircraft systems—again the latest in Russian technology and capable of defense against stealth aircraft—will be headed to Iraq.
Tehran is no doubt eyeing those military purchases as possible windfalls, especially as it already has deployed at least 10 96K6 Pantsir-S1E obtained via Syria while the Coalition Forces were still in Iraq. Russia is negotiating the sale of MiG-29s, capable of being armed with nuclear weapons, to Iraq as well.
Access to that aircraft technology would provide Iran’s nuclear program with an alternative to the missile delivery system it is currently developing domestically. Additionally, Baghdad will be obtaining 24 L-159 combat and training aircraft from the Czech Republic for $1 billion.
Iraq is a sovereign nation with the right to ensure its armed forces are appropriately equipped to defend borders and citizens from external and internal threats. Yet it also has an obligation to ensure regional stability is maintained and international obligations are enforced.
At present the Iraqi administration is proving incapable of preventing its soil and airspace from serving as transit points for Iran’s unscrupulous schemes. Providing Baghdad with weapons arsenals it probably would not be able to keep secure will likely compound those problems.
So unless Iran’s influence over Iraq’s military is excised and its access to Iraq’s roads, waterways, and airspace is shut down, a range of deadly technologies and possibly weapons themselves may very well end up on the IRGC’s bases.
With such equipment in hand, Tehran’s politicians and generals will feel more emboldened than ever to continue weaponizing their nuclear program, threatening the West and Israel with devastation, collaborating with other rogue states, and interfering in neighboring countries.
The resulting mess could eventually cost the U.S. and its partners much more in lives and cash to clean up than is generated from the current technology sales. The US needs to parlay armaments for revenue and influence—but it must also be careful whom it entrusts with such destructive capabilities. And it should counsel other superpowers to exercise caution too.
Jamsheed K. Choksy is professor of Iranian, Islamic, and International Studies at Indiana University where he served as director of Middle Eastern Studies & Carol E. B. Choksy is adjunct lecturer in Information Science at Indiana University and CEO of IRAD Strategic Consulting, Inc.