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Iran: Arms Imports
Country Study > Chapter 5 > National Security > Arms Acquisitions > Arms Imports


Historically, the role of imported matériel in supplying the regular armed forces has been broad, vital, and controversial. After World War II, the preponderance of U.S.-made weapons led to a dependence on the United States for support systems and spare parts. Because foreign technical advisers were indispensable for weapons operations and maintenance, the cessation of U.S military cooperation in 1980 was difficult for Iran. After the war with Iraq, Iran felt the need to strengthen and diversify its military hardware, but it lacked funds for a comprehensive buildup. Because of the cost of the Iran–Iraq War, U.S. economic sanctions, fluctuating oil revenues, and unwise economic policies, Iran’s military procurement budget at the end of the 1980s was about half its prewar size. Iran was forced to depend heavily on low-grade weapons imports. During the 1980s, Iran was able to circumvent the U.S. embargo somewhat through third-party purchases of spare parts for U.S. military equipment, as well as additional U.S. missiles. Unverified reports alleged that Israel agreed to sell Sidewinder air-to-air missiles to Iran, as well as radar equipment, mortar and machine gun ammunition, field telephones, M–60 tank engines and artillery shells, and spare parts for C–130 transport planes.

In the 1980s and 1990s, other countries directly or indirectly supplying weapons to Iran included Syria (which transferred some Soviet-made weapons), France, Italy, Libya (which provided Scud missiles), Brazil, Algeria, Switzerland, Argentina, and the Soviet Union (later, Russia). Most purchases were arranged in international arms markets. Despite embargoes, some matériel from West European countries reached Iran. West European states often wished to keep communication channels open with Iran, even during periods of difficult political relations.

Although Iran’s procurement budget increased significantly beginning in 2000 as oil prices increased and economic conditions improved, in 2003 Iran reached an all-time low in expenditures on imported combat technology (see Gross Domestic Product; The Petroleum Industry, ch. 3). Between 1996 and 1999, Iran signed new arms agreements valued at US$1.7 billion, but for the period 2000–3 the total was only US$500 million. Since the early 1990s, the main foreign supplier has been Russia, which between 1992 and 2004 signed arms contracts with Iran valued at US$7 billion despite pressure from the United States to limit such transactions. In November 2005, Iran signed a US$1 billion arms purchase agreement with the Russian government.

After 2000 Iran continued to focus its arms imports on advanced weapons and missile technology. In the early 2000s, China reportedly developed several new types of tactical guided missiles, mainly for use on missile patrol boats, specifically for sale to Iran. In 2004 Iran began negotiations with North Korea for the purchase of the Taepo–Dong 2, whose estimated range of 4,000 to 6,500 kilometers would make it Iran's first intercontinental ballistic missile. A major part of a 2005 arms agreement with Russia called for the delivery and installation of 29 TOR–M1 missile defense installations, costing US$700 million. The TOR–M1 detects low-flying missiles that evade detection by conventional radar systems. It also operates against fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft and aerial drones.

Last Updated: January 2008

Editor's Note: Country Studies included here were published between 1988 and 1998. The Country study for Iran was first published in 1987. Where available, the data has been updated through 2008. The date at the bottom of each section will indicate the time period of the data. Information on some countries may no longer be up to date. See the "Research Completed" date at the beginning of each study on the Title Page or the "Data as of" date at the end of each section of text. This information is included due to its comprehensiveness and for historical purposes.

Note that current information from the CIA World Factbook, U.S. Department of State Background Notes, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade Country Briefs, the UK's Foreign and Commonwealth Office's Country Profiles, and the World Bank can be found on

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