In defiance of the international arms embargo, Iran last week placed an order with Moscow for a huge fleet of 100 Russian IL78 MKI tanker aircraft (NATO: Midas) for refueling its air force in mid-flight, thereby extending its range to 7,300 km. This is reported exclusively by debkafile from its military and intelligence sources. The transaction runs contrary to the terms of the nuclear accord the six world powers and Iran signed in Vienna earlier this month.
These tanker planes can simultaneously refuel six to eight warplanes. Their acquisition brings Israel, 1.200km away – as well the rest of the Middle East – within easy range of Iranian aerial bombardment. It also puts Iran’s air force ahead of Israel’s in terms of the quantity and range of its refueling capacity.
Whereas opponents of the Vienna deal have warned that Tehran will spend the billions of dollars released by sanctions relief as a bonanza for fueling its campaigns of terror in the region, it turns out that Iran’s first post-accord purchase is a heavy investment in the rearmament and upgrade of its armed forces’ aggressive capabilities.
The Israeli air force is familiar with the Russian airborne tanker from its use by the Indian air force with which Israel has close ties of cooperation. Its military engineers have also upgraded the Russian fuel tankers in service with the Uzbekistan air force.
Tuesday, July 21, debkafile uncovered some of the tactics and escape clauses Iran has had built into its nuclear accord with the world powers for circumventing its provisions and commitments. The purchase of Russian refueling craft is a concrete example of this kind of evasion. Because the accord confirms the arms embargo in force until 2020, both Moscow and Tehran can maintain that the Russian aircraft industry will not be able to produce 100 new planes before the five years are up, and so the transaction is not a violation.
The huge Iranian-Russian military transaction therefore stands as the first palpable test of the Vienna accord, depending on whether US President Barack Obama or his Secretary of State John Kerry decides to make an issue of it. If they just let it go, it will set a precedent for the arms embargo clause of the nuclear accord to start unraveling.
Also Tuesday, Kerry gave an interview to the Al Arabia TV to prepare the way for his mission to the Gulf region on Aug. 3, which is to ease its rulers’ extreme unease over the ramifications of the nuclear accord. He asserted strongly to the interviewer: “I am not going to go through in great detail all the ways in which this agreement, in fact, makes the Gulf States and the region safer.”
The Secretary of State can expect some really hard questions during his trip on exactly how the Vienna accord makes the region safer, when Iran’s first act after signing is to arm itself with a fleet of Russian in-flight fuel tankers to expand and strengthen its range and power for aerial aggression.