Iraqi-Russian Arms Deal Suggests Reduced American Role

The United States appear comfortable letting Russia expand its influence in the region.

Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters in service with the Afghan Air Force take off in a formation practice, April 12, 2007
Soviet-made Mi-17 helicopters in service with the Afghan Air Force take off in a formation practice, April 12, 2007 (USAF/SergeantCecilio M. Ricardo Jr.)

Russian news agencies report that Moscow has signed arms trade agreements with Iraq worth more than $4.2 billion.

The move returns Russia to the role of principal arms provider to Iraq, second only to the United States in the volume of goods to be shipped, for the first time since Saddam Hussein was in power and could hint at a number of dynamic trends for the broader Middle East, including the nature of America’s withdrawal from the region.

The new arms agreement, reportedly signed shortly after talks between the two countries’ prime ministers concluded on Tuesday, is apparently the first in what is supposed to be a litany of procurements for the new Iraqi state. It is said to include orders for as many as thirty Mil Mi-28 attack helicopters, nearly four dozen Pantsir-S1 mobile surface to air missile systems and numerous types of weapons designed to augment the capabilities of the country’s infant ground forces.

Ongoing talks between the new partners will focus on fighter aircraft, most likely the Mikoyan-29 fourth-generation air superiority platform, and various armored vehicles for use in military peacekeeping operations. Such new forces, when delivered, will undoubtedly operate alongside American supplied platforms like the F-16 fighter jet and M1A1 Abrams main battle tank.

In many ways this move, precipitated by smaller arms trade deals last year, is not surprising on the part of Baghdad. Recent regional tensions centering on the rise of Iran as a potential future nuclear belligerent have regularly referenced Iraq. Rather than saying that the post Hussein state would have any stake in a brushfire conflict in the Persian Gulf or a major conflagration between Iran and Israel, such talk merely refers to the country’s geographical location between Tehran and much of the greater Middle East region.

Commentary on the subject of potential conflict with Iran commonly points out that Iraqi airspace is presently vulnerable and would likely be used by one or more parties as a corridor for transit during strike operations.

Indeed, considering that Israeli planes, for example, would be faced with multiple midair refueling operations or a riskier trip through Egyptian and Saudi airspaces if they were not to cross into Iraq, it seems likely that the longer Iraq cannot act to deter incursions across its borders, the higher the likelihood that something like that will happen.

And so it seems that Baghdad is taking prudent action to build up the most competent and effective capabilities in the shortest amount of time. MiG-29 and F-16 fighters would give the country a solid interceptor and strike capacity, while mobile surface to air missile defenses would help constitute a system that could make Iraq’s presently undefended airspace more secure.

Perhaps the most interesting food for thought to emerge from this arms deal then, given that Iraq has desperately been looking for ways to expand its nascent military capabilities within the bounds of its budget, is the fact that Russia has successfully become a part of the national-security procurement strategy of a country that is closely aligned with the United States. While Moscow is undoubtedly one of the few prominent sellers of military hardware at virtually any level, few countries have had success courting both the Americans and Russians for procurement agreements. More tellingly, there are almost no instances where Russia has been able to break into a market already dominated, politically or otherwise, by the United States.

If America won’t prevent a partner country from dealing elsewhere in the arms trade, it is possible that Washington will be willing to let more countries fill gaps in its reach in years to come. With regards to the scheduled 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan in particular, a country where Russia has traditionally been heavily invested and vilified, this could indicate that America would be comfortable to cede influence in the region to Moscow, a move that would undoubtedly reduce the chance that American forces would have to return to the region in great numbers soon.

Whether or not this new arms partnership between Baghdad and Moscow does indeed indicate a precedent of that kind will only be determined by time. However, Iraq is clearly on the fast track to attaining national-security objectives, a fact that, given present tensions between nearby states, may be no bad thing.

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