Iraq Looks to Russia, China, Ukraine For Air Defense Options After Soleimani Airstrike

Dimitri Simes | January 20, 2020 | 6:30pm EST
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A Russian S-400 system on display. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)
A Russian S-400 system on display. (Photo by Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Moscow ( – A senior Iraqi lawmaker announced on Monday that the Iraqi government is exploring buying Russian, Chinese, or Ukrainian air defense systems, possibly in exchange for Iraqi oil shipments.

The remarks come amid signs that Iraq is considering acquiring a sophisticated Russian air defense system, following the Trump administration’s lethal airstrike in Baghdad early this month against Iranian Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani.

Badr al-Ziyadi, a member of the Iraqi parliament’s security and defense committee, told the As Sabah newspaper that Iraq plans on sending delegations to Russia, China and Ukraine to inquire about purchasing advanced air defense systems.

“The delegations intend to visit such countries as Russia, China and Ukraine, to negotiate the purchase of modern systems to protect Iraq’s airspace,” he said. “The Iraqi parliament is right now forming a joint executive and legislative delegation to visit the developed countries and sign contracts on procuring advanced weapons.”

Ziyadi said Iraq could potentially pay for the weapons systems with oil shipments instead of cash.

“Many nations indicated [their] readiness to ship modern weapons to Iraq in exchange for oil,” he said. “This is the best way to ensure the shipment of good weapons to Iraq without corruption and bribery.”

Muhammad Ridha, head of the parliamentary defense and security committee, told the Russian state news agency RIA Novosti last week that Baghdad had recently restarted discussions with Moscow about potentially acquiring the Russian S-300 air defense system.

Discussions had initially begun after unattributed airstrikes last year against bases in Iraq of the Iran-backed Shi’ite militias known as the “Popular Mobilization Forces” (known locally as the Al-Hashd al-Shaabi).

“A few months ago, following attacks on the Shi’ite militia bases of Al-Hashd al-Shaabi in Baghdad and other provinces, the need for these weapons arose and the responsible party resumed negotiations on the S-300 contract,” Ridha said.

He recalled that earlier negotiations for the S-300 had collapsed because of U.S. threats to impose sanctions against Iraq if it went through with the purchase.

But now Iraq intends on pursuing a deal for the Russian systems even though it expects a backlash from Washington, Ridha said.

Tensions between Washington and Baghdad arose after the Trump administration killed Soleimani in an airstrike near Baghdad’s international airport on January 3. The Iraqi government condemned the strike and parliament shortly thereafter voted to expel all U.S. forces from Iraq – where they are deployed to train Iraqi forces.

It was in that context that Russia reached out to Iraq about a new weapons deal. RIA Novosti reported earlier this month that Russia is offering to sell Iraq its more advanced S-400 air defense system, to help “ensure the country’s sovereignty and reliable protection of airspace.”

The S-400 is a surface-to air-missile system capable of targeting aircraft, drones, and missiles within a 400 kilometer (250 mile) range and at an altitude of up to 30 kilometers (18 miles).

The U.S. has consistently opposed efforts by allies to acquire the S-400. After Turkey – a NATO ally – defied U.S. appeals and received its first S-400 shipment from Russia this past summer, President Trump responded by suspending Turkey from its F-35 jet program.

In December, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee passed a resolution calling for sanctions against Turkey over the purchase.

The State Department said last week the U.S. would sanction Iraq if it chose to buy S-300s or S-400s from Russia.

“Purchasing [the systems] is likely to become a trigger for sanctions, so we advise our partners not to make such purchases,” said Joey Hood, principal deputy assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs.

Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov responded by declaring that U.S. sanctions would not be enough to deter Moscow.

“We are not afraid of these sanctions,” he told the state-run TASS news agency. “We are ready to oppose them.”

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