Shortly after Russia received its first batch of the “hundreds” of armed drones the White House said it is importing from Iran in August, declassified U.S. intelligence revealed that Moscow is also seeking “millions” of artillery shells and short-range rockets from North Korea. According to The New York Times, this is “a sign that global sanctions have severely restricted its supply chains and forced Moscow to turn to pariah states for military supplies.” Moscow’s present situation is somewhat similar to that of Iran’s in the 1980s, when it too was a sanctioned pariah embroiled in a costly and depleting war of attrition against its neighbor.
Ukraine estimates that its Russian adversary has left as little as 20 percent of its stockpile of mobile 9K720 Iskander short-range ballistic missiles. On Sept. 9, a Ukrainian Ministry of Defense representative estimated that Russia has less than 200 Iskander SRBMs, which is one reason why it is using an increasing number of S-300 air defense missiles against ground targets.
For now, Moscow is reportedly seeking large quantities of artillery shells from Pyongyang, which makes sense. According to estimates, Russia is presently expending up to 67,000 artillery shells per day in Ukraine.
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North Korea has an estimated 6,000 artillery systems pointed at South Korean cities, which could kill thousands of South Koreans in a mere hour if unleashed. Russia may similarly aim to use large quantities of North Korean artillery and short-range rockets to continue bombarding and devastating Ukrainian urban centers.
The Times’ report mentioned above, which was the first to disclose the alleged North Korean procurement, also cited an unnamed U.S. official who said that the U.S. also expects Russia to seek other military equipment from Pyongyang. The official did not elaborate on what kind of equipment. However, it would be telling if Moscow also sought North Korean ballistic or cruise missiles to replenish its dwindling stocks. Ditto for Iranian missiles, for that matter.
These seemingly desperate acquisitions amid a costly war of attrition bring to mind Iran’s predicament in the 1980s when it was fighting a seemingly endless and costly war against Iraq, in which it had huge artillery duels and suffered enormous troop losses.
Following the 1979 Iranian Revolution and the subsequent takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran later that year, the U.S. imposed an arms embargo against Iran, which operated a military arsenal of predominantly American and British hardware.
The following year, Iraq invaded Iran.
The Soviet Union offered to sell Iran weapons early in that war but was rebuffed. As a result, Moscow spent the rest of the 1980s arming Tehran’s adversary Baghdad instead.
Despite the embargo, Iran kept many of its Western-origin weapons operational, including its fleet of highly sophisticated F-14A Tomcat heavyweight air superiority fighter jets, which required a lot of maintenance.
Iran managed to expel Iraqi forces from its territory and go on a counteroffensive by mid-1982. The war became an increasingly bitter one of attrition that lasted another six years and led to no lasting territorial gains for either side. Throughout this time, Baghdad had the advantage of importing large quantities of Soviet and French armaments.
Tehran’s options were much more limited.
In 1984, a team of Iranians led by the so-called “father of the Iranian missile” Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam (a fascinating in-depth profile of whom is available on New Lines Magazine) were trained in Syria to maintain and use Soviet Scud missiles. But Syria did not provide any of the missiles to the Iranians since the Soviet Union controlled its arsenal.
Similarly, when Iran received some Scud missiles from Libya, Libyan military personnel were only allowed to launch them, even though those missiles ostensibly belonged to Iran.
Finally, Moghaddam acquired copies of Scud missiles, the Hwasong-5, from North Korea as part of a deal that included building a factory in Iran to assemble more locally.
Iran also bought Chenghu F7 fighter jets, a copy of the ubiquitous Soviet MiG-21 Fitter, from China during the war but never used them in combat. The jets were far inferior and less sophisticated than the advanced American fighters such as the F-14 Iran had received before the revolution.
Despite these notable efforts this embargoed pariah made to obtain weaponry, it was not nearly enough for Iran to prevail in its war with Iraq. In 1988, Iran’s military leadership made a list of equipment it estimated it needed to win the war that, as one official recalled, “included huge numbers of planes, tanks and missiles.”
Iraqi forces bombarding Iran’s Khorramshahr early in the Iran-Iraq War, October 1980.
“No one would sell us arms. In any case, we didn’t have the money,” Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, then Speaker of the Iranian Parliament and later president, later recounted.
Consequently, the expedient decision to accept a ceasefire, which Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini equated to “drinking a chalice of poison”, with Iraq was made. The war ended in August 1988 after killing at least a million.
There are huge distinctions between these two wars and periods, such as Ukraine, for one, not initiating the present war nor being anything like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
However, many other factors are indeed comparable. For one, there is Russia’s loss of tens of thousands of troops and depletion of vast quantities of munitions with little discernible gain, either strategic or tactical. Also comparable are the few fellow pariah countries Moscow can presently turn to for assistance as it faces wide-ranging sanctions.
As the Russia-Ukraine War continues into the coming months, or possibly even years, there will likely be more, albeit imperfect, analogies one can draw from the Iran-Iraq War.