China appears set to reap the “peace dividend” following Iran’s sanctions-lifting nuclear accord by selling Tehran 24 J-10 fighter jets in exchange for a 20-year access to a major Iranian oil field.
China will barter the 24 fighter planes for access to the giant Azadegan oil field under the weapons-for-oil deal, reports wantchinatimes.com, a Taiwanese news website.
Iranian authorities claim that the Azadegan field has oil-in-place reserves of about 33.2 billion barrels and recoverable resources estimated at about 5.2 billion barrels.
China has not confirmed the report, which, analysts say could buttress the case of Israel, Iran’s foremost regional rival, against the nuclear deal that Tehran has signed with the six world powers last month.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has slammed the deal a “historic mistake”.
Quoting foreign sources, the Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post is reporting the ultimate irony that J-10s now going to Iran are an adaptation of the Lavi aircraft, whose manufacture Israel terminated in the 1980s at the prototype stage.
“The Lavi was built and developed by Israel Aircraft Industries, though the government eventually decided to terminate the programme due to the high costs of production and after the U.S. offered to sell Israel F-16s as an alternative. After the cancellation, the Israeli government resolved to sell the plans to China,” observes The Jerusalem Post.
According to the Taiwanese portal, the J-10 fighters have a range of 2940 km, which will cover Iran’s entire air space as well as of the Persian Gulf. However, analysts say that the transfer of only 24 planes, or two squadrons, is unlikely to shift West Asia’s strategic military balance that is heavily tilted in favour of Israel.
China signed an agreement in 2009 to supply 36 J-10B planes to Pakistan, but none of the aircraft, which were part of $ 1.4 billion contract, has been delivered to Islamabad as yet.
Iran is significantly reliant on military aircraft to protect its vital national assets, including its sole civilian nuclear power plant, as well as strategic gas fields. The Fars News Agency of Iran has reported quoting a senior air force commander that the country’s F4 fighter jets are protecting the Bushehr nuclear power plant as well as the giant South Pars oil and gas field.
“At present, Shahid Yasini air base is responsible for fulfilling missions to provide cover and defend the Islamic Iran’s airspace and economic lifeline using F4 aircraft, in addition to conducting tactical and combat missions,” air force commander Esmayeel Lashkari was quoted as saying.
The Bushehr plant began operations in September 2011, but full commercial production is expected to start later in 2015.
Observers point out that if the reports about the China-Iran deal are true, it would confirm that despite the nuclear deal in which the Americans played a significant role, Iran is unlikely to loosen ties with its traditional allies in Eurasia, including China.