Despite the highly anticipated and heavily touted deal the Iranian regime struck with Moscow earlier this year, in recent days Iranian media outlets have reported that Russia will not deliver Sukhoi-35 (Su-35) aircraft to Iran.
Iranian officials in January announced they had ordered 24 Sukhoi-35 fighter aircraft from Russia, and would receive them "within three months".
Su-35 fighters are the 2013 variant of the Su-27 family of aircraft. The original Su-27 was manufactured as part of a 1970s Soviet Air Force initiative.
The Su-35s were poised to become the Iranian air force's most modern combat aircraft, as well as the force's first new aircraft system since 1990, when Iran procured MiG-29s and Su-24s from the former Soviet Union.
The Su-35s designated for delivery to Iran were reportedly ordered by Egypt in 2019 but never delivered.
News of Tehran's deal to buy Su-35s from Moscow continued into February, with Iranian military officials saying Iran's air force fleet is dated and missing "fourth and fifth generation fighters".
At the time, Iranian Majles (parliament) member Shahriyar Heydari, who serves on the national security committee, stated with certainty that the fighters would be delivered to Iran early in the new solar year (which began March 21).
In March, amid anticipation of the aircraft's arrival, the Iranian government said it had "finalised a deal to buy 24 Su-35 fighters from Russia".
The deal was made in 2018, during former Iranian president Hassan Rouhani's second term in office, and Tehran paid for the purchase in full at the time, according to some reports.
In June, Iranian air force commander Brig. Gen. Hamid Vahedi addressed questions and speculation about the Su-35 fighters in a television interview.
"We need them, but don't know we when they will be added to our fleet, as this is a matter that needs to be decided upon by high-ranking officials," he said.
As with all matters related to the Islamic Republic, the details are murky and undisclosed, leaving much room for speculation.
President Ebrahim Raisi's administration has been tight-lipped on whether the money has been paid to Russia, Iranian media have mostly quoted foreign media amid the shortage of domestic information, and expatriate Persian media have published conflicting reports about the deal.
'Tempest in a teacup'
Amid all the commotion and speculation surrounding the delivery of Su-35s, it became clear in July that the long-awaited fighters would not arrive in Iran, with neither the Iranian nor the Russian government offering an explanation.
On July 20, Iranian Defence Minister Mohammad-Reza Ashtiani answered a question about the fighters' arrival in these words: "Given that we have certain capabilities, we may not feel the need to buy [certain] equipment."
He suggested that "other countries may even come to Iran to buy", going on to note that "Iran is among the world's superior countries in technical, scientific, production, manufacturing, research and all air [force-related] aspects".
He went on to state that "as the conditions are suitable for us to produce [the fighter aircraft] domestically, we have concluded that we are able to produce them in the country".
That said, he added, Iran is considering its options.
"Iran has been attempting to buy fighter planes since 1990, after the Iran-Iraq war ended, but it has not been able to do so," an Iran-based military analyst told Al-Mashareq, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The regime was sure this was a done deal and made a lot of noise about it, trying to make the world believe that it is becoming a great power by aligning itself with Russia," the analyst said.
All of that proved to be a tempest in a teacup, he said, adding that some reports say Russia decided against exporting the Su-35s and their technology, parts and service to Iran, but it is not entirely clear why the deal fell through.
It is not even clear if the deal has fallen through, or if Russia simply has refused to deliver the Su-35s, he added.
Trouble in paradise
Air Force commander Vahedi was opposed to the purchase of Su-35 fighters, but it is not clear why, according to an unnamed Iranian journalist quoted by the Iranian daily Taadol.
The journalist said the Russian government also has announced its opposition to transferring the Su-35 technology, parts and repairs to Iran for the next 30 years, albeit for a different reason, according to the report.
The delivery may have been cancelled as the Iranian military needed parts and repairs for a number of years, and demanded the transfer of technology to start its own manufacturing and servicing operations, say some observers.
The overt disagreement comes even as Iran and Russia have deepened ties during Russia's war on Ukraine, with Tehran providing Moscow with drones and signing an agreement to establish a drone manufacturing facility in Russia.
An Iranian delegation reportedly visited the Russian city of Yelabuga on January 5 and viewed an "empty site" where a drone production facility would be built.
The facility was to produce 6,000 of an advanced type of the Shahed-136, according to the Wall Street Journal and Iranian media.
The stalled aircraft purchase also comes as Iran -- capitalising on Russia's distraction with its war on Ukraine -- seeks to gain the upper hand in Syria, where the two countries are allies but also competitors.