Russian Sukhoi Su-35 fighters could be deployed at an underground Iranian airbase, experts speculated, analyzing satellite images and a propaganda video released by the regime.
The is in a mountainous area in Iran’s southern Hormozgan Province, only 100 miles north of the Strait of Hormuz, a strategic waterway that is crucial for global oil supply.
Iran unveiled the video titled “Eagle 44” on Feb. 7 in which a clue hiding in plain sight: on the wall was a poster with silhouettes of fighter jets. One in particular stands out. It’s situated front and center, and is in the shape of a Flanker series military jet that Iran currently doesn’t possess, but which officials claim Russia is in the process of selling to them, the New York Times reports.
The Iranian propaganda video, part of a trove of promotional releases about Eagle 44, also shows high-ranking military officials taking a tour of the base.
Satellite imagery analysis revealed mockups of two planes – one that is similar to the Su-35, and another that is currently in the Iranian Air Force’s inventory. The likely mockups appeared at their current location in January while construction on the base was still ongoing.
Combined, the details suggest two things about Iran’s plans: Officials are optimistic about the delivery of these planes, and they could be intending to use this air base to house some of them.
Shahriar Heidari, MP and member country’s National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, said in January the air force will receive 24 Su-35s. The Kremlin or the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) which manufactures the Su-35, has made no comments on reports of the sales which is expected to take effect in March 2023.
Military cooperation between Russia and Iran has been accelerated by Russia’s international isolation and need for military supplies following its invasion of Ukraine. Iran has been supplying loitering munitions and missiles to Moscow.
The Biden administration believes the Iranians are already receiving training on the new aircraft. John Kirby, a White House spokesman, said at a December news briefing that “these fighter planes would significantly strengthen Iran’s Air Force relative to its regional neighbors.”
Chris Biggers is a former U.S. government imagery analyst and senior director for Mission Applications at HawkEye 360, a firm that tracks radio frequency emissions around the world. In his analysis of the base, which he provided to The Times’ Visual Investigations team, Biggers identified two mockups of combat aircraft, including one that matches the dimensions of a Russian Su-35, in a construction staging area. “These are likely being used in assessing clearances for maneuvering the aircraft throughout the underground facility and could suggest they’ll be based here.”
Biggers believes the Su-35 deal to be “finalized in early 2023 as Tehran continues to support Russia’s war in Ukraine.”
The air base may still be undergoing some upgrades in preparation for the possible delivery, the report said. An existing tunnel entrance seen in the video footage may be too narrow to accommodate the wide Russian jets. But The Times’s analysis of the site shows that another tunnel, perhaps for larger planes, is still under construction.
A Times review of historical satellite imagery of the area found that activity started in August 2013, with excavation work on the underground facility visible by early 2014. As of February 2023, five tunnel entrances leading to the underground shelters were visible.
It is unclear if the intended use of the underground facility has always been for an Air Force base. Construction of the airstrip didn’t begin until May 2021, almost eight years after the first observed activity at the site, and is ongoing.