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Iran Teased Its Rebranded Russian T-90 Tank

March 14, 2017

Via Iranian Ministry of Defense.

Iran once again sent tremors across the web this past weekend. On Sunday, March 12, state-run media broke the story of a new main battle tank that was superior to its rivals in the West. The new vehicle named “Karrar” was unveiled in an elaborate press conference organized by the ministry of defense.

The Karrar, Farsi for “Striker,” is built in Dorud, Lorestan Province. According to Iranian media the Karrar is equipped with an advanced fire control system that includes a laser rangefinder and a thermal imaging suite. The exact specifications of these subsytems were never mentioned but it’s obvious the Karrar isn’t an indigenous tank, even though Press TV broadcast a video clip of its production line.

Closer scrutiny suggests the Karrar is based on either the Russian T-90S or T-90MS. The latter was originally dubbed the Tagil by Uralvagonzavod during the Russia Arms Expo in 2011. Today it’s referred to as the T-90M Proryv. The Russian Army, whose tank units are still beefed up with T-72B3’s and T-80BVM’s, are slowly acquiring these models. The T-90M was made available for export but ignored until India began negotiating for $2 billion worth of tanks in 2015. It now appears to have found an enthusiastic customer in South Asia–and an unwelcome imitator next door.

It’s not surprising Russian media immediately went on the defensive after the Karrar broke cover in Iran. On Monday, March 13, Sputnik International ran a story that somewhat debunked the hype surrounding the Karrar. Citing a retired Major General, Sputnik revealed the Karrar was a copy of the earlier T-90MS and claimed Iran had failed to buy the original tanks outright.

Russian T90AM MBT

Illustrated profile of Russian T-90MS or Moderna.

The T-90MS is recognizable for its exaggerated level of armor. Thick side skirts almost conceal the tracks. Wedge-shaped ERA blocks encase the glacis and turret, which mounts separate optics for the gunner and commander. There’s a distinctive remote weapon station armed with a 7.62mm PK machine gun near the turret bustle. In the Karrar, however, the manufacturer managed to attach a 12.7mm machine gun. But an earlier prototype had what looked like an anti-material rifle for a secondary weapon instead.

For Iran to copy Russian-made tanks isn’t surprising. Revolutionary Iran turned to China and North Korea during the bitter war years with Iraq in the 1980s. This led to a large, if questionable, stockpile of Soviet and Eastern bloc weapons and armor. A modernization program driven by acquisitions commenced in the 1990s when Russian T-72S tanks were added to a battered fleet of American and British tanks from the Shah’s time. Iran’s state-owned Defense Industries Organization (DIO) began licensed assembly in 1995 and this lasted until 2012, with total production reaching 538 tanks.

Always advertising its arms industry, over the years Iran cast itself as the Middle East’s drone power and an incubator of sophisticated military technology. The truth is far from flattering. Iran’s state-owned factories mass-produce clones of existing weapons and equipment and obviously rely on imported parts. It was only in the last few years were fully localized weapon systems began to emerge.

When it came to tanks Iran struggled for decades with its Zulfiqar program, which was an odd attempt at copying the M1A1 Abrams. It’s now apparent it’s been abandoned and the Karrar, whose existence was rumored since 2016, opens new possibilities for the ground forces. The optimism is diminished if the Karrar is just an upgrade of Iran’s existing T-72’s, a versatile model that could be rebuilt into other variants.

But the Karrar bears too many noticeable differences from a T-72. Foremost being its turret, which is assembled from welded panels that are arranged to fit a very large bustle. The armor protection on the Karrar is quite baffling. Some claim these are a combination of blow-off panels and ERA blocks made in Iran.

While its doubtful Iran’s factories and their subcontractors can build a tank fleet rivaling those of India or Turkey, at least a hundred Karrar’s in service might prove enough to boost the army’s overall firepower.

The broader picture for Iran’s regular army, the Artesh, is far from impressive. It’s a vast and inefficient enterprise full of conscripts with questionable equipment. Even a vaunted battle tank like the Karrar won’t change this condition any time soon.