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    Central Asia
     Jan 9, 2009
Russia arms to Iran: A mistimed gambit?
By Roger N McDermott

Reports originating from within Iran, alleging an agreement by Russia to supply Tehran with modern air defense systems, have sparked mixed reactions from official sources in Moscow.

Russia and Iran, according to those initial reports on December 21, were holding talks on supplying medium-range air defense systems - specifically, S-300 surface-to-air missile systems - and Esma'il Kowsari, the deputy head of the Iranian parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, stated that Tehran had reached an agreement with Moscow on the future delivery of S-300 missile systems.

The following day, Russia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs said it was


"checking" these reports. A spokesman for Russia's state arms exporter was tight-lipped, saying only they could make no public comment on an agreement with its partners.

Yet, the signals are conflicting and were perhaps deliberately confusing. For example, sources within the Russian Defense Ministry (MoD) displayed an entirely different attitude, not only assuming that the S-300 system would be supplied to Iran in due course, but concentrating on the domestic implications; denying this would have any implications for the combat readiness of Russia's Air Defense Forces.

It is planned, according to the Russian MoD, to deliver the S-300 systems to Iran from Russian Defense Ministry warehouses. The systems for Iran had been removed from active duty and placed in storage. "It is expected that S-300 systems will be supplied to Iran from Defense Ministry storage bases. At the moment S-300 systems are being prepared for their handover to Rosoboronexport to be later shipped to the customer," the source said.

In fact, despite the highly controversial nature of supplying such weapons systems to Iran, compounded by the increased tension in the Middle East, unofficial sources in Russia's MoD failed to see what the stir could be about. Instead, it was emphasized that the planned supply to Iran with S-300PMU1 systems was merely defensive: aimed at protecting "important facilities" from aerial attack.

Neither the Russian MoD nor Rosoboronexport has officially confirmed the sales.

This theme of supplying only defensive arms to Iran was soon mirrored in statements by the press service of Rosoboronexport. Vyacheslav Davydenko, the head of the press service of Rosoboronexport, was emphatic about the defensive nature of any arms sales from Russia to Iran. "At present only defensive arms systems, which include air defense systems, are being supplied to Iran," Davydenko said.

Earlier Tor-M1 (short-range) air defense missile systems were supplied to Iran, to which Davydenko may have been referring. However, he was unapologetic about Russian arms sales to Iran, saying, "The prospects of further cooperation with Iran as well as with other countries can only be discussed with the clients themselves for obvious reasons. At the same time it is noteworthy that Russia's military and technical cooperation with Iran is implemented in strict compliance with the international obligations of the Russian Federation under the current regulations on non-proliferation and cannot be a cause of concern for other countries."

Needless to say, such arms supplies are vehemently opposed by the United States, Israel and Russia's European partners. Apologists in Russia fail to offer any convincing argument in favor of such arms sales. It is questionable whether the funds from the sale of the strategically important arms would rescue the Russian budget, or more to the point, an arms industry which is already receiving capital injections from the Russian government to prevent its demise.

The trouble for Moscow is that it has consistently shrouded its military-technical cooperation with Tehran with self-perpetuating secrecy, which in turn fuels speculation in the West that Russia may be pursuing questionable defense diplomacy.

Some argue it is the Iranians themselves who want to shift the issue of Iran's military cooperation with Russia away from purely technical matters, such as seeking sources to procure weaponry cheaply, into the political sphere. This bilateral military cooperation is further complicated by its possible impact on Russia's relations with the US and Israel. Arguably, sales of the S-300 system would most immediately affect Israel, since Iran's procurement plans are often calibrated in relation to the capabilities of the Israeli air force.

The S-300 saga has been developing for more than a year. Iran's Defense Minister Mostapha Mohammad-Najar first said on February 26, 2007, that Iran and Russia had signed a contract for the delivery of the S-300 systems; by December 28, 2007, Russia had refuted this. The contractual delays, since the negotiations can hardly be denied, have largely resulted from the Russians feeling themselves "found out" and perhaps hoping the controversy would die down. The delays have been caused by the political pressures against the deal from Washington, Tel Aviv and Brussels.

In reality, Moscow is engaging in a diplomatic game with the West linked to its opposition to US Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) plans and sees the need to enhance as many possible bargaining chips. In this sense, it is not surprising that the issue of such "sales" should re-emerge just before the US presidential inauguration on January 20.

Opposition to Iran acquiring the S-300 system is also related to its military effectiveness because the system has high anti-jam protection and is capable of firing at 24 targets simultaneously; guiding to each target two missiles from one launcher or four missiles from two launchers. And the S-300 can hit any air targets - including planes and missiles.

There are some factors the Kremlin underestimates. After Russia's war in the breakaway Georgian region of South Ossetia last year, Israel effectively guaranteed that it would no longer supply strategically important arms to Russia's area of interests. The whole business of the supply of weapons to Georgia was a source of embarrassment to the Israeli government. Will Russia risk Israel's chagrin, and the possible upgrading of Georgia's air defense systems that could ensue?

It seems that Russia's interest in suppling such sensitive systems to Iran sends a strong and possibly miscalculated signal to Washington - one that is open to misinterpretation - in order to "promote" compromise over the BMD. The move comes even as Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has said that he hopes improved relations with the US will be developed with US president-elect Barack Obama.

The Kremlin's eagerness to promote the image of a "resurgent Russia", despite its present financial crisis, and its ambition to become another "pole" in a multipolar world order, may be the reasons behind its move to reactivate the "frozen" issue of arms sales to Iran.

Yet, in the context of the latest confrontation between Israel and Hamas in Gaza, its timing could prove ill-fated. Washington will likely continue to oppose such "sales" to Iran, especially with the Middle East being so fragile, while seeking reassurances from Moscow about its commitment to building enduring peace in the Middle East.

As some diplomats within the European Union note, "Russia is an interesting enemy."

Roger N McDermott is an honorary senior fellow, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury (UK) specializing in defense and security issues in Russia, Central Asia and the South Caucasus.

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(24 hours to 11:59pm ET, Jan 7, 2009)


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