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
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,"
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
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
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
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.