Russia’s S-300 for Iran stuck in limbo

M.K. Bhadrakumar May 26, 2015 1:54 PM (UTC+8)
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There is compelling evidence that the United States Secretary of State John Kerry sought from the Russian leaders and successfully obtained an assurance during his visit to Sochi a fortnight ago regarding the delivery of S-300 missile defence system to Iran. The officials accompanying Kerry had told the media that he was sure to take up the S-300 issue. We heard nothing on the topic, however, after the talks ended in Sochi.

The Americans had taken a consistent line that Russia should not supply the S-300 to Iran. The former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev heeded the U.S. demarche and imposed a ban. President Vladimir Putin had reversed the decision on April 13.

The Iranian and Russian claims on the status of the deal are poles apart. Iran says it will receive the S-300 “soon” (Xinhua). But Russia says that nothing of the sort has been decided.

The FARS news agency quoted Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Amir Abdollahian following talks in Moscow on Monday as saying, “Negotiations on the delivery of the S-300 (missile system) to Iran has been successful.” Abdollahian had rushed to Moscow following a conversation with his Russian counterpart Mikhail Bogdanov on Friday, ostensibly to discuss the situation in Yemen. Possibly, the visit related to the S-300 deal.

At any rate, Abollahian’s assessment has been promptly contradicted by Russia’s deputy secretary of Russia’s security council Yevgeny Lukyanov (deputy to Nikolai Patrushev) who told Interfax today, “A decision concerning S-300 deliveries to Iran has been adopted, but the implementation of this project will take time. As far as I understand, the right time to make such deliveries has not yet come. (Emphasis added.)

Lukyanov refused to commit himself to any timeframe for the S-300 delivery to Iran. He said brusquely, “If you want details, you should ask the producer — Almaz-Antey — to provide them. You can also ask them at what technological stage this system is now.” When asked whether the systems would be delivered within this calendar year, he replied, “I do not know.” He seemed to stonewall. Russia’s S-300 deal with Iran seems stuck in limbo, neither dead nor alive.

On April 13, when President Vladimir Putin had signed the decree lifting the ban on the delivery of the S-300 missile systems to Iran, the U.S.-Russia tensions were nearing a dangerous flashpoint reminiscent of the Cold War era. Russia had even begun talking about a nuclear war. Obviously, lifting the ban on delivery of S-300 would have shifted the military balance between Iran and Israel significantly and that would have hurt American interests hard.

But the tensions have significantly eased since Kerry’s visit to Sochi on May 12. Of course, Moscow pundits will be indignant if anyone were to say that Kerry struck a deal on S-300 issue with the Russian leaders as part of a broad understanding during his talks in Sochi, which totaled over 8 hours. But then, the Russian-American tango is replete with such deal-making. (See my column in Asia Times Obama’s overture to Putin paid off.)

The typical Russian-American dealmaking involves quid pro quo. We still don’t know how Kerry would have extracted a Russian assurance to mothball the delivery of S-300 to Iran, but it is conceivable that he made an offer that was seductive enough, which the Russians couldn’t refuse. Most likely, it would have been on Ukraine. The Moscow Times reported yesterday that at the Sochi talks Kerry didn’t raise Russia’s annexation of Crimea, which would have been as part of a broader understanding aimed at defusing the crisis situation in Ukraine.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar
MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for the Asia Times since 2001.
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