Would Russia risk START treaty talks to send S-300s to Iran?

How should one interpret the conflicting messages coming out of Moscow and Tehran last week about over whether Russia has sent S-300 air defense system components to Iran?

First, a senior Iranian parliamentarian, Esmaeil Kosari, deputy chairman of the Iranian Parliament’s Commission on National Security and Foreign Policy, informed Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency on Dec. 20 that after years of talks, Russian had agreed to deliver to Iran the S-300 system’s components. He stated that Iran would initially base the S-300 system around its borders.

The U.S. government took the claim seriously and protested to Moscow. U.S. officials privately said they had independent intelligence that Kosari was speaking the truth.

However, on Thursday, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told a news conference in Moscow that Russia had not sent those S-300 components to Iran. He flatly denied the allegations.

Also, the government of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, which has been all too happy to exaggerate its capabilities to defend the country against any U.S. airstrikes, remained silent throughout the controversy and certainly took no steps to confirm or deny Kosari’s claims.

At first glance, it would appear that Kosari deliberately exaggerated and that the Russians were telling the truth when they said the crucial S-300 components had not been sent. The Kremlin has been sending out a series of dovish signals to the incoming Obama administration that it wants to improve relations with Washington and to negotiate a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty to replace the 1991 START-1 treaty that runs out a year from now in December 2009.

Also, Russian policymakers are hopeful that incoming U.S. President-elect Barack Obama and his designated Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be ready to scrap the Bush administration’s plans to build two anti-ballistic missiles bases in Central Europe — one in Poland armed with 10 Ground-based Mid-course Interceptors and the other in the neighboring Czech Republic with an advanced radar array to guide the missiles on to their targets.

The stated purpose of these two bases is to defend the United States and Western Europe from the threat of future nuclear-armed Iranian intercontinental ballistic missiles. But the Russians insist the bases are really aimed at them and the survivable second-strike capabilities of their own nuclear missile forces.

It would therefore be reckless in the extreme for the Russians to endanger their prime strategic goals of negotiating a START-2 treaty and getting a peaceful agreement to scrap the planned BMD bases in Central Europe by sending those S-300 components to Iran now.

However, governments often make unexpected, rash, or self-defeating decisions for a whole host of reasons. And Russia has already supplied Iran with billions of dollars worth of nuclear technology and the engineers and technicians to build the Iranian nuclear reactor complex at Bushehr. Russia, as we have documented previously in these columns, has also already sold other advanced anti-ballistic missile and anti-aircraft defense systems to Iran: 29 Tor-M1s.

The Tor-M1s are roughly equivalent to the U.S. Patriot PAC-3 in being short-range systems especially against low-flying incoming threats like cruise missiles. But the S-300 system is designed to defend against both low-altitude and high-altitude aircraft, cruise missiles and intermediate-range ballistic missiles at longer distances of up to 100 miles. The two systems compliment each other, much as the U.S. Army’s Patriot and the U.S. Navy’s Standard Missile-3 do.

It is of course possible that the Russian government wants to take advantage of the interregnum between the outgoing lame duck Bush administration and the incoming Obama administration to rush through a fait accompli in delivering the S-300 to Iran in the belief that the new president’s passion for arms control will lead him to turn a blind eye to the deal.

That passion to negotiate a new START treaty and to scrap the planned BMD bases in Central Europe is shared throughout the Democratic Party’s foreign policy and national security establishment that will be taking over the top jobs at the Pentagon, the State Department and the National Security Council.

But if the Russians are indeed telling the truth, then why did Kosari claim that the S-300 components had been delivered when they had not been?