Russia official: No obstacles over Iran arms deal

Russia still considers Iran a valuable customer for its weapons, a top arms trade official said Thursday, issuing a reassuring message to Tehran despite recent indications of Moscow’s support for tougher Western sanctions.

The S-3oo would present formidable obstacle to any air strikesAnatoly Isaikin, the head of the state arms trader Rosoboronexport, said no international agreements bar Russia from selling weapons to Tehran. The statement marked another step in a delicate diplomatic game Moscow has been playing in a hope of maintaining good ties with Tehran without angering the West.

Russia signed a 2007 contract to sell the powerful S-300 air defense missiles to Tehran, but so far has not delivered any. No reason has been given for the delay, but Israel and theUnited States strongly objected to Iran obtaining the long-range missiles, which would significantly boost the country’s air defense capability.

Isaikin dodged a question if and when Russia could fulfill the contract, but he emphasized Russia’s right to provide Iran with weapons.

“There are no formal bans which would bar the delivery of any types of weapons to Iran,” he said at a news conference, adding that Russia’s arms trade with Iran isn’t covered under current U.N. sanctions.

The Obama administration is preparing to circulate proposed tougher new sanctions against Iran, which would target elements of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps as well financial institutions under existing U.N. sanctions resolutions, U.S. officials said.

Isaikin’s comments followed Wednesday’s statement by Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov who showed a cautious support for possible new sanctions against Tehran after talks with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Lavrov’s comments differed from previous Russian statements opposing any new sanctions against its important economic partner, Iran. Russia has been building Iran’s first nuclear power plant. Its launch has been repeatedly delayed and is now scheduled for some unspecified time early this year.

Russia has also provided Iran with some weapons and spare parts for Soviet-built military hardware, although none of them were as powerful as the S-300.

Russia has walked a fine line on Iran for years. It is one of the six powers leading efforts to ensure Iran does not develop an atomic bomb. But it also has tried to maintain friendly ties with Iran, a regional power close to Russia’s vulnerable southern flank. Moscow has particularly appreciated Tehran’s refusal to support Islamic insurgents in Chechnya and other Russian provinces in the volatile North Caucasus region.