Iranian officials said Wednesday that they had signed a contract to buy an advanced Russian antiaircraft system, a move that could complicate any plans for an attack by U.S. or Israeli warplanes.
The sale to Tehran of powerful air defense technology would also be a new source of friction between the Bush administration and the government of Russian President Vladimir V. Putin. U.S. officials harshly criticized Russia for a missile sale to Iran completed in January.
In Crawford, Texas, where President Bush began a post-Christmas holiday, White House Deputy Press Secretary Scott Stanzel expressed concern over the disclosure, which had not been confirmed by Moscow as of late Wednesday.
“We have ongoing concerns about the prospective sale of such weapons to Iran and other countries of concern,” Stanzel said.
U.S. officials have long suspected Tehran of seeking to build nuclear bombs, although the Iranian government has repeatedly denied doing so. A U.S. intelligence report concluded last month that Iran suspended any nuclear weapons effort in 2003.
The White House has consistently said it is committed to diplomacy to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons but always adds that no option is off the table, including military force.
Administration officials are frustrated with the lack of progress in their efforts to arrange a new round of United Nations sanctions against Iran, heightening fears of a possible military showdown.
By dramatically upgrading its national air defense system, Iran is likely to only fuel such fears.
The new Russian technology is part of its S-300 antiaircraft system, which consists of long-range weapons that have been compared to the U.S.-built Patriot missile in their sophistication and capability.
The S-300 system would augment the Tor-M1 antiaircraft missiles, which Tehran purchased from Russia and received this year.
Whereas the Tor-M1 missiles are intended for lower-flying planes, unmanned vehicles and precision-guided weapons, the S-300’s missiles are able to reach high-flying support squads and far-off, approaching attackers. The S-300 system missiles’ range is about 90 miles, or an altitude of about 90,000 feet, weapons experts said.
The contract was signed Tuesday in Tehran and announced Wednesday by Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar, according state-controlled news agencies and websites.
“Russia will provide Iran with the S-300 missile system under a deal signed between the two countries,” Najjar said, according to state media.
“The exact date of the delivery will be announced later,” the defense minister said.
Najjar denied any connection between the deal and the recent U.S. intelligence report, according to state media.
The S-300 was originally developed by the former Soviet Union to combat aircraft and cruise missiles, but later variations were also developed to intercept ballistic missiles.
Until recently, Iran’s air defense system was based on 1970s technology and was focused on protecting its military bases and nuclear installations. Because the systems were in fixed locations, they were considered vulnerable, especially to possible U.S. or Israeli attack.
In 2005, Russia agreed to sell Iran its modern, mobile Tor-M1 antiaircraft systems, which are based on the platform of a tank. Under the deal, Iran would purchase 29 tank launchers, each carrying its own radar and eight guided missiles.
U.S. officials protested the sale.
In the midst of the sale, the Bush administration last year placed Russia’s state arms trader, Rosoboronexport, and Russian fighter jet manufacturer Sukhoi under State Department sanctions.
The move prevented U.S. firms from doing business with the Russian companies. Sanctions against Sukhoi, which also sells aircraft to Venezuela, were rescinded months later after a meeting between Bush and Putin.
Putin’s government argued that engaging Iran, rather than threatening the country, offers a more promising chance for future stability.
The Russian president dismissed questions about the Tor-M1 missile deal in an address in Munich, Germany, in February.
The earlier sale, estimated to be worth at least $700 million and as much as $1.5 billion, also was part of what is seen in the West as Russia’s drive to reestablish itself as a world arms supplier.
At the same time, however, the Russians had resisted Iran’s requests for access to the more advanced S-300 system, in part to avoid an increase in international tension.
Some arms experts have speculated that Iran could have been making plans to buy some of the missiles from another country. Russia recently agreed to sell some of the larger missiles to Belarus and Cyprus.