Richard Weitz – World Politics Review March 10, 2009
Will Russia supply Iran with the advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile system? That is the most important – and persistent – question regarding Russia's ongoing arms sales to Iran. The repeated rumors and confusion regarding a possible sale indicate that Russian policymakers are divided over the issue. It also illustrates the degree of mistrust between the Russian and Iranian national security communities over the subject of bilateral arms transfers in general, and disagreement over the extent to which Moscow should support Iranian defense aspirations over American and Israeli objections in particular.
The "S-300" family encompasses a range of specific models that the USSR and Russia have manufactured for the last three decades. They have varying capabilities, with the most advanced version (the truck-mounted S-300PMU1, designated as the SA-20 Gargoyle by NATO countries), capable of tracking and firing several interceptor missiles at multiple targets – including both cruise missiles and aircraft – over a hundred kilometers away.
The S-300 missile system
The Iranians have been seeking to buy the S-300 since Russia resumed arms sales to Iran in early 2001. An S-300 missile battery typically consists of a command and control center, a target acquisition radar as well as a target engagement radar, and as many as a dozen launch vehicles that can each shoot four interceptor missiles stored in cylindrical containers. The current negotiations apparently involve a contract to deliver some 40-60 launch systems, each with four individual interceptor missile tubes, as well as the associated radar and command-and-control systems.
All presently available versions of the S-300 have a much longer range and better accuracy than the Tor-M1 short-range air defense systems Russia provided Iran in late 2005. In combination with the Tor batteries, the S-300s could enable Iran to establish a more comprehensive, multilayered air defense network that would make it much harder for American or Israeli warplanes to attack Bushehr or other targets in southern Iran. For these reasons, Iranian defense planners have long sought to acquire the S-300s, while U.S. and Israeli officials have lobbied Moscow against such a transaction.
In December 2007, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said that Russia would supply several dozen S-300 systems to Tehran in 2008. Sources in the Russian military subsequently confirmed this report, with Mikhail Dmitriyev, director of the Russian Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, defending Russia's right to sell any weapon to Iran that was not prohibited by international law or other agreements. The Russian journal Kommersant then published an article reporting that Moscow was prepared to sell Iran five batteries of S-300 surface-to-air missiles for $800 million. Shortly thereafter, however, the Russian government repudiated the story, forcing Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini to issue an embarrassing retraction of Najjar's statement.
A similar episode arose in late December 2008. Again, Iranian sources reported the imminent sale of the controversial S-300s to Iran, with the deputy head of the Iranian Parliament's National Security and Foreign Policy Commission, Esma'il Kowsari, claiming that Russia and Iran had reached an agreement on the issue. When asked about the sale the following day, the apparently surprised Russian Foreign Ministry simply replied that it was investigating the issue. At a subsequent Moscow news conference, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov dismissed the entire affair
as a rumor concocted by the Western media: "I am very surprised by the fuss this story has caused recently. I think this is due to a lack of interesting international news in the run-up to the holidays that many of our Western neighbors are celebrating."
Various officials from Russia's arms exports bureaucracy subsequently defended Russian arms sales to Iran as adhering to Russia's obligation under international law, insisting that they promote regional security and involved "defensive weapons" that did not threaten other states.
On Feb. 17, while Najjar was in Moscow, Kommersant again confirmed that Russia and Iran had signed a contract for the delivery of five batteries of S-300s in exchange for $800 million, but that the Russian government had yet to ratify the deal. According to the paper
, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov told his Iranian counterpart that the Russian government had decided to delay delivering the S-300 to Iran until at least after Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Barack Obama held their first direct meeting. Russian officials apparently wanted to avoid any action that could disrupt a possible "reset" of the Russian-American relationship. A Russian defense industry source quoted in Kommersant said that other possible arms sales, including the Buk-M1 medium-range air defense missile, are also the subject of joint discussions but await decisions by Russia's political leadership to proceed further.
These S-300 episodes have never been fully explained. One possibility is that Russian policymakers have sought to use media leaks as trial balloons to gauge the likely international reaction to such a sale. If the foreign response had proved indifferent, Moscow might have gone ahead with the deal. When it proved sharply negative, Russia retreated, to Tehran's embarrassment.
Another possibility is that the Russian government has sought to draw attention to the possible sales as a means of pressuring Western, Iranian, or both parties into making concessions on other issues. In this interpretation, Moscow is trying to remind Washington and its allies that it has the potential to damage U.S. security interests in a vital area if American policymakers prove too obstreperous regarding Georgia, missile defense, or other issues.
A third explanation, which also does not exclude the other two, is that the Russian national security elite is divided, with some favoring such a transaction on commercial or strategic grounds while others object for diverse foreign policy reasons. From one perspective, the sale would provide the Russian defense industry with additional revenue to modernize its aging plants at a time when the deteriorating Russian economy threatens to curtail the sustained growth of Russia military spending. It could also deepen Russian-Iranian security ties, while encouraging the Iranian government to pursue its confrontational polices towards the West, which some in Russia see as enhancing Moscow's own bargaining leverage with Washington. On the other hand, other Russian strategists would like to see a modest relaxation in Iranian-Western relations in order to weaken support for the deployment of American missile defenses in Eastern Europe.
And then there is the Iranian angle to consider. Some Iranian officials, perhaps in collusion with Russian supporters of the sale, may have attempted to pressure Russia into consummating the long-sought S-300 deal by presenting them with a fait accompli through their public comments. The Iranian military is currently reorganizing to create a fourth branch -- in addition to the army, navy, and air force -- dedicated to air defense. Najjar may have aimed to pressure the Russians into completing the transaction by underscoring what he characterized
as Iran's growing ability to manufacture its own advanced missiles. The implicit message being that the window of opportunity for Tehran's possible purchase of the Russian-made S-300s may be closing.
When asked about the possible sale of the S-300s at his joint March 6 press conference in Geneva with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Lavrov avoided giving a direct answer
and instead replied with the standard Russian line that all military sales to any country are "in accordance with the Russian legislation dealing with the export controls . . . and in accordance with our international commitments." He also repeated that, "We supply our partners, first of all, non-destabilizing defensive types of weapons, and" -- in an allusion to American sales of weapons to Georgia -- "we want our partners to behave with equal restraint in their military supplies to the countries who quite recently used those weapons quite close to our borders."
Yet, Lavrov added that Russia takes seriously "concerns expressed by our partners from the United States and our partners from Israel," while stressing the P5+1 negotiations over Iran's nuclear program as the best avenue to allay those concerns. He further called for a regional dialogue "to ensure stable, reliable security where all countries there, including Israel, would live . . . side by side in peace and security."
President Barack Obama will have an opportunity to engage with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev directly on the S-300 issue at a side meeting almost certain to take place at next month's G-20 summit in London. But unless Washington is willing to make concessions regarding European missile defense, NATO expansion, or other Russian priorities, Moscow is likely to avoid any firm commitment to indefinitely defer S-300 sales to Iran.
Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a World Politics Review senior editor.
Last updated 17/03/2009