Iran closer to getting Russian missiles
Beirut - Iran says it has received “the first part” of advanced Russian air-defence missile shipment under a controversial $800 million contract, a transfer that could dramatically bolster the Islamic Republic’s military capabilities as the entire Middle East is torn by conflict likely to drag on for years and further sour US-Russian relations.
The Tasnim news agency, which is close to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) that will control the new S-300PMU-2 Favorit systems, reported on April 11th that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jaber Ansari has confirmed the delivery, although he gave no details.
Western military analysts are concerned that the long-delayed sale of five batteries of the long-range S-300 missile under the December 2007 contract could be the precursor of other big-ticket arms deals with Moscow under which Tehran will acquire other potent weapons systems to modernise an arsenal that has been weakened by decades of international arms embargoes.
“The transfer of updated S-300s would be a potential game-changer, since Iran’s current air defences are relatively weak and plagued by coverage and capability gaps,” analysts Michael Eisenstadt and Brenda Shaffer of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy asserted.
It would, among other things, “provide Iran, for the first time, with the ability to intercept cruise missiles and short- and medium-range ballistic missiles… The missiles might also embolden Iran to take greater risks in a variety of areas, in the belief that more advanced SAMs would increase the price of retaliation for adversaries.”
Delivering the S-300s would further upend the Middle East’s military balance at a time when Iran is driving to become the paramount power in a region wracked by the Syrian war and increasingly dangerous face-off with Saudi Arabia, its long-time arch-rival, as the United States relinquishes its traditional dominance in the region. Israel and Turkey will also be alarmed.
Russia’s provision of the new missiles will also strain the already difficult relations between the US and Russia and will likely intensify US opposition to ongoing tests of Iran’s ballistic missiles that violate UN Security Council resolutions. On March 24th, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals allegedly involved in the test programme.
In August 2015, Iran and Russia announced the S-300s would be delivered by the end of 2016. Russian Deputy Defence Minister Mikhail Bogdanov said then that “just technical details” remained to be agreed.
The 2007 deal, which involved fraught negotiations over several years and was bitterly opposed by the United States and Israel, hit trouble in late 2010 when then- Russian president Dmitry Medvedev blocked delivery amid swelling global sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear programme.
Iran filed a $4 billion lawsuit citing breach of contract. Russian officials said Tehran was persuaded to withdraw it after “long and tough negotiations”.
Once Iran signed the July 2015 agreement with US-led global powers, pledging to curtail its nuclear project in return for lifting crippling sanctions and releasing about $100 billion in frozen assets, Russian President Vladimir Putin gave the sale the green light.
Even so, Iran’s relations with the United States remain volatile because Tehran has accelerated plans to modernise its military capabilities using funds freed under the nuclear agreement. This includes a possible sale of Su-30 fighter jets, which Iran’s dangerously rundown air force badly needs and which the US has vowed to block.
Despite Putin’s drive to bolster Russian arms sales in the Middle East as part of his master plan to restore Moscow’s influence in the region, the S-300 deal with Iran could still founder because of suspicions both Russia and Iran harbour about each other’s strategic objectives.
“Moscow views Iran with a mixture of deep distrust (due in large part to its ability to threaten Russian interests in the Caucasus and Central Asia) and exasperation (due to the difficulty in previous S-300 negotiations), so the Kremlin seems content to use the prospective S-300 sale as leverage over the United States and Israel, for example pressuring them to refrain from arms transfers to Ukraine,” Eisenstadt and Shaffer observed.