Moscow Opens the Prospect of an Iranian Arms Embargo

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 73

After the signing of the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START-3) in the Czech capital Prague with President, Barack Obama, last week, Dmitry Medvedev arrived in Washington for the two-day Nuclear Security Summit in a buoyant mood. Speaking in an often humorous tone at the Brookings Institution, the prestigious Washington think tank, Medvedev outlined a number of Russian policy priorities (RIA Novosti, April 14).

Medvedev was uncompromising in asserting Russian domination of the post-Soviet space. He insisted that the government of the Kyrgyz President, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, was overthrown in a bloody revolution last week that left over 80 dead and some 1,500 wounded, due to Bakiyev’s inconsistency in opposing the US military presence in Central Asia. According to Medvedev, Bakiyev first ordered the US and its allies to leave the airbase, Manas, near the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek. Then he allowed the Americans to continue to use Manas to transfer personnel and supplies into Afghanistan, renaming the airbase into “a transit center” and increasing payments for the lease. Now, Medvedev joked, all may see the results of “such a consistent policy” (, April 14).

The message sent to the Washington elite is obvious: keep out of Moscow’s sphere of influence. Medvedev insisted the US “must not teach Russia how to live” (RIA Novosti, April 14). At the same time compliance with Moscow’s demand for a hands off policy by the West in the post-Soviet space may bring important bonuses: cooperation on nonproliferation, arms control, and combating terrorism. Medvedev, who is a self-proclaimed internet enthusiast, announced that by telephone or e-mail he and Obama will synchronize the simultaneous application of the START-3 treaty for ratification in the Senate and the Duma. Medvedev accused Iran of “creating problems,” by covering its nuclear program in secrecy and ignoring or repudiating legitimate questions about its nuclear activities. Medvedev agreed that new UN anti-Iranian sanctions may be inevitable, though they “must be wise, effective” and not crippling (RIA Novosti, April 14).

Prior to traveling to Washington, in an interview to ABC, Medvedev, according to the official Kremlin web site, explained that Moscow opposes any punitive sanctions against Iran which would include an embargo on oil exports or gas imports, hinting that China would veto any such move. Similarly, for the first time Medvedev stated that “sanctions covering the arms trade” may be feasible – “our experts are discussing possibilities” (, April 12).

A possible arms embargo, if passed by the UN Security Council, would be a serious concession by Moscow, which since 1991 has been the main supplier of modern arms to Iran. In December 2005, it signed a deal with Tehran to sell five divisions of S-300 long-range antiaircraft missiles –40 to 60 antiaircraft missile launchers each carrying four missile tubes, radars and control stations worth $800 million. In December 2008, the Iranian state news agency, IRNA, reported that after several years of negotiations to buy S-300’s, Iran and Russia had finalized a deal and that Tehran would take “delivery of S-300 air defense systems from Russia soon.” Together with the Tor-M1 and the older super long-range S-200 that Moscow shipped to Iran earlier, the S-300’s could provide the Iranians with a capability to build a solid multilayer air defense shield to protect its nuclear facilities against a possible US or Israeli air attack, and inflict serious damage on the attacking force. Without the S-300’s Iran does not have credible air defenses and its nuclear facilities are vulnerable to such attacks (EDM, October 22, 2009).

However, the delivery of the S-300 has still not occurred, and this has irritated many in the Russian establishment. Deputy Foreign Minister, Sergei Ryabkov, insisted that the contract to supply the S-300’s will certainly proceed and it has nothing to do with the Iranian nuclear issue (Interfax, February 20). The Speaker of the Federation Council, Sergei Mironov, asserted that only “technical problems” have somewhat delayed the delivery of the S-300’s, and that “Russia always fulfills its obligations” and “Iran will surely get the missiles to exercise its right to defend itself against any attack” (RIA Novosti, February 20).

The S-300 missiles earmarked for Iran are not newly built, but instead are drawn from the Russian defense ministry inventory. The S-300 deal is highly profitable: Russia would ship surplus hardware in return for sizable sums, apparently enriching many in Moscow. The lobbying effort to push the S-300 deal through from within the Russian establishment and from Tehran is strong. Nonetheless, this week the Deputy Defense Minister and Chief of the General Staff, Army-General Nikolai Makarov, dismissed the statements by Ryabkov and Mironov concerning the S-300 deal being delayed because of unspecified “technical problems.” According to Makarov: “The military are ready to go ahead with the deal, but our political leaders must give the order” (RIA Novosti, April 12). This confirms earlier reports that Prime Minister, Vladimir Putin, (and President Medvedev) has stopped the S-300 delivery in its tracks (EDM, October 22, 2009). If Medvedev’s suggestion of an arms embargo is realized, the S-300 deal may be finally dead.

Such a concession would be highly unpopular in Moscow, so Putin and Medvedev will demand serious compensation: effective moves by the Obama administration on START-3 ratification in the Senate, on World Trade Organization (WTO) membership, and removing Russia from the Jackson-Vanik amendment. Moscow has recently effectively engaged the US and EU member states in lucrative business deals. Moreover, by offering to closely cooperate over Iran, the Kremlin might hope to weaken Western criticism of any future assertion of Russian interests in the post-Soviet space.