The Frozen S-300 Missiles Deal: A Signal to Obama or a Deal with Israel?

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 33

Iranian Defense Minister General Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar visited Moscow this week to discus the purchase of sensitive weapons systems, the antiaircraft S-300PMU-1 missiles in particular. According to the daily Kommersant, the contract to sell Iran five S-300 missile divisions was signed "some time ago" and the Russian arms traders are ready to ship the missiles anytime, but the deal has been stalled "because of political considerations" (Kommersant, February 17). The contract to sell the S-300s is reported to involve 40 to 60 antiaircraft missile launchers each carrying four missile tubes, radar, and control stations worth a total of some $800 million. The S-300PMU-1 has a range of 150 km (93 miles) and can hit targets up to 27 km (17 miles) high. In December 2005 Russia sold Iran 29 modern short-range Tor-M1 antiaircraft missiles for some $700 million. The Tor-M1 missiles have a range of 12 km (7.5 miles) and can hit targets 6 km (3.7 miles) high. Iran has been seeking the longer range S-300s to defend its nuclear facilities against a possible U.S. or Israeli air attack (Kommersant, February 17).

Last December the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported that after several years of negotiations to buy S-300s, Iran and Russia had finalized a deal and that Iran would take "delivery of the S-300 air defense system from Russia soon." Tehran dismissed Israeli objections to the sale of S-300s, announcing, "Israelis are not able to damage friendly relations between Iran and Russia" (IRNA, December 21, 2008). After some hesitation, the Russian Foreign Ministry repudiated the Iranian report of S-300 deliveries (RIA-Novosti, December 25, 2008). General Najjar announced that Iran would report about S-300 deliveries "at an appropriate moment" (RIA-Novosti, December 24, 2008). Apparently, Najjar used this week’s visit to Moscow to press for the S-300 delivery, but he seems to have failed. According to Kommersant, Moscow will not hurry to fulfill its commitment to provide Iran with the S-300s as a friendly signal to Washington that could facilitate dialogue with President Barak Obama’s administration (Kommersant, February 17).

Finding a solution to stop the Iranian nuclear program is indeed a priority for Washington and is seen as a possible field of U.S.-Russian cooperation. President Dmitry Medvedev and Obama will have their first meeting at the G20 summit in London in April, and a shipment of S-300s to Iran could seriously spoil the atmosphere. The desire to please Washington may not, however, be the only or even the main reason to freeze the shipment of S-300s. The first reports about the details of the Iranian S-300 contract appeared in Russia in December 2007, and the deal has apparently been on hold since thenlong before Obama was elected (Interfax, December 2008).

In the run-up to the London summit, Moscow has provided Kyrgyzstan with over $2 billion in aid as an incentive to close the U.S. Manas Air Base, which is vitally important for the U.S. troop surge to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, a key Obama security objective. Officially, Moscow has maintained that the decision to oust the U.S. military from Manas was not connected to the offer of massive Russian aid. This week during a Kyrgyz parliamentary discussion on a resolution to close Manas, however, an opposition MP announced that Moscow had applied pressure to shut down the base (Interfax, February 18).

The decision to freeze the S-300 contract may, in fact, be a result of a secret Russian-Israeli deal. Last December Amos Gilad, a high-ranking Israeli Defense Ministry official, traveled to Moscow in an attempt to stop the shipment of S-300s to Iran as news of the possible deal began to circulate. In Moscow Gilad publicly denied that Russia and Israel had a tacit mutual agreement not to ship "sensitive weapons systems" to third parties; but, in fact, there seems to be such an understanding. In 2008, during a run up to the Russian invasion of Georgia, Israel stopped the shipment of spy drones and other "offensive weapons" to Tbilisi at Russia’s request (Interfax, December 19, 2008; see also EDM, January 8).

Last August Syrian President Bashar Assad visited Sochi soon after the war with Georgia. Before the visit Assad announced that he fully supported the Russian invasion and expressed hope that Moscow would better understand the role of Israel in supporting Georgia. Assad expressed willingness to station Russian jets, Iskander ballistic missiles, S-300 missiles, and warships in Syria. In 2005 Moscow signed a contract to sell the Syrians Iskander missiles, but the Kremlin froze the deal and last August Assad returned without Iskanders or S-300s (, August 21, 2008).

Russian-Israeli military ties, on the other hand, are increasingly close. Russia and the Israeli defense industry have been jointly producing billions of dollars worth of weapons for India, and the Russian military is at present negotiating the purchase of $100 million worth of Israeli-made spy drones (RIA-Novosti, January 27). Russia has failed to produce modern drones, and Israel seems ready to help.

Close military cooperation has increased Israeli lobbying power in Moscow and given it much more influence than the United States in influencing Russian sensitive arms sales. Perhaps the main message Moscow wants to convey by freezing the S-300 deliveries to Iran is that if Washington gratifies Russian objectives by curtailing ties with Georgia and Ukraine and freezing missile defense system deployment in Poland and the Czech Republic, Moscow would be ready in turn to meet Obama halfway.