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Putin Lifts Ban On Supplies Of S-300 Missiles To Iran

  • RFE/RL

S-300 surface-to-air missile systems are deployed in a military exercise by the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy in the Kaliningrad region in January.

S-300 surface-to-air missile systems are deployed in a military exercise by the Baltic Fleet of the Russian Navy in the Kaliningrad region in January.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has signed a decree lifting the country's ban on deliveries of high precision S-300 missile systems to Iran, in a move that drew criticism from the United States and Israel.

Russia imposed the ban and scrapped a contract for delivery of S-300s in 2010, under pressure from the West, after backing the last UN Security Council resolution imposed on Tehran over nuclear activities the United States and other countries feared were aimed at developing atomic weapons.

Putin's decree comes two weeks after Iran and six global powers including Russia and the United States agreed on the framework of a deal that would curb Tehran's nuclear program in exchange for relief from UN, U.S., and EU sanctions.

The 2010 UN resolution sharply restricted weapons exports to Iran, and Russian officials have called for the swift removal of those limits.

The Kremlin press service said on April 13 that the decree lifts prohibitions on the transport and delivery of S-300 systems from Russia to Iran.

The White House said on April 13 that Secretary of State John Kerry raised objections with Moscow over the plan.

Kerry made the U.S. opposition clear in a phone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, the White House said.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated the move could endanger plans to ultimately lift sanctions on Iran as part of a final nuclear deal.

Separately, State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said that U.S. officials do not think Russia's decision to deliver a missile system to Iran would affect the major powers' unity in ongoing nuclear talks.

But the U.S. military expressed concern about the Russian move.

"Our opposition to these sales is long and public. We believe it's unhelpful," Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters.

Moscow's decision also infuriated Israel, which has strongly urged Russia not to provide Iran with the missiles.

Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement on April 13: "This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal that is being prepared, and proof that the Iranian economic growth which follows the lifting of sanctions will be exploited for arming itself and not for the welfare of the Iranian people."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters in Moscow that the missiles are an "exclusively defensive weapon."

Lavrov said "it will not hinder the security of any state in the region, including Israel."

Putin's decree appears aimed at helping Russia secure a stronger foothold in Iran if a final deal on Iran's nuclear program is reached and sanctions are removed.

The ban became a major irritant in Russia's relations with Iran, which took legal action seeking reparations for Moscow's failure to honor the contract.

An unnamed Russian Defense Ministry official said Moscow was ready to deliver S-300s swiftly if the political leadership decided to do so.

A senior Russian diplomat said separately on April 13 that Russia had started supplying grain, equipment, and construction materials to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal -- another sign of Moscow's determination to get a jump on the competition for trade with Tehran.

"I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oil-for-goods deal, which is on a very significant scale," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament.

"In exchange for Iranian crude-oil supplies, we are delivering certain products," he said. "This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime."

Sources told the Reuters news agency more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed with Tehran that would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day in exchange for Russian equipment and goods.

Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a barter deal has been signed.

Putin's decree may also be aimed at rewarding Tehran for decreasing its recalcitrance over its nuclear program in the weeks ahead of a June 30 deadline set by Iran and the six powers -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France, plus Germany -- for a full deal.

But it is likely to harden opposition to a deal from Israel and other skeptics, including some foes of U.S. President Barack Obama in the Congress, who say they fear the agreement would encourage Iranian aggression while doing too little to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said that Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry discussed Iran in a telephone call on April 13.

Russia has far warmer relations with Iran than the Western states in the Security Council do. It has long used the potential delivery of S-300s as a lever in its regional diplomacy and in geopolitical struggles with the United States and Europe over the Middle East.

Putin and other Kremlin officials have voiced far less concern than their Western counterparts about the prospect of Iran potentially developing a nuclear weapon, despite Russia's proximity to Iran.

Domestically, the decree will please Russian defense industry leaders and let Putin look like he is taking a tough line against the West.

The ban was imposed by former President Dmitry Medvedev, the Putin protege who is now prime minister and was accused by hawks at home of being far too eager to please Washington during his 2008-12 presidency.

The S-300, known as SA-10 Grumble in the West, is a series of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems.

The S-300 system was developed to defend against aircraft and cruise missiles for the Soviet Air Defense Forces. Subsequent variations were developed to intercept ballistic missiles.

With reporting by TASS, Interfax, RIA Novosti, Reuters, and AFP