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Russia Flexes Missile Diplomacy With Iran

A man holds a flag with portraits of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev in front of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems during a military exhibition outside Moscow in 2014.

Russia's potential delivery of antiaircraft S-300 missile systems to Iran has long been shrouded in controversy and contradictions. But with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decree allowing shipments of these high-precision systems to Tehran, will Moscow finally make good on these deliveries?

Public statements from Russian officials suggest Moscow is serious about supplying this hardware to Iran after Putin’s April 13 decree lifting an earlier ban on these shipments. The decree came weeks after Iran’s tentative agreement with world powers over its nuclear program.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said such deliveries would not violate a UN Security Council resolution forbidding the provision of certain weapons to Iran, whose ability to protect its nuclear facilities from potential attacks would receive a significant boost from the S-300 systems.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Defense Ministry said Moscow is prepared to move quickly to ship the S-300s to Tehran should “a political decision” be made to do so, the Interfax news agency reported.

Simon Saradzhyan, a security expert at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, told RFE/RL that it would be “very unusual” for Russia to lift the ban and then fail to deliver the S-300s.

Defense analyst Ruslan Pukhov, however, suggested Putin’s move is aimed at securing geopolitical leverage for Russia.

“The fact that he lifted the decree does not mean that the missiles will actually be sold. It is mainly a bargaining chip versus Israel and the U.S.,” Pukhov, head of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, told The Financial Times.

Putin’s decree could revive Moscow’s $800 million deal with Iran for the S-300 systems that was scrapped in September 2010 by then-President Dmitry Medvedev.

Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow in 2009.
Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow in 2009.

Medvedev’s decree banned the provision of “battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems” to Iran, in line with a UN Security Council resolution adopted earlier that year.

Iran subsequently filed a $4 billion lawsuit in a Swiss arbitration court, though Russia offered to compensate Tehran to the tune of $800 million for the canceled deal.

Mixed Signals

Russia’s readiness to supply S-300 systems to Iran has been awash in rumors, speculation, and mixed signals for more than a decade.

According to Russian media reports, Tehran was inquiring as early as 2003 about buying the missile systems and other Russian hardware to defend its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear power plant.

Over the ensuing years, both Iranian officials and Russian sources were quoted as saying that an agreement had been reached for deliveries of the S-300s, while Iranian officials stated publicly that the missile systems would soon be -- or already had been -- delivered. Russian officials periodically denied reports that it would supply the missiles to Iran.

The shipments failed to materialize, and officials in Washington praised Russia for its restraint. In December 2010, then-U.S. Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs William Burns called Medvedev’s cancellation of the $800 million contract “enormously important.”

U.S. officials on April 13 expressed clear opposition to Putin’s decision to lift the ban on the S-300 deliveries to Iran, which White House spokesman Josh Earnest suggested could risk the removal of sanctions against Iran as part of a possible final deal on Tehran’s nuclear program.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf, however, said U.S. officials do not believe the unity of the P5+1 group of world powers -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia, China, and German -- would be impacted should Russia supply the missile system to Iran.

Saradzhyan called Putin’s decree an attempt to improve Russia’s relations with Iran following Medvedev’s cancellation of the S-300 deal and to demonstrate Moscow’s commitment to cooperation with Tehran even before it is clear whether a final agreement will be reached on curbing Iran’s nuclear activities.

“That won’t be lost on Iranian leaders as they will decide how to shape relations with great powers in future,” he told RFE/RL.

With reporting by Interfax, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, and The New York Times
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    Carl Schreck

    Carl Schreck is an award-winning investigative journalist who serves as RFE/RL's enterprise editor. He has covered Russia and the former Soviet Union for more than 20 years, including a decade in Moscow. He has led investigations into corruption, cronyism, and disinformation campaigns in Russia and Central Asia, as well as on poisoning attacks against Kremlin opponents and assassinations of Iranian exiles in the West. Schreck joined RFE/RL in 2014.