Beyond S-300s, Iran has never been a comfortable partner of Russia
1582 words - On September 22, 2010, the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev issued a decree prohibiting the delivery of S-300 air defence missile systems, in contradiction with a $800 million contract signed in 2005 and made public in 2007 to equip at least five Iranian battalions. These systems are capable of destroying aircraft at ranges of 150 km (90 miles) and at altitudes of up to 27 km (17 miles). State Duma Deputy and head of the International Affairs Committee, Konstantin Kosachev, told Russia Today television that political losses of delivering S-300 missiles to Iran would have been greater than the commercial ones estimated at $1 billion. Despite the risks of additional costs following possible compensation claims by Iran and the risk of damaging its relations with Tehran, Moscow introduced its decision as a clear commitment to nonproliferation efforts.
The ban is described as "very significant" by experts on Russia as it also concerns other weapons systems. The decree bars the delivery to Iran of "any battle tanks, combat armoured vehicles, large-calibre artillery systems, combat helicopters, military ships" and missiles covered by a UN register, as well as spare parts, the Kremlin said. Even more significant is the fact that Moscow banned entry to and transit via Russia for a number of Iranian nationals involved with the nuclear program. It also bans Russian individuals and legal entities from interacting in any way with Iran's nuclear program. However, Russian officials said the ban will not affect the Bushehr nuclear power plant project whose reactor shall (in Russian) be started up in the next few weeks under Russian supervision and with IAEA approval. On September 27, 2010, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) Ali Akbar Salehi announced that his organization plans to inject fuel into the Bushehr nuclear power plant reactor by early October 2010.
In June 2010, Russia backed strengthened UN Security Council sanctions (Resolution 1929) against Iran's nuclear activities. In August 2010, the building of the Russian-made nuclear power plant in Bushehr finalized. Days ago, Russia confirmed ongoing discussions over a $300 million sale of Yakhont anti-ship cruise missile to Syria, which raised Israel's fears these ones could fall into the hand of Hezbollah. In the meantime, Iran took delivery of 29 Russian-made Tor-M1 air defense missile systems under a $700-million contract signed in late 2005.
Russian analysts calculated the total loss of the delivery ban of S-300 could be worth $10 to 13 billion in arms sales to Iran in the long run. As a result, they said, China is likely to become the main arms supplier of Iran in the future. Indeed, twelve percent of China's oil comes from Iran. According to ISRIA, the delivery ban means that Iran's development of S-300-like systems will cost money which won't benefit the nuclear program. In another respect, the ban could accelerate Iran's development of ballistic capabilities which would participate in sanctuarizing its nuclear installations if no effective solution on the nuclear program was found in the next years, not to mention the likely export of such technologies.
This [delivery ban] has no negative effect on us (...) but they [Russia] have broken a contract (...) showing that they cannot be trusted, which we already know," Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Ahmad Vahidi bluntly replied following the Kremlin's announcement. "The resolution imposes no restrictions on air-defense systems so the action by the Russian leadership, which cites the provisions of the UN Security Council resolution six months after it was adopted, lacks logic," he was quoted as saying by the Fars news agency. Iran argues that latest UN sanctions don't impose restrictions on air-defense systems like S-300. The UN Register of Conventional Arms doesn't include them indeed.
On the one hand, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov reiterated on September 23, 2010 there's no proof that Iran is building nuclear weapons. On the other hand, Russia voted latest sanctions because of Iran's failure to prove that its nuclear enrichment pursues civilian purposes. From a general standpoint, Russia actually sticks to the diplomatic solution about Iran considering that any military action would have negative consequences. On September 22, 2010, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told journalists at the 65th UN General Assembly (UNGA) in New York that Russia's military cooperation with Iran will continue.
It didn't prevent Tehran from warning Moscow the ban may have negative consequences on bilateral relations. Denouncing the Russian move as a "political measure", Tehran's Ambassador to Moscow Mohammad Reza Sajjadi pointed out (in Russian) contradiction between Russia's restriction on arms sales to Iran and recently released information about U.S. plans to sell $123 billion in weapons to Middle East countries. He explained it will negatively impact the Russian public opinion and damage Russia's independent stance on the world stage.
For months, Tehran had reasons to doubt Russia would deliver the S-300 systems and Deputy Commander of Khatam ol-Anbia Air Defense Base for Coordination General Hassan Mansourian affirmed Iran will be able to develop its own air defense systems. "If (the Russians) do not deliver S-300 defensive system to us, we have replacements and we can supply our operational requirements through innovative techniques and different designs," he reportedly said. Replacement's solution is known as the Mesbah 1 (Lantern) or Mersad air defense system of which the building officially started on April 2010. According to Iranian officials, it consists of a mid-range defense system capable of destroying advanced airplanes and Unmanned Arial Vehicles (UAVs) in low and mid altitudes.
At a meeting on September 22, 2010 of the Foreign Ministers of the E3+3 (Russia, UK, China, US, France and Germany), Lavrov stressed the Iranian nuclear problem could only be solved by politico-diplomatic methods. He stressed that the project of a scheme for the exchange of Iran's low-enriched uranium for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor had not lost its potential and relevance. He noted its successful implementation would contribute to the creation of a positive atmosphere that was needed to start dialogue on a broader range of issues connected with the Iranian nuclear program. It would "ensure that everybody sees on a proven basis the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran's program," he told Russian media at the 65th UNGA.
Russia believes Iran is seriously considering the situation. It sees the ban on S-300 systems' delivery as an additional signal of the need for Iran to seriously take into account both the sanctions and the proposal of the international community. From Moscow's standpoint, the ban issued by the Kremlin means there no other choice for Tehran than hearing that signal and acting accordingly.
For the last five years or more, S-300 missiles' delivery gave leverage to Russia on the United States and the Middle East. Today, Russia enjoys a "substantive and keen dialogue with (its) American partners," Although there are still unanswered questions on strategic issues like missile defense, the relations between Russia and the United States undoubtedly warmed due to Obama administration's "more careful approach," U.S. National Security Council spokesman Mike Hammer welcomed the move as a "faithful and robust implementation of UN Security Council resolution 1929," and his colleague in charge of Strategic Communications Ben Rhodes added "that sanctions against Iran have been perhaps more (...) have had more bite than they (Iran) anticipated (...) And that's been reinforced (...) when the Russians announced that they would not be providing S-300s to Iran, which is an important step forward," he said.
Most of the analysts said Russia took a harder stance on Iran because S-300 missiles' delivery is nothing compared to the importance of resetting relations with the U.S. According to ISRIA, the reasons are multiple. Enhancing a better relationship with Washington serves Moscow's ambition to play a great power role on the international scene. But more specifically, Russia is as interested in combating nuclear proliferation as the U.S. and other major powers.
Firstly, Russia is not immune to any threats against its national security, from terrorists who would eventually put their hands on some nuclear weapons/fissile materials for instance. "If (the ban's) decision was made, it was solely due to Russia's national security," Russia's envoy to NATO Dmitry Rogozin reportedly said. Secondly, any destabilization of the Middle East would also impact Russia's global interests and Russia would take no benefit from being accused of having favored proliferation in any way. Thirdly, it seems that internal tensions are growingly dividing the Iranian government. The anti-western rhetoric of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad doesn't please Moscow as much as most believe it does. The increasingly "uncontrollable" aspect of the Iranian regime quite discourages Russia from deepening its strategic partnership with Iran.
Russia seems to have more to win by warming its relations with America, at least as long as Obama is President, than by delivering very sophisticated weapons to an ally whose the real intentions are so difficult to be certain about. Iran currently has 22 kilograms of 20 percent enriched uranium according to the latest IAEA report, that is already enough to produce a nuclear bomb. A fact Ryabkov confirmed when he told Rossiyskaya Gazeta on September 24, 2010 that "Iran nuclear program objectively proceeds in an ongoing manner," In Tehran, the signal has been negatively received, quite loud and clear. According to a magazine article reproduced on the website of the Iranian embassy in Moscow, "Russia has practically ceased (in Russian) military-technical cooperation with Iran," echoing Kosachev saying "Iran has never been a comfortable partner of Russia,"
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