Russia acts to shield Iran against airstrikes
Sell of rockets raises alarms on nuke deal
Russia gave the green light to a longstalled $800 million deal to deliver an advanced anti-missile rocket system to Iran, bringing sharp criticism from the White House and Israel and new political peril for President Obama’s prospective nuclear deal with Tehran.
Iran has pushed since 2007 to purchase the S-300 system from Russia — hardware that analysts say will dramatically increase Iran’s ability to defend itself from airstrikes, including a strike on its nuclear facilities from either the U.S. or Israel should international negotiations break down.
Israeli officials said the decision by Russian President Vladimir Putin to allow the sale was a clear sign that Tehran is already cashing in on a tentative nuclear deal with world powers, a deal that includes an easing of sanctions on the Iranian economy and faces a deadline of the end of June for a final deal.
If deployed in significant numbers, the S-300 system could provide substantial cover against a potential Israeli strike. With a range of up to 125 miles and the capability to track and hit multiple targets simultaneously, the system is regarded as among the world’s most potent air defense weapons.
The Obama administration denounced Moscow’s move. But while Secretary of State John F. Kerry phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to voice his discontent, lower-level officials in the administration suggested that the White House plans no concrete steps to try to prevent the sale.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf told reporters that Russia’s move does not appear to violate existing sanctions against Iran — presumably because the S-300 system is designed for defensive rather than offensive purposes. She also said the administration does not believe the development will seriously undercut the nuclear talks.
White House spokesman Josh Earnest took a much more pointed tone, saying Russia’s decision to deliver the system to Iran could endanger wider plans for relieving international sanctions on Tehran as part of a final nuclear deal.
Russia is a part of the so-called P5-plus-1 group, which also includes the U.S., Britain, China, Germany and France. The group two weeks ago reached a preliminary deal with Iran that would slow parts of the Islamic republic’s nuclear program in exchange for relief from economic sanctions. The catch is that key details of the process by which sanctions relief would occur have not been worked out.
“One of the things we have indicated has been critical to our success in this diplomatic process has been the unity of the international community,” Mr. Earnest said last week.
“The United States and our partners in Europe have been able to work closely with Russia and China to bring Iran to the table,” he said. “So we value the coordination and unity that we have been able to maintain throughout this rather long process.”
His comments suggest that the White House saw Mr. Putin’s move as a break in that unity. But with U.S. and its partners headed soon into the next round of nuclear negotiations with Iran, the implications of the development are not clear.
Moscow signed an $800 million contract to sell the S-300 missile system to Tehran in 2007 but yielded to strong objections from the U.S. and Israel in 2010 and suspended the hardware’s delivery.
At the time, Russian officials said the decision to ban the system’s shipment was made in light of U.N. Security Council sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program. But Russia now claims that the U.N. sanctions never technically blocked the delivery of the equipment and that Russia voluntarily delayed the delivery.
Appearing on Russian television Monday, Mr. Lavrov said Moscow called the S-300 “exclusively a defensive weapon” and said Mr. Putin acted in light of the preliminary nuclear agreement reached this month between world powers and Tehran.
“It was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in talks,” the Russian foreign minister said. “We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo.”
The Russian comments did little to assuage Israel, which has been sharply critical of the deal Mr. Obama and his allies have negotiated with Tehran. Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said the missile deal was “a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran obtained from the emerging nuclear deal.”
Mr. Steinitz asserted that the arms deal with Russia shows how Tehran plans to use any impending sanctions relief as a window to purchase weapons — not to improve the living conditions of average Iranians.
While Iran’s leaders say their nuclear program is for purely peaceful purposes, hawkish analysts in Washington shared Mr. Steinitz’s concerns.
Russia’s decision to deliver the S-300 system to Iran serves as “a reminder of the dangers connected to the recent nuclear negotiations and possible deal with Iran,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“As sanctions are removed, and as funds flow to Iran, it will strengthen its military posture,” Mr. Abrams wrote in an analysis posted Monday on the group’s website. “Iran with an operational S-300 system will feel more immune from attack and is likely therefore to become even more aggressive in its behavior throughout the Middle East.”
Ben Wolfgang and Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.
“As sanctions are removed, and as funds flow to Iran, it will strengthen its military posture.”
— Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations
A Russian S-300 air defense missile system on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow. The Kremlin says Russia has lifted its ban on the delivery of a sophisticated air defense missile system to Iran. Russia signed the $800 million contract to sell Iran the missile system in 2007, but later suspended their delivery because of strong objections from the U.S. and Israel.