Russia's Sale of S-300 Air Defense Systems to Iran

Jun 11, 2010

By Oliver Bloom

An interesting portion of the new sanctions passed by the Security Council concerns the Russian sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles. The CIA believes that Iran plans on using the Russian-made missile defense systems to protect its nuclear facilities. In a report produced by the CIA Weapons Intelligence, Nonproliferation and Arms Control Center and declassified in April 2010, the CIA said
Iran continues to seek the advanced long-range S-300 air defense system from Russia. We judge likely deployment locations for this system include near Iran’s nuclear facilities
These are not Cold War relics, but rather are some of the most advanced missile systems available on the market today (comparable to the American Patriot system).  As the Federation of American Scientists describes,
[the] Surface-to-air missile system is able to engage a number of targets simultaneously, countering intensive aircraft raids at low-to-high altitude. The SA-10 offers significant advantages over older strategic surface-to-air missile systems, including multitarget handling and engagement characteristics, a capability against low altitude targets with small radar cross-sections such as cruise missiles, a capability against tactical ballistic missiles, and possibly a potential to intercept some types of strategic ballistic missiles.
If the technical description isn’t worrying enough, the International Assessment and Strategy Center calls these missile systems
one of the most lethal, if not the most lethal, all altitude area defence SAM systems in service.
According to the Congressional Research Service, in December 2007, Russia agreed to sell the S-300 air defense system to Iran for $800 million. Delivery was due by March 2009, but U.S. and Israeli opposition delayed the sale. As AFP describes,
Russia agreed the missile deal years ago but has never delivered the weapons amid pressure from the United States and Israel, which fear they would dramatically improve Iran's defensive capabilities.
On the surface, it would appear that the recent Security Council sanctions aimed at halting advanced weapons sales to the Iranian government would prohibit the deal. In particular, the recently passed resolution specifically says that
all States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran, from or through their territories or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of any […] missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.
While on its head, that would presume to cover the sale of Russian surface-to-air missiles to Iran, the opposite is in fact true. The sanctions base their definitions on those from the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms which specifically define missiles or missile systems as:
Guided or unguided rockets, ballistic or cruise missiles capable of delivering a warhead or weapon of destruction to a range of at least 25 kilometres, and means designed or modified specifically for launching such missiles or rockets, if not covered by categories I through VI. For the purpose of the Register, this category:
(a) Also includes remotely piloted vehicles with the characteristics for missiles as defined above;
(b) Does not include ground-to-air missiles.
Despite the lack of a clear prohibition, the Security Council resolution, however,
calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel.
There are conflicting reports about whether the Russian government has heeded this call following the resolution’s passage. Interfax News Agency reported that
On Thursday, Moscow reportedly froze a contract to deliver S-300 air defence missiles to Tehran, a source told the Russian Interfax news agency.
"It is compulsory to fulfill a decision by the UN Security Council and Russia is not an exception here," said the source in the Federal Service for Military Technical Cooperation, which supervises Russian arms sales.
"Naturally, the contract for the delivery to Tehran of the S-300 air defence missile systems will be frozen," added the source, who was not named.
There was no official confirmation of the comments.
But the Russian TV network RT suggested the opposite, reporting that
Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Industrial Cooperation informed reporters on Thursday that Russia will continue work on the contract to supply the S300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran.
“As far as the S300 supplies to Iran are concerned, Russia is not bound by the UN Security Council resolution and the work with this contract goes on,” Mikhail Dmitriyev, an official from the Federal Service for Military-Industrial Cooperation, said.
 As the Washington Times reported last month, the U.S. government was certainly aware of the loophole in the U.N. resolution, but apparently it did not manage to close it.
The completed sale would have major implications for American and Israeli options towards Iran and for broader defense policy in the region. David Kramer, writing for the Shadow Government blog at Foreign Policy magazine, warned about the dangers of the sale:
[the completed sale] could also start a war, as Israel may be tempted to attack Iran before those missiles would become operational.
Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation described how the S-300 will be a game changer in the region:
Iran's current air defense system is outdated and would not defend against a massive airstrike aimed at its nuclear facilities. Israel, or under certain circumstances, even the United States, does not rule out the possibility of such a strike. If S-300s enter into service in Iran, they may deter potential strikes by Israel, unless Israel either acquires new American F-35s capable of destroying S-300s or executes a pre-emptive strike on Iranian S-300s before they become fully operational.
While the United States probably has the capabilities to successfully strike Iran even if it manages to acquire and deploy the S-300 system, Israel probably cannot. Thus the two are likely to closely watch the arms deal and continue to pressure the Russians to cancel it. Should the Russians go ahead with the deal, their insincere approach to dealing with Iran will be all the more obvious. Their economic self interests will have come first. Obviously preventing a preemptive attack by Israel is a concern for everyone, but selling advanced air defenses to Iran will only force Israel’s hand and result in a tenser and more dangerous Mideast. The $800 million the Russians could earn from the sale is simply not worth the cost of further Mideast conflict. 
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