What Could Russia's Transfer of S-300 to Iran Change in the Middle East?

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Baku, 24 April 2015 –

Citing progress in the negotiations with the U.S. over Iran’s nuclear program, on 13 April President Vladimir Putin announced lifting of a ban on the delivery of S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran. The purchase agreement of five units worth $800 million was signed in Tehran in 2007. However, the execution of the contract was halted by Russia due to the ongoing dispute around Iran’s nuclear problem.

Iran’s refusal to substitute the low-enriched uranium with non-nuclear fuel under the Western oversight in 2009, inflicted renewed sanctions upon the country. The UN Security Council’s resolution created legal grounds, restricting shipment and sales of offensive equipment to Iran. Then the President of Russia Dmitriy Medvedev advocated the imposing of sanctions against Iran and thus, on September 22, 2010 the sale of S-300 air defense system to Iran was banned. However, recent progress in the talks between Iran and the Sextet nations and reaching of a framework agreement on 2 April encouraged Russia to take action aimed at lifting the sanctions.

Israel and U.S. Reactions

Although the date of the commissioning of the missile systems to Iran is unknown, the decision to lift the ban caused profound concern in Israel. Russian side claims that these missile systems are for defensive purposes and thus, are not aimed against any nation, including Israel. Nevertheless, the Israeli officials are stating that arming Iran is a threat to their own country and the region.

U.S. Secretary of State also voiced his concern. However, President Barack Obama’s decision on this issue was more fascinating. Obama said that Russia’s move was natural and that it was surprising that the delay in the delivery of the S-300 systems actually occurred because sanctions does not ban the sale of defensive weapons. His remarks made it clear that the ban on the sale of S-300 imposed by Russia in 2010 was actually a U.S. request (see: Obama downplays Russia S-300 supply to Iran, 'jaws drop' in Israel / "Russia Today", 18 April 2015). Interestingly, both the U.S. and the EU stated no concern about the possible impact of the S-300 transfer to Iran on the nuclear negotiations.

Some experts regard the decision to lift the ban on the sale of the missile systems to Iran as Russia’s effort to increase its political and economic leverages over Iran and restore military-trade cooperation with this nation. That being said, there is a possibility that this transfer may damage Russia-Israel relations. Russia’s trade turnover with Israel was twice the volume of that of with Iran - $3.4 billion. Another notable aspect is that Israel displayed moderate posture on Russia over the Ukraine crisis and has not joined sanctions against Moscow (see: Чем обернется решение России поставлять Ирану С-300 / "Московский Центр Карнеги", 15 April 2015).

Testimony to the expectations that Russia’s decision on the S-300 being damaging to relations are already surfacing. Israel snubbed the event in Moscow commemorating the 70th anniversary of victory over Fascism by not sending a high-profile delegation. While President Reuven Rivlin, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some other ministers were among the names to possibly, attend the event, at the end, Israel decided to send its Ambassador to the event. Although Israeli side did not openly acknowledge that this had anything to do with the decision on S-300, this was the understanding in Russia, Israel and elsewhere in the world (see: Fury in Russia as Israel declines to send high-level official to WWII commemoration / "Ynetnews", 20 April 2015).

Just How Important are S-300 Systems to Iran?

In the yesteryear, the Soviet Union was the main arms supplier to Iran. However, after the collapse of the USSR and shift in the balance of power in the international relations Iran has sought contacts with the West. Nonetheless, the confusion over the nuclear program since the early 2000s pushed Tehran towards the Kremlin again. Despite the nuclear issue damaging military and economic cooperation, the Iranian side is interested in the enduring ties.

According to some opinions, lack of adequate air defense systems led to such countries as Libya, Iraq, Syria and Yemen being air-bombarded by the Western countries. The option of aerial attacks against the countries with solid air defense is usually ruled out, with preference given to the means of diplomatic pressure and disturbing domestic stability. There is an opinion that the West is creating a ''peacemaker'' image in the run-up to the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Therefore, Iran’s acquisition of S-300 systems allowing it to setup a ''defense wall'' around its nuclear sites infuriates the West (see: Russia’s Missile Wall in Iran / "New Eastern Outlook", 18 April 2015).

As if a response to these claims, the Israeli media promotes the idea that S-300s cannot protect Iran’s nuclear sites from the attacks by the Israeli air force that is experienced and very well familiar with the soviet-era military hardware (see: S-300 will not prevent potential Israeli strike on Iran / "Ynetnews", 13 April 2015). In one of his recent interviews Barack Obama also expressed similar view by saying that the U.S. military can "penetrate” the S-300s in the event of their transfer to Iran (see: U.S. can 'penetrate' S-300 air defenses in Iran if necessary – Obama / "Russia Today", 22 April 2015).

In the meantime, according to experts, the Iran’s military capabilities are mediocre relative to the regional standards and are mainly of a defensive nature. Moreover, the country’s military, equipped with outdated hardware, needs an upgrade. Estimates are, that modernization of the army would require $40 billion (see: Why Russia Ended its Ban on Selling Advanced Air Defense Systems to Iran / "The Moscow Times", 14 April 2015). Thus, the purchase of S-300 missile systems means a major advance towards enhancing the country’s air defense capabilities.

Other than that, one of key aspects aggravating Iran’s security concern is the extent of military preparedness of some of the regional rivals. Along with Israel, it is Saudi Arabia and some other Arab states that are competing for regional prominence. In fact, in 2014, Saudi Arabia ranked the first, surpassing India with $6.4 billion in arms purchases. Iran’s another rival - the UAE ranked the fourth, importing $2.2 billion worth of military equipment (see: Why Russia Ended its Ban on Selling Advanced Air Defense Systems to Iran / "The Moscow Times", 14 April 2015).

Last year the Saudi Arabia spent $1.5 billion on military aviation, while UAE paid $105 million. ''Considering the intense situation in Iran’s neighborhood, modern air defense systems are essential for the country,'' said Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov pointing out one of the sensitive aspects of Iran’s military capabilities (see: Will Russia's S-300 Missile Defense Systems Really Empower Iran? / "The Moscow Times", 14 April 2015).

One of the interesting aspects of Lavrov’s position on the S-300 decision was that he drew a connection with the events in Yemen. Lavrov highlighted the significance of the air defense system, citing developments in Iran’s vicinity, including military processes in Yemen in the past several weeks. Presumably, lacking leverage over the military operation led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Russia is willing to send a message that it is capable of boosting the military capabilities of Iran, being the Saudi Arabia’s key regional rival.

All of this enables a conclusion that Iran is in dire need of Russia’s S-300 surface-to-air missile systems. These systems are hardly known to have been be used in any real combat situation. However, the S-300, which went into production in the late 1970s in the Soviet Union and then continued to be modernized by Russia, is currently one of the most powerful missile systems in the world. Furthermore, given that commissioning process will take another 6 years, for the moment, this decision does not translate into immediate change in Iran’s defense capability and remains merely a political move.

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