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Iran gets first part of Russian missile system

The S-300 surface-to-air system was first deployed at the height of the Cold War in 1979

Dina al-Shibeeb

Published: Updated:

Russia has delivered the first part of an advanced missile defense system to Iran, Iranian media reported on Monday, equipping Tehran with technology that was blocked before it signed a deal last year with world powers to curb its nuclear program.

“I announce today that the first phase of this (delayed) contract has been implemented,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari said on state TV on Monday.

Ansari was replying to questions about videos on social media showing what appeared to be parts of an S-300 missile system on trucks in northern Iran.

The S-300 surface-to-air system was first deployed at the height of the Cold War in 1979.

The Royal United Services Institute, a British think tank, said the system in its updated form is one of the most advanced systems of its kind and could engage multiple aircraft and ballistic missiles around 150 km away.

Sanctions [against Iran] remain in place for offensive weapons and ballistic missiles

Jean-Marc Rickli, an academic at the King’s College Department of defense studies

Russia’s selling of the system to Iran “does not violate the nuclear deal,” London-based Iranian scholar Alireza Nourizadeh told Al Arabiya English, “since it is a defense system, and it can’t be used to attack other countries,” he added.

Similarly, Jean-Marc Rickli, an academic at the King’s College Department of defense studies in London, said “sanctions remain in place for offensive weapons and ballistic missiles,” describing the S-300s as “defensive and not covered by the UN prohibition.”

While the agreement does not breach the nuclear deal, it still sparked concern in Israel, who accuses Iran of ill intentions and claims that it wants to destroy the Jewish state.

According to Nourizadeh, the main impetus for Iran wanting to acquire this system is because “it believes that Israel will attack it in the future.”

On Sunday, the Iranian foreign minister said that the missile program and tests are not up for negotiation with the United States.

Instead, Mohammad Javad Zarif said that if Washington was “serious about defensive issues” in the Middle East, it would stop supplying arms to Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Big deal

The deal signed in 2007 also showed a complicated political calculus for Russia, which seems firebrand in its diatribe regarding the US while staying vigilant not to anger Washington and its allies.

In a previous hiccup, which delayed the transfer of more than $800 million worth defense systems to Iran, Russia cancelled the contract to deliver the S-300s in 2010 under pressure from the West.

President Vladimir Putin also lifted the self-imposed ban in April 2015, after an interim agreement paved the way for July’s full nuclear deal.

“The removal of all economic sanctions against Iran in January 2016 can be seen as the turning point in dialogue between the two regional powers [Iran and Russia],” Tomas Olivier, CEO of The Hague-based security firm Lowlands Solutions Netherlands, wrote to Al Arabiya English in an email.

Olivier said with the framework of the nuclear agreement put in place in April 2015, “there were no longer any objections to finally re-establish the military and defense ties between Moscow and Tehran.”

Even “before the deal was signed a year ago, Russia said that they would reconsider their decision because Iran showed sign of cooperation on its nuclear program,” Rickli said, highlighting how Russia was careful and studious in wanting Iran to adhere to the UN demands over its nuclear program.

The US military also said it has accounted for the possible delivery of the S-300 to Iran in its contingency planning, showing some flexibility for such deal to finally materialize.

But “ongoing bilateral consultations most likely delayed the actual delivery of the parts until spring this year,” Olivier explained.

Enlarged position

There are other factors that led to Russia sending S-300s to Iran.

“Russia’s cooperation with Iran in Syria is probably also a factor that eased the deal,” said Rickli.

Russia and Iran have long been formidable allies to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad; they were key in supporting his regime to continue a hold on power in Syria in spite of 2011 protests that led to civil war.

The “strengthening” and “re-establishment” of military ties with “the most powerful nation in the region” Iran, also “enlarges Russia’s strategic geopolitical position in the Middle East,” Olivier said.

The likely sales of Russian fighter jets and helicopters would also make “Iran dependent due to the fact that Russia will have to provide expertise, technical support and training capabilities” to operate the equipment.

Russia is the world’s second largest arms exporter after the United States.

“The defense industry is a key sector for Russia’s economy that employs 20 percent of all manufacturing jobs in Russia,” said Rickli, warning that the sale of the S-300 could fuel an arms race between Iran and its wealthy Gulf neighbors.

(With Reuters)

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