Moscow’s Merchants of War

Pro-Putin factions in Russian government push to resume canceled weapons sale to Iran

S-300 missile / AP
August 15, 2012

KIEV—Factions in the Russian government aligned with President Vladimir Putin are pushing to resume a previously canceled sale of five divisions of Almaz-Antey S-300PMU-1 air defense units to Iran.

Iran has sought since 2007 to acquire the S-300 missile system, a close analogue to the U.S.-made Raytheon/Lockheed Martin Patriot PAC-3, in order to modernize its air defense network. Both U.S. and Israeli military sources have said that Iranian acquisition of such capability would complicate planning for any potential air strikes on the theocracy.

"A system like these double-digit surface-to-air SAMs [a reference to the system’s SA-20 NATO designation] could significantly increase potential losses to the U.S. or Israeli Air Force," said a former Soviet air defense officer who has operated the system. "Aircraft might get in past the air defense network and be able to hit their targets, but whether they can safely depart Iranian air space after the strike is open to question if the Iranians are armed with this system."

After the Russian government canceled the contract in 2010, Iran filed a suit in the International Arbitration Court in Geneva in response. However, according to Russian military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer’s column in Novaya Gazeta, the odds are slim of Russia losing the case and therefore being forced to compensate the Iranians.

The basis for cancellation of the contract by the Russian Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation (FSVTS) was the June 2010 U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) No. 1929, which was passed in reaction to the Iranian refusal to halt its uranium enrichment program.

An official state decree from the office of then-President Dmitri Medvedev in September 2010 re-affirmed this decision. Iran was returned a $167 million advance payment for the S-300 delivery.

Russian defense analysts familiar with the case state that there is almost no chance for the Swiss court to rule in favor of Teheran or levy any fine against Russia.

However, some in the Russian government argue that UNSCR 1929 is an invalid basis for the decision to block the sale. Their argument is that the S-300 does not fall within the definition of which systems may not be sold to Iran.

The S-300 system has a "dual-use" functionality built into its design requirements, Felgenhauer and others say. Its employment as a surface-to-surface ballistic missile as a secondary application has been fully tested and validated.

The S-300 in Iranian hands is capable of being reconfigured and deployed as a conventional, short-range ballistic missile system that can hit both ground and seaborne targets—including U.S. naval vessels operating in the Persian Gulf.

The system is also configured in such a way that it could be fitted if necessary with a "special warhead," the official Russian euphemism for a nuclear payload.

Pressure for the S-300 to be sold to Iran is partly in reaction to problems Russia has had completing arms deliveries to other customers. Currently, 12 Mikoyan MiG-29M/M2 fighter aircraft, 36 Yakovlev Yak-130 combat capable jet trainer aircraft, and four divisions of a similar SAM system, the S-300PMU-2, are unable to be delivered to Syria. These arms sales would total $5.5 billion.

The KGB veterans who run Rosoboronexport (ROE), the Russian arms export monopoly through which all weapons sales pass, served with or owe their primary loyalty to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is also a former KGB operative.

"In another time there would be more reticence from the Russian government about the U.S. reaction to a sale concluded to Iran—and one that the rest of the world believes is in contravention to a U.N. sanctions regimes" said a retired senior U.S. military specialist on Russia. "But there are some unique conditions at present today that encourage the Russians to act less responsibly."

One such condition, the military specialist said, is the White House "re-set" policy, which has led the Russians to see "Obama as weak and uninformed in foreign affairs."