U.S. officials are expressing concern about a budding arms pact between Iran and Russia estimated to be worth more than $10 billion, according to State Department officials who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon and expressed alarm over the "increased Iranian military capability."
Iran's negotiations with Russia for new weapons and military hardware come after senior officials in Tehran dismissed the recent election of Donald Trump and warned his incoming administration against taking a firmer stance against the Islamic Republic’s continued military buildup.
Iran is angling to purchase T-90 tanks, artillery systems, and aircraft from Moscow that are expected to keep the Islamic Republic fully armed over the next several years, according to reports in Iran’s state-controlled media.
The new military talks concern U.S. officials who have long been working behind the scenes to convince Moscow against arming Iran in the wake of last year’s nuclear pact that paved the way for the Islamic Republic to pursue these types of weapons deals.
Russia recently delivered its advanced S-300 missile defense system to Iran after years of debate over the purchase and warnings from the United States.
A U.S. State Department official confirmed that the Obama administration is aware of the new weapons talks and has expressed its reservations through diplomatic channels.
U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which governs the nuclear deal, bans Iran from pursuing offensive weaponry, but includes a carve out for weapons deemed to be mainly used for defensive purposes.
Obama administration officials said they will continue to monitor these arms deals for compliance in the final months of the administration. Advisers to Trump have made clear that they are less willing to tolerate Iranian aggression and military posturing.
The arms deals would require the approval of the U.N. Security Council, meaning the United States would have the power to veto them.
"We have seen those reports and call on both sides to ensure they respect their commitments under the [nuclear deal] and UNSCR 2231, which include restrictions on providing certain military systems to Iran," a State Department official told the Free Beacon. "We remain concerned with any increased Iranian military capability, and we've expressed those concerns."
Senior Russian defense official Viktor Ozerov was recently quoted as saying that talks are underway with Iran, which will effectively be presented with a menu of military hardware it can purchase.
"These negotiations are being carried out, the road has been paved," Ozerov was quoted as saying. "The order book, discussed today, reflects the needs of Tehran and amounts to some $10 billion."
Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday afternoon, though the topic of the arms sales was not explicitly broached, according to a readout of the call provided by Trump's transition team.
"During the call, the two leaders discussed a range of issues including the threats and challenges facing the United States and Russia, strategic economic issues and the historical U.S.-Russia relationship that dates back over 200 years," Trump's team said in a statement.
Senior Iranian officials continue to criticize Trump as unserious and claim they are not concerned that the next U.S. administration will take a tougher stance on the country's behavior.
"We are not much concerned about the statements made by Trump's advisers," Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman for Iran's Atomic Energy Organization, was quoted as saying on Monday. "The US president-elect Donald Trump cannot neglect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and it has to abide[d] by."
A senior congressional adviser familiar with the Obama administration's thinking on future Iran-Russia arms deals told the Free Beacon that lawmakers were repeatedly assured the nuclear deal would not pave the way for such pacts.
"The nuclear deal flooded Iran with hundreds of billions in sanctions relief for military use," the source said. "The Obama administration said, on the basis of functionally no evidence, that the money wasn't going to be used to purchase weapons. Here it is being used to purchase weapons."
Michael Rubin, a former Pentagon adviser and expert on rogue regimes, said he is not surprised that Russia is growing closer to Iran.
"This is about as surprising as the sun rising in the east," Rubin said. 'The Iranians have been shopping around in Russia and China for quite some time. The only surprise is that they're willing to wait four years to take delivery, but that's what their indigenous industry is for."
Saeed Ghasseminejad, an Iran expert at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said Iran, China, and Russia have been moving closer in their alliance for some time.
"Over the last few years, an emerging triangle has been shaping in front of us: A pact between Iran, Russia, and China," he said. "China is the least enthusiastic member of this triangle. Iran and Russia, on the other hand, has been vocal and excited about this. The two countries have imposed their will on U.S. allies in Middle East and Eastern Europe. The pact is best reflected in Syria where Iran and Russia saved Assad and pushed back the U.S. and Arab world-backed rebels. The potential $10 billion arms deal between Iran and Russia is a direct challenge to the UNSC resolutions as Russia is talking about selling Iran offensive weapons."
Russia is seeking to test the Trump administration’s resolve early on, Ghasseminejad said.
"Through this announcement, Russia and Iran are testing the incoming administration. Moreover, it is very likely that Iran is using the $1.7 billion it received from president Obama to buy offensive weapons to target U.S. allies in the region," he said.