Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency allegedly reported Wednesday that Tehran has acquired “four S-300 surface-to-air missile systems”. Iran apparently acquired two “S-300 from Belarus and two others from another unspecified source”, with Fars adding, “Iran possesses four S-300 PT missiles.” The news comes following June reports that suggested the seemingly never-ending saga between Russia and Iran over the sale of the S-300 PMU1 air defense system had finally come to a close – as a result of a recent tightening of UN sanctions.
As explained before, if Iran really did acquire the much touted S-300 PMU-1, it would make an air attack of its controversial nuclear program a lot harder. However, from looking at the Fars report in more detail and the context in which it was released, it seems that there are a number of issues which cast doubt on the credibility of the notion Iran has acquired a robust S-300 air defense system from Belarus.
In terms of the detail of the report, there is firstly no elaboration on what is meant with regards to the “four S-300 surface-to-air missile systems”. Indeed, does the wording refer to launchers or batteries? One battery of S-300 PMU1’s, the system that Iran was trying to buy from Russia, consists of up to 12 semi-trailer erector-launchers (TEL) which mount four tubular missile container-launchers and a launcher complex of several other components. Should this report merely infer that Iran has acquired four launchers, then there is little for any would-be aerial attacker to worry about. Indeed, even with a launcher complex, four TELs would only ever be able to provide a highly limited air defense….
Secondly, and to confuse things further, the report adds that “Iran possesses four S-300 PT missiles”. It is important to note Iran was hoping to buy the S-300 PMU1 from Russia, a major refinement of the original Soviet era S-300 technology. The S-300 PT that Fars cites Iran as now owning however entered service in 1978 and is considerably less capable than the S-300 PMU1. What is more, the fudgy wording of the report here implies Iran possesses only the missiles themselves – with no mention of the rest of the launch complex required or even the TELs. Even assuming the launch complex is there, in perfect conditions only four missiles could stop a maximum of four aircraft – hardly representative of a robust air defense.
Thirdly, the Fars report suggests Iran purchased two of the ‘systems’ from Belarus, with a further two coming from an unknown source. But this all sounds rather familiar. According to Jane’s, Iran acquired four S-300 PT ‘battalions’ in 2008, with two sourced from Belarus and two “ sourced from an undisclosed nation [that] were recently refurbished by Belarusian technicians working at an IRGC facility in Iran, where the units were stored.” However, Belarus has vehemently denied both this and the recent Fars report, yesterday saying “The State Military-Industrial Committee can officially state that Belarus has never held talks with Iran on the deliveries of the S-300 air defense systems…Belarus has never supplied S-300 systems or their components to Iran.” While it is likely that the recent UN sanctions would make such a transfer politically controversial, part of this denial will be down to the fact that the Soviets originally sold the S-300 PTs to Belarus on condition that they could never be resold. Of course that only explains half of the four systems being talked about though. But from the questionable reporting described so far, one cannot really assess the credibility of the claim two systems came from an “unknown source”– although there is the possibility that these may just be the units Iran paraded recently in Tehran.
Aside from the sketchy reporting by Fars on the alleged S-300 acquisition, events in recent weeks paint a possible motivation for Iran to suggest it may finally have obtained its ‘holy grail’ of air defense. Indeed, with Admiral Mike Mullen for the first time mentioning U.S plans to attack Iran should negotiations fail, Time magazine now suggesting that Israel is tacitly involved in building attack plans with the U.S, and intelligence experts rumor mongering about the possibility of an imminent Israeli strike, its quite possible that in combination with recent UN sanctions, Iran is feeling under possibly unsustainable pressure. This pressure is perhaps what drove Iran to now agree to restart nuclear fuel swap talks in late August, and may also be motivating Tehran to suggest its military capabilities have improved, through the acquisition of the S-300s, in order to help deter any attack. Such a strategy would seek to decrease impetus toward any imminent attack while simultaneously increasing ‘deterrence’ against one actually being carried out.
Regardless of the credibility of this report, it nonetheless suggests Iran remains desperate to implement a robust air defense system as soon as possible. Whether it ultimately goes to China, fields an indigenously produced alternative, or ever persuades Russia to provide it with its cancelled order, remains to be seen.