Despite signing a contract with Iran for five batteries of the S-300PMU1 missile defense system back in December 2005, Russia continues to put off delivery of the system to Tehran. The latest news from Moscow alleges that the current delay is due to ‘technical’ problems – a rather bizarre excuse given that the S-300 has been functioning quite well since 1979. Perhaps this is why Almaz-Antey (the company that builds the S-300) told Interfax news that “there are no technical problems with the S-300 systems. This is a political issue.”
With Russia contractually obligated to deliver the system (it already received payment from Tehran), it’s interesting to speculate about the reasons for the delay…
The S-300 is one of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems in the world. Road mobile, it can be set up in just five minutes. It is capable of engaging up to six targets simultaneously and can lock targets up to 90 km away, at altitudes ranging from 25 – 30,000 meters, and at air speeds of up to 1,150 meters per second. It can even engage short-range ballistic missiles within ranges of up to 35 kilometers.
By installing S-300 missile batteries close to its nuclear facilities, Iran could make it a lot harder for Israel to successfully destroy Iran’s nuclear program from the air. Naturally, Israel is vehemently opposed to the S-300 deal, as illustrated by Netanyahu’s visit to Moscow last week where he attempted to scupper things for Tehran.
Although Israel might not ultimately get its way, its concerns have resonance with the Russians. Indeed, Russia has close, albeit complex, ties with Israel. For example, Israel froze arms sales to Georgia in 2008, though some Russia officials allege that such sales have resumed. Russia also benefited from a 2009 deal to acquire advanced Israeli UAV’s. At the same time, Russia also wants to maintain cordial political and economic ties with Iran, especially as the two countries increase cooperation in the energy sector.
Given Russia’s close relations with both Iran and Israel, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Moscow has delayed delivery of the S-300 system for so long. Eager to avoid rocking the boat, Russia may continue to hold off for the foreseeable future.
Other factors could also be behind Russia’s hesitance to deliver the system to Iran.
First, Israel has warned that if S-300 batteries are installed in Iran, it could ‘neutralize’ them using an ‘electronic warfare device’ prior to an air strike. Such a move, if successful, would be a significant blow for both Russian national security and the lucrative S-300 export market.
Similarly, Russia is also likely aware that Israel as expressed interest in purchasing the U.S. F-35 joint strike fighter. Touted as being the answer to the S-300, Russia is unlikely to want its highly regarded defense system proven ineffective by top-shelf U.S military hardware such as the F-35.
As its ability to credibly explain further delays reduces with time, might Moscow eventually decide to provide the batteries covertly? Such a move would be greatly facilitated by the large common border Russia shares with Iran and the mobile nature of the S-300 system.
And in light of Iran’s recent announcement that it is now developing an air defense system that it claims will have “the capabilities of the Russian S-300, or even more,” Iran could accept a covert Russian transfer of S-300 batteries and plausibly explain it as being its own, indigenously developed alternative to the S-300. Still, such a move on Russia’s part would come with great risks.
If Russia does cancel the S-300 contract, and assuming Iran is not capable of designing its own replacement, Tehran may instead look to China’s HQ-9 system – an S-300 clone. Given China’s recent moves to prevent further sanctions against Iran, it is unlikely that they will be as sensitive to Israeli pressures as Russia.