Will the long-delayed Russian supply of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran ever near resolution? A large delegation of Iranian defence officials was in Moscow to attend the International Aviation and Space Salon (MAKS) air show in the last week of August. The show is held every two years at the Ramenskoye Airport 40km (25 miles) southeast of Moscow. The Iranian officials also had discussions with their Russian counterparts about the delivery of the S-300 systems for which a contract was signed in 2007. Dmitry Shlapentokh provides background to the Russia-Iran S-300 deal.
Moscow’s decision last April to deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran set alarm bells ringing on Capitol Hill. American lawmakers assumed that the deal marked the beginning of the creation of a Tehran-Moscow axis. This is simply not true. Moscow’s decision is directly related to its relationship with the West and is guided by pragmatic considerations. A brief overview of Tehran-Moscow relationship over the last 20–25 years would clearly demonstrate this.
At the beginning of the post-Soviet era, Moscow was in desperate need of new customers for its weapons and Tehran emerged as the obvious choice. Still Moscow was tied to the West much more than to the East. Consequently in 1995, US Vice President Al Gore and Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin signed an agreement to end Russian weapons sales to Tehran. By the late 1990s, the displeasure with post-Soviet developments was quite strong in Russia. The US/NATO attack on Yugoslavia/Serbia provided additional reasons for resentment. Consequently, President Vladimir Putin scrapped the 1995 agreement and resumed the Tehran-Moscow military contacts.
The US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as well as continuous American pressure on Russia aggravated the Washington-Moscow relationship even more. Consequently Putin made a strong anti-American speech in Munich (February 10, 2007) in which he accused the US of aggressiveness and imperialism and signed the contract with Tehran. According to the agreement Russia was to provide Tehran with S-300 missiles. It was believed that the missiles would provide protection for Iranian nuclear sites in case of US or Israeli attack. Still Moscow hoped to forge better relations with the West and stalled the delivery of S-300s to Iran. Dmitry Medvedev who was then Russia’s president, finally scrapped the agreement allegedly because of UN sanctions against Iran in June 2010. The UN Security Council adopted Resolution 1929 banning the supply of conventional weapons to Iran. This was a retroactive application of a Security Council resolution to an agreement made three years earlier.
Naturally, Iranian officials were not pleased with Moscow’s decision and threatened to sue Russia in the International Court for breach of contract. Moscow, however, continued to stick to its decision. Further, Russia continued to procrastinate in completing the Bushehr nuclear power plant that became a generationally long project. Moscow also joined the US and other powers in negotiations with Iran over its nuclear program. Putin believed that the era of the Bush “neocons” was over and that the Obama administration understood the limits of US power. He expected the US to act more responsibly in the geopolitical arena from then on. Based on this understanding of US behavior, Moscow gladly accepted the proposition for a reset. Disappointment quickly set in since Russia saw little change in US behavior.
While continuing to pressure Russia, Washington became recklessness in its policies. Its actions in Syria could be cited as one example. Washington appeared determined to overthrow the government of President Bashar al-Asad even if it meant allowing the takfiri terrorists that go by different names (Da‘ish, ISIS/ISIL) to run amok. Moscow was even more alarmed by mounting evidence that Washington was prepared to embrace the terrorists if that would help dislodge al-Asad from power. It appeared that Washington did not learn anything from its Libyan experience when its obsession with overthrowing Colonel Muammar Qaddafi was so strong that it even embraced and armed violent extremists. They repaid the favor by killing the American ambassador, Jeffrey Stephens in the US Consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Libya has become a hellhole but the US and its allies are no longer interested in talking about it. They have simply walked away.
The events in Ukraine became the last straw. Moscow saw the Ukrainian crisis as being directly orchestrated by the West and as a good example of the “color revolutions” that overwhelmed the post-Soviet states in the early 2000s. Moscow saw these “revolutions” as a way to remove Russia-friendly/neutral rulers from power and replace them with pro-American puppets. Moreover, the Kremlin regarded these revolutions as a rehearsal for similar events in Russia.
Even more critical from Russia’s point of view, the regime change in Kiev would lead to ending Russia’s presence in the Crimea where there is a base of the Russian Black Sea fleet. Consequently, Moscow moved swiftly to annex Crimea using mostly pro-Russian locals to protect its interests. It did more: Moscow supported the anti-Kiev uprising in Russified East Ukraine as a way to hit back.
This led to Western sanctions and increasing isolation not just from the US but also from Europe, which Putin regarded as Russia’s major economic and geopolitical partner. It was this development that forced Moscow’s “turn to the East.” Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran in late-January 2015 and soon thereafter Moscow announced that Iran would receive the S-300 missiles, and futher, that Russia would engage in a broad economic relationship with Iran including a barter deal in Iranian oil for Russian goods. Whether these acts implied that Russia would necessarily embrace Iran as close partner and ally was not clear.
The new Russian-Iranian relationship does not necessarily entail this. Information about the actual delivery of S-300 missiles is mired in ambiguity. For instance, on August 14, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told reporters that the decision to deliver the S-300 systems to Iran has been made, and “technicalities” of the process are under consideration. “Concerning S-300, a decision permitting the delivery of such systems to Iran has been made by the Russian president and the Federation Council, and technicalities of this process are now being considered,” he said. Two weeks earlier (July 30), Vladimir Kozhin, Putin’s aide on military and technical cooperation, had said that the S-300 systems were to be modernized before being delivered to Iran, given the fact that the original contract was signed in 2007.
Further confusion was added to the mix when Zamir Kabulov, the Russian president’s envoy to Afghanistan and head of the Russian Foreign Ministry’s Second Asia Department, told the country’s RIA Novosti news agency on August 21, “I very much hope that there will be [a deal], though their [Iran’s] partners are the [Russian] Defense Ministry, the Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, Rosoboronexport. This is not a matter the Foreign Ministry deals with.”
Kabulov also said that an Iranian delegation would pay a visit to Russia in the last week of August to discuss bilateral military-technical cooperation, including the delivery of the missile defense system. “A large Iranian delegation will be arriving in Moscow. Firstly, they will participate in the MAKS air show, and, of course, a part of the delegation… will hold talks on military-technical cooperation,” Kabulov added that “the negotiations will of course include S-300s.”
How should these conflicting messages be interpreted? There is one body of opinion that posits Moscow is deliberately sending confusing and contradictory signals. This opinion implies that the S-300 missiles would be delivered soon. The other suggests that it could take several years before the missiles are delivered, if at all. All these controversial messages imply that Moscow is not fully committed to Iran and its level of relationship with Tehran is contingent on Russia’s relationship with the West in general and Washington in particular.
Continued pressure from the West leads to increased cooperation with Tehran whereas acknowledgement of Moscow’s interests might well lead to its moving in the opposite direction. Henry Kissinger, the Machiavelli of American politics, said in his interview (July 2015) with the National Interest, “If we treat Russia seriously as a great power, we need at an early stage to determine whether their concerns can be reconciled with our necessities. We should explore the possibilities of a status of nonmilitary grouping on the territory between Russia and the existing frontiers of NATO.”
Since the European/US sanctions continue to be in place and the situation in Ukraine remains tense, Moscow’s desire to move closer to Iran increases in the context of the broader reshaping of its geopolitical posture. Many Iranian officials are not convinced that despite the Comprehensive Joint Plan of Action (CJPOA) agreed with the P5+1 group of countries, sanctions would be removed. Thus, they too were pleased with Moscow’s overtures. At the beginning of August 2014, Iran and Russia signed a trade deal. “Under the terms of a five-year accord, Russia will help Iran organize oil sales as well as “cooperate” in the oil and gas industry, the construction of power plants, grids, supply of machinery, consumer goods and agricultural products,” Andrew Trotman reported in the British daily, The Telegraph, on August 6, 2014. The deal is worth $20 billion.
Despite these moves, Russia does not regard Iran as an ally and cooperation in the oil and gas fields as necessarily positive for Russia. Moscow’s worry is that Iran would emerge as a potential competitor for Russian gas to Europe. This would undercut Russia both economically and politically. Economically, Russia would lose a major customer, the European Union, and politically, it would no longer be able to use this as a lever to exert pressure on Europe by threatening to withhold gas supplies and letting the Europeans freeze during the long, cold winter months. There are more undercurrents to the Russia-Iran S-300 missile deal than meets the eye.