Putin said the ban imposed by Medvedev in 2010 was voluntary and he decided to lift it because Iran had shown a great degree of flexibility and a desire to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue.
When Vladimir Putin signed an executive decree on April 13, authorising the sale of S-300 missiles to Iran, two special guests from the Middle East were present in Moscow. Palestinian President Mahmood Abbas and Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, which reports to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, were received by Putin at his official residence early in the day. More than a military transaction, Putin was signalling a political intent of Russia’s return to the Middle East, with his executive action of releasing the missiles, while hosting Iranian and Palestinian leaders at the Kremlin.
The S-300 missile system was first deployed by the Soviet Union in 1979 with land and sea variants. A surface-to-air missile, it is classified as a defensive system, yet it is difficult to locate and target these missiles on account of their mobility. And, they are said to have the range, precision and power to target any aircraft.
After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the country faced a serious financial meltdown and one of its major sources of income was arms. Iran, which was in the bad books of the west, found a partner in the Soviet Union, and a partnership between the two flourished in no time. Between 1989 and 1991, the Soviet Union sold Iran arms worth $5.1 billion, including tanks, armoured personnel carriers and ammunition. The Russians built factories to produce tanks and armoured personnel carriers in Iran. The US soon intervened and forced Russian president Boris Yeltsin to stop arms sales. Subsequently, in 1999, Russian prime minister Viktor Chernomyrdin and US vice president Al Gore signed a secret agreement known as the Gore-Chernomyrdin protocol to limit arms sales to Iran. Putin, however, cancelled the protocol when he came to power.
Russia and Iran reached an $800 million agreement in 2007 about the sales of the S-300 missile system. Iran even paid the money upfront. However, in 2010, the UN Security Council passed resolution 1929, which banned the sale of missiles among other weapons systems to Iran. Although defensive weapons were exempted from the ban, Russian president Dmitry Medvedev used the resolution as a ruse to cancel the deal, as he was under pressure from the US and Israel, and paid back Iran its money. In 2011, Iran sued Russia for $4 billion in damages at an international court in Geneva.
Putin said the ban imposed by Medvedev in 2010 was voluntary and he decided to lift it because Iran had shown a great degree of flexibility and a desire to reach a compromise on the nuclear issue. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said the S-300 system was of a purely defensive nature. “It is not designed for attacks and will not put at risk the security of any regional state, including Israel,” said Lavrov. “Meanwhile, for Iran, taking into account the very tense situation in the region surrounding it, modern air defence systems are very important. This is in particular proven by an alarmingly fast development of events in the past week of the military situation around Yemen.” Former diplomat M.K. Bhadrakumar says, “Lavrov rubbed salt into the American wound by assuring Washington that Moscow’s decision is in support of the consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program.”
Russia’s swift move to court Iran has not come as a surprise. The decision to unfreeze the sale of the S-300 system can be seen as a snub to the US and its carefully crafted nuclear deal with Iran. After Putin returned to presidency, the reset that was in place during Medvedev’s time had collapsed. The US and Russia have developed serious differences on a number of issues, notably Ukraine. Russia has been unhappy about the western interference in Ukraine and Crimea and its decision to impose sanctions on Russia, which has hurt it economically. The Iran nuclear deal has provided the Russians with an opportunity to strike back at the US and Putin seems to have made use of it. The threat of a US-Iran axis is likely to make the US Congress and even the public wary of an American deal with Iran, especially since the US will have to lift sanctions imposed on Iran to finalise the nuclear deal.
Oil and gas could be another major component of the Russian calculus. If sanctions on Iran are lifted, it will enter the global energy market in a big way. This could affect Russia in two ways. Iran could drive down oil prices, which are already low and it will affect Russia which relies on oil to keep its economy afloat. Second, Iran offers the European countries, whose reliance on Russian gas is virtually 100 per cent, an alternative. Although Russia can reroute its hydrocarbons to the Chinese market, nobody pays like the Europeans and the margins of Russia’s deals with China are minimal. To keep Iran on friendly terms, Russia has offered Iran agricultural technology and even oil, if needed, as part of the barter deal. Putin also does not want Iran to ally with the west in case the nuclear deal wins approval from all stake holders. “Putin has taken into account Obama administration’s attempt to embrace Iran as a prospective ally,” says Bhadrakumar.
From all conceivable angles, the missile deal is a winning proposition for the Russians, says Joshy M. Paul, who teaches international relations at Christ University, Bengaluru. They have already discontinued the production and use of S-300s and have upgraded to S-400s. They are said to be collecting all the S-300s available to be transferred to Iran.
The Kremlin appears to have left nothing to chance. Putin’s decree on the transfer of the missile system says, “Moscow will not tolerate any interdiction of the consignment on transfer to Iran by extra-regional powers,” a warning to the US and the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. The bear seems to be back in the Middle East with a bang.