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Russia Lifts Ban on Advanced Anti-Aircraft Missiles to Iran

The sale of the S-300 missile system could pave the way for further arms sales to the Islamic Republic.

A Russian surface-to-air missile system
A Russian surface-to-air missile system S-300 PMU2 Favorit rolls during a rehearsal of the Victory Day Parade in Alabino, outside Moscow, on April 18, 2012. The parade will take place on the Red Square in Moscow on May 9 to commemorate the 1945 defeat of Nazi Germany. AFP PHOTO / KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV (Photo credit should read KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images)

Russia announced Monday that it will allow the sale of advanced S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, which would significantly improve the Islamic Republic’s air defense systems. In recent years, the United States and Israel have lobbied Moscow not to supply Tehran with such weapons, but with world powers racing toward a June 30 agreement to govern Iran’s nuclear program, Russia appears to be signaling that it is prepared to grant Tehran improved access to their arms market.

In a statement carried by the Interfax news agency, the Russian defense ministry said it was ready to supply the S-300 missiles “promptly.”

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf said that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, discussed the possible sale during a Monday phone call. “We don’t believe it’s constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with this,” Harf said, adding that she doesn’t expect the development to undermine nuclear talks with Iran.

The contract for supplying the missile system was signed in 2007 and worth $800 million, but their delivery had been repeatedly delayed amid increasing sanctions on Iran related to its nuclear program. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council outlawed providing Iran with technology and equipment related to its nuclear industry, and expanded the embargo in June 2010 to include conventional arms such as tanks, large-caliber artillery, and some missiles and missile launchers. But that embargo did not specifically include the S-300 missiles.

The 2010 resolution, however, called on countries to exercise restraint in supplying arms not covered by the embargo. Under intense diplomatic pressure from the United States and Israel, then-Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed in September 2010 to restrict sale of the missiles to Iran.

A Kremlin decree posted Monday and signed by Russian President Vladimir Putin overturns that decision and comes as diplomats work to rewrite the arms control regime imposed on Iran.

The framework agreement to govern Iran’s nuclear program states that after a final deal is reached, the U.N. Security Council will replace all its resolutions related to its nuclear program with a new, comprehensive measure. What that measure will look like or exactly what it will say is one of the key unanswered questions in the talks, and Monday’s decision by Russia appears to be a signal that Moscow expects it will have more leeway in providing arms to Iran in the future.

It is possible that a final resolution may include some restrictions on Iranian weapons imports. But given Russia’s eagerness to sell weapons to Tehran, and Moscow’s veto power in the Security Council, Putin may not allow such a measure to advance.

The missiles in question are highly advanced weapons, and Western military planners believe their sale to Iran would significantly bolster the country’s defenses against a strike on its nuclear facilities.

Moscow and Tehran have reportedly been discussing the sale of the S-300s since January. On Jan. 20, Russia and Iran signed an agreement dealing with training between the two countries’ militaries. The delivery of the missile systems was discussed at the high-level meeting.

In late February, Sergei Chemezov, chief executive of the Russian state defense firm Rostec, said Iran was considering Russia’s offer to supply Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems, a similar but more advanced system than the S-300. Iran has not made a decision on the offer, the Russian state news agency TASS reported in February.

KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP/Getty Images

Reid Standish is a journalist based in Helsinki, Finland. He was formerly an associate editor at Foreign Policy. @reidstan

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace, its conflicts, and controversies. @eliasgroll

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