Iran. The S-300 saga

There was an interesting event on April 11, 2016 – the saga of delivery of Russian air defense missile systems S-300PMU-1 to Iran came to an end. Hossein Jaber Ansari, Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman, officially declared that Tehran received the first components of the S-300 ADMS from Russia. Interestingly, this information has been neither confirmed nor denied in Russia.


By Leonid Nersisyan, military columnist

However, now it is absolutely clear that the delivery of the first batch of Russian ADMS actually took place, as of April 17, during parade on the occasion of the National Day of the Army, the S-300 components have been demonstrated.

The End of the “Soap Opera”

The contract for the supply of 4 battalions of air defense missile systems S-300PMU-1 was signed as far back as 2007. However, the implementation of the agreement was indirectly hampered by the UN Security Council sanctions introduced in 2010 against Iran in connection with Tehran’s nuclear program. The word “indirectly” implies that the arms embargo introduced against this Middle Eastern country limited the sale of offensive weapons only, while the defensive systems, such as air defense systems, were not banned. However, the Russian government froze the deal on its own initiative, which led to an international scandal.

After freezing the deal, Iran filed a lawsuit against Russia in the Geneva court, demanding a huge penalty of 4.2 billion dollars for breach of the contract. Russia returned the prepayment only, which has been made by Tehran. Interestingly, that the cost of the contract was $800 million only. The suit was not moved forward though; apparently due to the fact that there was a private agreement with the Western countries regarding the prohibition of implementation of these air defense systems.

As a result, Iran made concessions on its nuclear program in April 2015, and this move entailed a relaxation of the international sanctions (and eventually they can be fully lifted – they remain in force in connection with Tehran’s missile program only), and Russia has offered to sign a new S-300 contract. For some time, there have been negotiations concerning modification of the ADMS to be purchased – the Russian Federation offered more up-to-date S-300PMU-2 system, or a new tactical modification S-300VM “Antey-2500”, but Iran insisted on buying the previous version, requested back in 2007 (S‑300PMU-1). As a result, the contract was signed in autumn 2015, apparently, identical to that signed in 2007. Thus, Iran will be the last country to purchase S-300PMU-1, and possibly all S-300 P versions (both most advanced Russian air defense missile systems S-400, and simpler C-350 will be exported soon).

Now, the lawsuit should be revoked from the Geneva Court in the near future, and this long story is going to come to an end.

Supply of S-300 will strengthen Iran’s position in the region

Air defense missile system S-300PMU-1 is capable of hitting up to 6 targets simultaneously, with a maximum distance to the enemy aircraft being up to 150 kilometers. In addition to standard aerodynamic targets such as airplanes and cruise missiles, the system can also hit operational-tactical and ballistic short-range missiles at distances up to 40 kilometers. Low-altitude targets (at a minimum altitude of 10 meters) can be effectively hit as well.

There were no such air defense capabilities in Iran before – so this is a major purchase. S-300 would allow to effectively hit the aircraft of Iran’s main enemies in the region. However, four battalions will not be enough to protect the entire country, except for a few key objects. The protection of these objects can be especially powerful, if the S-300 would be used in a cluster with the “Tor-M1” short-range air defense missile systems purchased earlier in Russia, which can destroy targets that break through the first echelon of air defense.

Thus, Iran has an opportunity to answer “painfully” to a hypothetical intervention of its geopolitical opponents. The only enemy against whom this amount of ADMS will not help is the United States. Probably several aircraft will be shot down, but the entire Iranian air defense system will be suppressed in a limited timeframe. In order to counter the threat of such proportions, Iran needs to create a multi-layered air defense system with the most up-to-date air defense missile systems and in great amounts.

Prospects of military and technical cooperation between Iran and Russia

Iran has a great need in the most varied modern military equipment because of the long-term international sanctions the country has been under. For example, Iran has shown interest in the purchase of Su-30SM fighters, S-400 ADMS, “Bastion” coastal defense systems, military transport helicopters Mi-17, etc. Iran’s need for modern multi-role fighters alone is not less than 100 units, or even twice as much. Apparently, the air defense system should also be considerably expanded and increased.

However, the embargo on the delivery of offensive weapons to Iran is still in effect, so in the short term the defensive weapons only can be sold: the S-400 ADMS, “Bastions”, etc. Iran also showed quite some interest in the Russian armored vehicles, namely T-90 tanks. Iranian officials and the military at various levels have constantly been making conflicting statements – first they said that they were interested in the tank, but under the condition of its production in the Iranian territory with technology transfer, and then stated that Iran had created its own tank “Karar”, not inferior to the Russian one. Alexey Zharich, deputy head of “Uralvagonzavod”, said earlier that they were ready to deploy an assembly production of T-90 in Iran. In any case, if Iran is up to the production of T-90s in future, they will have to order a big batch, from 200 to 300 units, or “the game will not be worth the candle”, neither for Moscow nor for Tehran. Summing up the approximate cost of promising contracts, it can reach up to $10 billion, accounting for 20% of the current export portfolio of Russia (a record figure of 55 billion dollars has been reached).

However, not everything goes as smoothly as it should. It is still unclear when the arms embargo will be finally lifted (if at all, given the right of veto of the US in the UN Security Council).

On the other hand, relations between Iran and Russia are not constant. In recent years, the countries have been forced to forge a temporary alliance in connection with the civil war in Syria, where the two countries have been supporting the current president Bashar al-Assad in contrast to the opposition supported by the Sunni Arab coalition and the West. Some of the actions of Iran are already beginning to sharply contradict the interests of Russia.

Primarily, it is the failure of the expanded OPEC meeting in Doha, which is why the level of oil production has not been frozen (Iran wants to increase production to the pre-sanction level). Thus, months of Russia’s work on the organization of the extended oil cartel failed so far. Secondly, during the meeting with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said that he was ready to fully supply Ankara with oil and natural gas. And this, in fact, is an attempt to push Russia from oil and gas market in Turkey, where Russia is a major player.

All this means that Iran-Russia relations can strongly deteriorate in the foreseeable future, which could hinder the development of military and technical cooperation. Only time will tell what the reality is going to look like.

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