Over the past couple of years, there has been plenty of speculation about Iran acquiring the S-300 air defense system from Russia, or through a third party. So far, none of those reports--including some from supposedly "authoritative" sources--have panned out.
That's an important caveat, since the story is making the rounds (again). The latest version comes from "Necenzurirano," a web magazine published in Croatia. According to the Necenzurirano account--which was republished by the Jerusalem Post--Zagreb has agreed to sell S-300 equipment to Iran. Croatia acquired at least one SA-30/S-300 battery from Moscow more than a decade ago, but the system was never placed in operational service.
The Croat publication also reports that a Libyan freighter has arrived in the port city of Kraljevica, in preparation for the shipment to Iran. Israeli military sources could not confirm the account.
While some analysts claim that Tehran has already acquired the S-300, those claims have never been verified. While Iran is believed to be interested in the system, negotiations aimed at concluding a purchase have never been finalized. In years past, Iranian officials reportedly balked at the system's high price ($300 million per battery). But, with the recent spike in oil revenues (and the threat of a U.S. or Israeli strike against its nuclear facilities), Tehran may consider the system more affordable.
Buying used equipment from Croatia would be even cheaper, and provide a possible "bridge" until Iran could acquire new missiles and radar from Russia. Zagreb's S-300 battery is believed to be in good condition, having been maintained in operational storage since the mid-1990s.
The Croat military never explained why the system wasn't deployed, but the U.S. is believed to have pressured Zagreb to keep the S-300 out of service. Croatia's decision was also influenced by the break-up of the former Yugoslavia, and a diminished air threat from arch-foe Serbia.
However, U.S. influence in Croatia is limited, and Tehran has worked tirelessly to build ties with the Zagreb regime. During the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, Iranian "aid" flights routinely landed at the Zagreb airport, providing a convenient conduit for funneling arms to Muslim fighters in neighboring Bosnia. Contacts established years ago provided a foundation for the reported S-300 deal.
With capabilities similar to those of the U.S. Patriot, the SA-20/S-300 is one of the most advanced SAM systems in the world. It is able to engage a variety of targets, ranging from tactical aircraft to ballistic missiles. Over the past 15 years, Russia has exported the S-300 to a number of countries, including China, Vietnam and Cyprus. Other countries, including the United Arab Emirates, have also expressed an interest in the system.
Officially, Iran falls in that latter category, although some sources claim that Tehran has already received the S-300. One former Mossad agent reported that deployments of system began last year around Iran's nuclear facilities at Natanz and Bushehr. Those claims have not been confirmed by Israeli intelligence agencies or their American counterparts.
The SAM system's presence in Iran would (obviously) complicate planning for a potential strike against that country's nuclear program. At least one Israeli source believes an SA-20/S-300 deployment in Iran would be a "show stopper," effectively preventing a potential IAF attack on Tehran's nuclear facilities.