U.S. officials are demanding answers on Russia's reported sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran.
A senior intelligence official tells the Associated Press that the U.S. believes that Moscow is selling the advanced air defense system to Tehran. However, the official said it appears that equipment deliveries have not yet occurred.
With a maximum range of more than 150 miles, the S-300 poses a threat to American aircraft operating over the Persian Gulf and in Afghanistan. The S-300 also has the ability to intercept tactical ballistic missiles.
The intelligence official's comments offered a bit of clarification on the system's status in Iran. Last week, a Russian press agency reported that deliveries of the S-300 to Tehran had already begun. That claim was reprinted in other outlets, including Aviation Week's defense blog.
Officially, the U.S. is discouraging the SAM sale to Iran, but our concerns carry little weight in Moscow or Tehran. At this point, the arms transfer appears to be a done deal; the only question is when the Iranians will take delivery of the S-300. Some reports suggest that Russian is already training the first cadre of Iranian operators, allowing Tehran to establish an initial operating capability within a few months of initial delivery. Using Russian contractors to run the system, Iran could bring the system on line even sooner.
This is not the first report of an S-300 sale to Iran. Reports of a deal have made the rounds for years, but those claims have usually been accompanied by denials from Moscow. But not this time; in fact, a Russian official stated last week that an S-300 transfer would actually enhance "stability" in the Middle East, by (presumably) lessening the chances of a U.S. or Israeli attack.
Moscow has acknowledged that it is selling "defensive" weapons to Iran and the SAM system fits in that category. But with its state-of-the-art performance and extended range, the S-300 will (depending on its location) pose a threat to U.S reconnaissance platforms and tactical aircraft over the Persian Gulf and western Afghanistan.
There are also unconfirmed reports that Tehran is negotating with Russia for a medium-range surface-to-air missile system, possibly the SA-17. That would represent another key element in Iranian efforts to modernize its air defense system. With the recent purchase of the SA-15, Tehran has improved its short-range intercept capabilities. Acquisition of the S-300 will upgrade long-range defenses, while the SA-17 (or a comparable system) will fill the mid-range gap.