Friday, December 28, 2007

Not So Fast

Russian officials are dismissing Iran's recent claim that it will soon receive the state-of-the art S-300 air defense system. As Robert Wall of Aviation Week reports:

"...Moscow says that assertion is just not true. The S-300, which is considered the most sophisticated air defense system Russia is making available on the export market -- the more sophisticated S-400 appears mainly for domestic use, so far -- will not be delivered to Iran. In fact, a government agency involved in any such transfer says it is not even being considered."

As we noted in a previous post on this topic, stories about Iran acquiring the S-300 have been making the rounds for years. And, contrary to what Moscow is saying, there have been some serious negotiations on a possible purchase. However, the deal usually fell through because of the reported asking price ($300 million per battery), with additional charges for training and follow-on maintenance support.

Still, Iran's most recent claims about an S-300 deal seemed plausible, for a couple of reasons. First, the announcement came from the nation's defense minister, who referenced a contract that had already been signed. Secondly, Tehran recently completed its acquisition of the short-range SA-15 system; the S-300 (also known as the SA-20) would be a logical complement, providing long-range coverage against air, cruise missile and ballistic missile threats.

While it isn't in the same price range as the S-300, the SA-15 isn't cheap, either. Iran's decision to buy that latter system was an indication of serious gaps in the nation's air defense system, and Tehran's determination to fill them, even if it means paying big money for advanced equipment. And, with oil nearing $100 a barrel, financing an S-300 purchase would be easier for Iran and other potential Middle East customers.

Given the disconnect in statements from Tehran and Moscow, someone is obviously out of the loop, offering up another bit of disinformation, or they simply jumped the gun. For now, our money's on that third option. Iran clearly has an interest in the S-300 system, and Moscow's past deals with Cyprus and China underscore their willingness to sell to anyone who can meet the asking price.

But Moscow is also aware that confirmation of an SA-20 sale to Iran could further de-stabilize an already volatile region; the U.S. would pressure Russia to cancel the deal and pending delivery of the system might cause Israel to launch a preemptive strike against Tehran's nuclear facilities. That's one reason that Russia would prefer to keep an SA-20 deal quiet, and possibly conceal initial deliveries to Iran. There's too much "smoke" on this issue to completely dismiss prospects of a near-term SA-20 acquisition by Tehran.

True, recent claims about buying the system may be exaggerated, but there's no doubt that Iran recognizes existing weaknesses in its air defense network, and the need to correct them. The Iranians also understand that the S-300/SA-20--however pricey it may be--would go a long way towards improving its air defenses, and even deter potential attackers. As for Russia, an S-300 deal with Iran would represent a multi-billion ruble payday, and open the door for additional sales of the system. It's hard to walk away with that much money on the table.

At this point, it may be easy for Moscow to dismiss Iranian assertions about an S-300 sale. But Russia's standard "denial" is less-than-satisfactory. With Tehran eager to acquire an advanced, long-range SAM (and Moscow willing to deal), it's s fairly safe bet that the S-300 will wind up in Iran, and sooner, rather than later.

1 comment:

amr said...

And maybe they worry about what happened in Syria to the older Russian supplied system