MOSCOW — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won assurances from President Dmitri Medvedev that Russia will will “hold off” on supplying Iran with advanced S-300 air defense missiles at a Kremlin meeting Monday.
“On this issue [the S-300s] Russia is taking into consideration the needs for stability in the region,” Mr. Netanyahu said after meeting with Mr. Medvedev for several hours Monday.
On Sunday, Vladimir Nazarov, deputy secretary of the Kremlin’s Security Council, had suggested that there was no reason for Russia to continue stalling on delivering the weapons to Iran because “this deal is not restricted by international sanctions. … it is a purely defensive weapon.”
Moscow contracted to sell the ultramodern S-300 to Iran in 2005, but has delayed delivery for what experts describe as diplomatic reasons.
“The contract is signed, but there are ongoing differences of opinion about whether or not to deliver the weapons,” says Vitaly Shlykov, a former deputy defense minister who now works as a civilian adviser to Russia’s Defense Ministry.
A ‘game changer’
The S-300 is a mobile, long-range air defense weapon comparable to the US Patriot missile system. If combined with the Tor-M1 short-range antiaircraft missiles supplied to Iran by Russia three years ago, the S-300s could provide a formidable defensive shield for Iran’s nuclear sites, experts say.
“The Israelis tell us that a Russian decision to supply the S-300s to Iran might provoke an immediate Israeli strike against Iran,” says Yevgeny Satanovsky, president of the independent Institute of Middle East Studies in Moscow. “This weapon would be a game changer in the region.”
As an apparent gesture to the concerns of the international community, the Russian state firm Atomstroyexport has also been delaying completion of the Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran, which is already almost two years behind its scheduled completion date.
Anger over Israeli arms sales to Georgia
Experts suggest that Russia is angry about ongoing Israeli arms sales to Georgia, with which Russia fought a brief war in 2008, and could have made the threat to supply S-300’s to Iran as a means of leverage on that issue.
Neither the Kremlin spokesman nor Netanyahu said anything about Georgia following Monday’s meeting. But it looks less certain that Russia will support the “crippling sanctions” against the Islamic regime that Israel and the US would like to see put into place.
“What is needed now is very tough sanctions that can influence this regime [Iran] and severe sanctions that will considerably and convincingly harm the import and export of oil,” Netanyahu told journalists after meeting Medvedev in the Kremlin. “President Medvedev heard … my position about the need for sanctions with teeth. Diluted sanctions don’t work.”
Trading partner with Iran
Russia has been a close friend and trading partner of Iran, but experts say it has begun to lose patience lately with what it views as Tehran’s stalling on negotiations to curb its alleged drive to obtain nuclear weapons.
“Relations between Russia and Iran have been deteriorating over the past half a year or so, because Iran keeps making contradictory statements and actions,” says Vladimir Yevseyev, an expert with the International Security Center, an academic think tank in Moscow.
“Iran keeps pressuring Russia over the delays in Bushehr and over the fact that S-300s have not been supplied as agreed, and this ratchets up the mutual irritation to a diplomatic level,” he says.
But despite growing impatience in the Kremlin, sanctions that might hit Iran’s population by stopping the importation of refined fuels, aviation parts and services, and other vital industrial equipment are unlikely to be approved, experts say.
“Normal relations with Iran, even if they’ve been worsening lately, are in Russia’s political interest,” says Vladimir Sazhin, an expert with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow. “Patience may be running out in Moscow, but Russia is unlikely to favor any sudden changes” in its cautious, wait-and-see approach to dealing with Iran, he says.