Russian Umbrella Over the Iranian Nuclear Power Plant

Iran has a great deal of confidence in Russian weapons. With the rest of anti-Iranian sanctions gone, presumably before the end of 2016, Tehran will continue its purchases of Russian arms.

Iran has publicly demonstrated the S-300PMU Favorit anti-aircraft missile system it has bought from Russia. This happened at the National Army Day parade in Tehran a few days ago.

Numerous pieces of combat equipment, parade elements of the armed forces services and combat arms, the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution, and war veterans marched through the central square past the Khomeini Tomb (Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran) and a grand stand graced by the presence of President Hassan Rouhani, government members and esteemed foreign guests. Flatbed trucks carried drones and patrol craft, with military jets and helicopters flying overhead. But the main highlight was the S-300 radar. For the parade participants, it symbolized Iran’s victory over the US and other western countries, whose sanctions prevented Tehran from buying advanced combat equipment from its friends and partners and thus strengthening state security.

But Iran’s possession of S-300 was not much of a surprise. The beginning of its delivery to Tehran was announced in a tweet by Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin. Earlier in April, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari also broke the news to his country. Eight heavy platform trucks with the missile systems were shown by Iranian TV.

Rosoboronexport, the Russian president-appointed arms exporter, confirmed the delivery to journalists. “We have started the practical implementation of the Iranian contract. The first batch of S-300 systems has been sent to the customer,” a company spokesman told the media. He did not specify, however, how many systems were on the delivery list. According to the available data, the plans are to perform the contract in full before the end of 2016.

We were also informed that the first regiment of Russian-made S-300PMU anti-aircraft missile systems will be placed on alert status within the Iranian air defense system in summer of this year. The regiment will comprise two S-300 battalions. The equipment has been sent to the customer. Our source says that the training of Iranian operator crews is nearly over. The contract for the delivery of four S-300 battalions will be performed before the end of this year.

It will be recalled that Moscow and Tehran signed their first S-300 delivery contract worth $900 million as early as 2007. Rosoboronexport even received $167 million as a down payment. But the contract was suspended in 2010 by the then president, Dmitry Medvedev, pursuant to UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which introduced sanctions against Iran. The Security Council did not ban supplies of defensive weapon systems, such as S-300, but the Russian leaders obviously had reasons of their own for turning down such a lucrative deal. Quite likely, they were eager to please the US and Israel, which were dead set against the contract. Even though Moscow repaid the advance, Iran sued for a $4 billion forfeit with the International Court of Arbitration in Geneva.

The situation changed in 2014 after it became clear for an umpteenth time that the West intended to take Russia’s concessions for granted and repaid Russia by ignoring its national interests. More than that, the West even looked for ways to make life harder for Russia. This came to a head in Ukraine and was followed by US and EU sanctions which were intended to all-out isolate Russia. Predictably, this failed. But in response, Russia stepped up its effort to establish closer relations with countries in Asia and the Middle East, with President Vladimir Putin approving the resumption of the Iranian S-300 contract. Moreover, Moscow and Tehran signed an agreement on military-technical cooperation in January 2015, under which the Islamic Republic would be able to buy $8 to 10 billion worth of other combat equipment.

However, contract implementation was met with a setback, given that the S-300PMU Favorit producers had retooled for non-exportable S-400 systems that were supplied to the Russian army. There were no spare Favorit systems at plant warehouses either and so Moscow offered Tehran another system, S-300V Antaeus-2500, possessing almost the same operational and physical characteristics (effective range for aircraft: 40 to 200 km; effective range for ballistic targets: 5 to 40 km; efficiency: 0.9 percent, or one missile per target). The only difference is that S-300PMU has wheels, while S-300V is caterpillar-propelled. The former is designed to protect cities, important industrial facilities and the like. The latter defends forces during combat operations. Since Tehran wanted S-300 to protect its nuclear facilities, including the Bushehr nuclear power plant, it was insisting on having the wheeled system and refused to withdraw its suit from Geneva before the delivery began.

The Russian arms exporters had to bend over backwards to accommodate the partner. A spare S-300PMU Favorit was found in the Russian Defense Ministry’s arsenals. The delivery was launched late last year.

Importantly, this process came also under way after Iran assumed its commitment not to develop, produce or create nuclear weapons and placed its peaceful nuclear program under IAEA control. It has also agreed to send its plutonium and weapon-grade uranium surpluses to Russia to be reprocessed to fuel assemblies for its Russian-built Bushehr nuclear plant and other prospective nuclear projects with Russian participation.

Nevertheless, Tehran’s sincerity and readiness to honor its commitments are still distrusted (particularly by Washington and Tel Aviv) despite an agreement prohibiting the development of nuclear weapons it has signed with the Six (US, Russia, France, UK, Germany and China) and the lifting of some anti-Iranian sanctions. Israel, for one, repeatedly threatened to launch air strikes at Iran’s nuclear facilities in a bid to prevent the emergence of a nuclear power in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia is quite jealous of the Iranian nuclear program as well. Therefore, the air defense of crucial industrial and power infrastructure has become a matter of national security for Tehran.

The Iranian Air Force has a number of near- and middle-range air defense systems, such as Chinese copies of French Crotales, British Rapiers, US Hawks, Soviet S-75 Dvina and S-200 Angara systems (which are as old as their US counterparts), Russian Strela and Igla-S portable anti-aircraft systems, AA guns, and ZPU 23x4 Shilka self-propelled systems. But Iran’s most reliable and modern weapons are Russian-made Tor-M2 and S-300 PMU Favorit systems. Interestingly, Iran preferred the latter to its cheaper Chinese analogue, HongQi-9, produced without Russia’s licensing the technology.

What does this mean? This means that Iran has a great deal of confidence in Russian weapons. With the rest of anti-Iranian sanctions gone, presumably before the end of 2016, Tehran will continue its purchases of Russian arms. In this sense, Moscow has much to offer. It is to be expected that an Iranian order for the most advanced and efficient Russian weapons has been compiled and sent to Moscow. After the Guardians of the Islamic Revolution saw how Russia’s Su-30, Su-34 and Su-35 jets operate in Syria, Russian military air schools are certain to have new students, from Iran.

The mutually beneficial military and military-technical cooperation between Russia and Iran will continue to be promoted, for the benefit of both countries. Talks are under way on building a canal from the Caspian Sea to the Persian Gulf. It can’t be ruled out either that a Russian naval base may spring up on Gulf shore of Iran’s territory as an upshot of Russian economic and Navy-related advances.

But let us not look too far ahead. The important thing for now is to honor the S-300PMU contract.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.