Why Russia is cutting off major arms sales to Iran

Russia, a major global arms dealer, decided Wednesday to nix a controversial arms sale that would have given Iran missiles.

By , Correspondent

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    A Russian S300 missile launched from Priozorsk, Russia, in 1992.
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After months of sending conflicting signals about whether Russia would fulfill a controversial contract to supply advanced S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran, the Kremlin has ordered a halt to all sales of sophisticated Russian weaponry to the Islamic Republic.

A decree signed by President Dmitry Medvedev on Wednesday bans the supply of battle tanks, armored vehicles, large-caliber artillery systems, warplanes, military helicopters, ships, and missiles – including S-300 air defense systems – to Iran as part of measures to bring Russia into compliance with tough sanctions agreed by the UN Security Council in June.

Iran has purchased more than $5 billion in Russian weaponry over the past decade, including Tor-M1 short-range antiaircraft missiles, warplanes, submarines, and armored vehicles.

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Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said unspecified defense cooperation with Iran would continue, despite the end of major arms sales. "There are other directions," he told journalists.

The ban on weapons sales has been praised by the US and Israel, but was angrily denounced by Iran, which has felt increasingly alienated over the past year by Mr. Medvedev's Westward foreign policy drift.

"We think Russia should show it has an independent stance in choosing its relations with other countries as well as on international issues," Iranian Defense Minister Gen. Ahmad Vahidi said on state-run TV. "They have not done it so far."

The deal to supply five batteries of long-range S-300 air-defense missiles, which are similar to the US Patriot system, worth almost $1 billion was signed in 2007, and had been the subject of rumor, controversy, and diplomatic shenanigans until now.

There has also been considerable debate inside Russia, with many conservative politicians arguing that Moscow's global credibility as an arms merchant and its influence with long-time economic partner Iran would suffer if the contract were canceled.

But the Kremlin appears to have made a carefully calibrated compromise by deciding last month to complete the long-stalled Bushehr nuclear power plant in southern Iran as a friendly gesture to Iran, while quietly deciding to shelve the missile deal.

"We do not have any illusions about the character of the Iranian regime at all," Mikhail Margelov, who heads the security committee of the Federation Council, Russia's upper house of parliament, told journalists at the time.

"That is why, if we cooperate with Iran in the field of nuclear energy, as we do by completing Bushehr, we do so because this is the only legal mechanism to keep them cooperating with the international institutions," he said.

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