Russia and the United States may have found common ground on Syria’s chemical weapons, giving President Barack Obama a way to avoid threatened missile strikes and President Vladimir Putin a way to support longtime ally Syria.
But the Russians may be playing a more complicated game than the Americans realize, possibly reviving talk of the arms deal with Iran to create added leverage in their ongoing dispute with the US over what to do about Syria.
The respected Russian daily Kommersant reported Wednesday that the Kremlin has decided to go ahead with the sale of a package of its advanced S-300 antiaircraft missile system to Iran, reversing a decision made three years ago by then-President Dmitry Medvedev. The Kremlin issued a terse denial, saying that Mr. Putin did not give orders to prepare a new S-300 deal with Iran.
One of the most sophisticated missile defense systems in the world, the S-300 would give Iran a major capability to defend against air strikes, something that alarms Israel, where leaders have frequently mused about an air mission to destroy Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
The newspaper cited sources close to the Kremlin as saying that Putin is considering a proposal to Iran’s new president, Hassan Rouhani, that could undermine the new spirit of US-Russian cooperation over Syria. Putin and Mr. Rouhani will meet Friday on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Kyrgyzstan.
According to the story, Russia is worried about a $4 billion lawsuit that Iran filed in a Geneva arbitration court after Russia canceled an $800-million contract to supply five batteries of long-range S-300 systems to Tehran. The paper says the new deal would involve five batteries of an upgraded version of the S-300, known as S-300VM. The new deal would be offered on condition that Iran withdraws its lawsuit against Rosoboronexport, the Russian state-run arms exporting company.
The newspaper also said Russia would offer to construct a second reactor for Iran's Russian-built civilian nuclear power plant at Bushehr, the first of which went online about two years ago. Bushehr’s construction was highly controversial, with the US, Israel and others worrying that the plant would give Iran a way to divert uranium for weapons.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov denied the Kommersant report, telling Ekho Moskvi radio Wednesday "Vladimir Putin did not give instructions for the question of supplying modified S-300 complexes to be studied."
The Russian missile system, which is comparable to the US Patriot antimissile defense system, has been a regular source of controversy, in large part because of its long range -- up to 120 miles -- and ability to track multiple targets. Before Mr. Medvedev cancelled the S-300 deal with Iran in 2010, Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu made repeated visits to Moscow in an effort to persuade the Kremlin not to go ahead with the sale.
Similarly, the US and Israel staged a diplomatic full court press to persuade Putin to cancel a contract to supply S-300s to Syria earlier this year. It was unclear whether that sale had gone through until Putin explained in an interview last week "we have a contract for the supply of S-300s [to Syria], and we have already supplied some of its components. But the delivery has not been completed, and we have suspended it for now."
In the same interview, Putin implied that Russia had agreed to halt sales of the S-300 to Syria and Iran in order to support international efforts to promote peace negotiations. He said Russian policy could change if the West embarks on military-backed campaigns for regime change.
"If we see that steps are being taken that violate current international norms, we shall think how we should act in the future, including with regard to supplies of such sensitive weapons to certain parts of the world," Putin was quoted as saying.
That thought was expressed more bluntly on Wednesday by the hawkish chair of the State Duma's international affairs committee, Alexei Pushkov, who told parliament that if the US turns away from the path of diplomacy in Syria in favor of military action, Russia should think of ways to retaliate. "If the war party prevails in the US. . . I would consider it absolutely justified to (take) more serious measures, including increasing the supply of defensive weapons to Iran and changing the terms of our cooperation with the US on Afghanistan, particularly transit conditions," Mr. Pushkov was quoted as saying.
Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan confirmed Wednesday that Iran is pressing Russia to fulfill the S-300 contract, using the lawsuit as a prod. "It comes to me as a question how is it that a former world power and one of the current powers of the world doesn’t implement an inked legal international contract. " Dehquan was quoted by the semi-official Fars news agency as saying. “[The Russians] have signed a contract and they should come and implement it.”
Vladimir Yevseyev, an analyst at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow, says that Medvedev went beyond the terms of the 2010 UN Security Council resolution placing sanctions on Iran, which Russia supported, when he canceled the S-300 deal. "Russia has no choice here. We either supply the S-300s, or pay them $4 billion. It's not a matter for discussion. Moscow doesn't really care what Washington or Tel Aviv thinks about it," he says.
Fiona Hill, a former top Russia and Eurasia official at the US National Intelligence Council, said the sale, or the threat of the sale, would act as leverage for Moscow in dealing with Washington. In other words, Moscow may not actually seek to follow through with the delivery, but just have that option to negotiate with the Americans, or the Iranians.
“This is how they always play on these sort of issues,” she says. “Just because they appear to be cooperative on this issue… does not change their overall activity on all the Middle East issues... Mr. Putin is perfectly capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time."
US officials said they were aware of the press reports, and pointed out that US officials have raised the issue of the S-300 transfer to Iran repeatedly with Moscow in the past.
"Transfer of the S-300 air defense missile system to Iran would have negative implications for regional security. We welcomed the Russian Government’s decision in 2010 to refrain from this sale," Caitlin Hayden, a spokeswoman for the US National Security Council, wrote in an email. "We regularly raise our concerns with Russian government officials over the destabilizing consequences of transfers of advanced weapons systems to Iran."
Sergei Strokan, a foreign affairs columnist with Kommersant, says that there has been conflict inside Russia's establishment over the wisdom of canceling the S-300 contract with Iran from the very beginning. "I recall a flurry of discussions at the time over whether that deal violated the Security Council resolution that we had supported, so this is not a particularly new question," he says.
Mr. Strokan says the missile deal, if it goes through, would solve two Russian problems with one decision.
“First, it would remove the biggest irritant in our relations with Iran. The cancellation of that S-300 sale angered Tehran a lot, and led to that lawsuit in Geneva. Second, it would send a message to the US that we are still capable of making things much more complicated, if they decide not to keep up their side of understandings we thought we had."