Russia informed Iran Monday it would soon make good on the long-overdue delivery of a sophisticated air defense system, a sign that Tehran is already reaping the benefits of international negotiations over its nuclear program.
For Iran, the lifting of international sanctions is central to the high-stakes diplomatic standoff over curbing its nuclear ambitions. While an agreement is supposed to be finalized by June 30, how and when to lift the sanctions remains a stubborn sticking point.
But for Russia, the interim agreement reached earlier this month in Lausanne, Switzerland between Iran and the so-called P5+1 world powers was all it needed to abolish a ban on supplying Tehran with the sophisticated S-300 missile system, which is designed to intercept warplanes and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 150 kilometers (93 miles).
Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree lifting the ban Monday, Reuters reported. The move, which significantly bolsters Iran’s military capability, also may signal Moscow’s push for a head start in the race to benefit from the possible opening up of the Islamic republic.
“It was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in talks,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a televised statement. “We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo.”
The $800 million deal to supply the S-300 missile system, which is similar to the US Patriot missile system, was signed in 2007.
In 2010, then-President Dmitry Medvedev called off the deal because of tightened UN sanctions on Iran and strong objections from the United States and Israel. The two nations feared it could be used to protect Iranian nuclear sites from air strikes.
Israeli officials expressed similar concerns following the announcement Monday. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz denounced Russia's decision to lift the ban as proof of Tehran's newfound “legitimacy” following the nuclear talks, Agence France Presse reported.
“This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal that is being prepared, and proof that the Iranian economic growth which follows the lifting of sanctions will be exploited for arming itself and not for the welfare of the Iranian people,” Mr. Steinitz said in a statement.
According to the White House, US Secretary of State John Kerry raised objections over the move in a phone call Monday with Mr. Lavrov.
Russia is a main supplier of arms to Middle Eastern countries, including to governments that don’t recognize the Jewish state. Israeli leaders have long tried to persuade Moscow to scale down its cooperation with Iran and Syria.
Russian arms sales have plummeted in recent months, in part because of Western sanctions over the conflict in Ukraine. The country sold $5.98 billion worth of military equipment worldwide in 2014, down from $8.46 billion the previous year, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). In comparison, the United States, the world’s largest arms exporter, sold $10.2 billion worth of equipment last year.
Lavrov didn't say when Moscow would deliver the S-300 missile system to Iran, according to the Associated Press. But he was quoted by Interfax, the state-run Russian news agency, as saying that the Kremlin was ready to supply it “promptly.”
Iran was the 16th largest buyer of Russian arms last year, purchasing $4 million in missiles, according to SIPRI.