With talks between Iran and major world powers at a critical phase, Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday signed a decree officially dropping Russia’s embargo on the sale of sophisticated air defense systems to Tehran.
The move was telegraphed in February, when a top Russian arms company executive discussed plans to offer weapons to Iran, but at the time Russia was still nominally observing a United Nations-imposed ban on weapon sales to Tehran. Until Putin formalized the end of the ban Monday, such a sale was still technically illegal.
The move clears the way for a long-delayed transfer of Russian-made S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. The missiles, while not the most advanced air defense weapon made in Russia, are nonetheless considered highly effective.
Iran has been in years-long talks with the U.S., Russia, China, France, Germany and England over scaling back its nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions that have squeezed the Iranian economy. Citing progress in the ongoing “P5+1” negotiations, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said the ban on weapons sales is no longer necessary.
“We are convinced that at this stage, there’s no more need of such an embargo — Russia’s separate voluntary embargo,” Lavrov told the government-owned TASS news service. “[The] S-300 is an air defense missile system, which is of a purely defensive nature. It is not designed for attacks and will not put at risk the security of any regional state, including Israel.”
The decision to lift the ban will no doubt raise serious concerns in Israel, where leaders are already extremely dubious about Iran’s claims that its nuclear program is meant for purely peaceful purposes. The Israelis have, in the past, taken unilateral action to destroy what they saw as a threatening nuclear facility, bombing the Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad, Iraq in 1981.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it clear that his government views unilateral action against Iran’s nuclear program as one of Israel’s options, and the Russian decision to offer Tehran advanced air defense capabilities will surely rankle both Israel and its primary supporter and ally, the United States.
The original sale of the missile systems to Iran was supposed to have taken place in 2010, but Russia backed out of the deal, imposing its ban after the U.N. imposed sanctions on Iran, though the sanctions regime did not actually bar the transaction. Iran sued Russia in the International Court of Justice for breach of contract.
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