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Analysis & Opinion
25.11.09 Backed Into A Corner
By Roland Oliphant

For over two years, Russia has had an $800 million contract with Iran to deliver the S-300 anti-aircraft missile, a particularly fearsome piece of equipment that Iran – and its enemies – believe could tip the balance in defending its nuclear facilities from a potential (probably Israeli) pre-emptive airstrike. But somehow the missiles never arrived, and the Iranians are now losing patience – or at least making a show of doing so.

Earlier this month several top Iranian officials, including Minister of Defense Ahmad Vahidi, Chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Policy and Security Alaeddin Boroujerdi, and the Head of the General Staff Said Hasan Firuzabidi all warned that further delays could damage Russian-Iranian relations. Then, on November 24, another military official, Brigadier General Mohammed Hassan Monsourian, told reporters that “the Russians have failed to meet their commitment due to pressure from the Zionist lobby and the Americans,” and warned that Russia could be made to answer by “international legal bodies.”

And well they might be. Russia’s constant hedging and evasion on the S-300 issue might exhaust even the most forgiving of customers. The original deal signed in 2007. A year later, in December of 2008, the Iranians went to Moscow and extracted a promise that the delivery was imminent, and the Iranian state news agency IRNA reported that deliveries “had begun.”

They hadn’t, or if they had, they stopped before anything substantial had arrived. In February, the Kommersant daily reported that Moscow had decided to “freeze” the deal to avoid marring relations with the incoming U.S.
administration and a deal to buy sophisticated aerial drones from Israel. In March, RIA Novosti quoted an unnamed Russian official saying that Iran had not yet received any of the weapons. So the Iranians then dispatched Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari to Moscow to find out what was going on. No one knows exactly what the Russians told him, but it must have been convincing, because he told reporters at the end of his trip in April that “there are no problems with this contract.”

But still the missiles failed to materialize. On November 14 the Kommersant daily quoted Mikhail Dmitriev, director of the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation service, as saying that “all deals are going to plan. And if there are a few delays to their realization, they take a special technical character.” But that excuse is wearing thin. Kommersant also quoted an anonymous source at Rosoboronexport, the state-owned arms exporting monopoly, who said that the delays were purely political – something no independent observer was surprised to hear.

“Russia has no intention of providing these things just now,” said Fyodor Lukyanov, the editor of the Russia in Global affairs journal, “because that would be seen worldwide, especially in the United States, as Russia siding with Iran on the nuclear issue. And Russia does not want to create the impression that it is not playing a fair game with the United States.”

So, what is it playing at? The problem, of course, is that it is extremely difficult to appear to be dealing fairly with the United States and Iran at the same time. In fact, if the Iranians and the West are united in anything, it is the belief that Russia is taking them both for a ride. In a Web memo on March 20, Ariel Cohen of the Heritage Foundation, a conservative American think tank, argued that “today, Russia uses Iran as a geopolitical battering ram against the United States and its allies in the Gulf.”

Meanwhile, “the Iranian take is that Russia is trying to manipulate it, and is using Iran as a card in the game with the United States and the West,” said Lukyanov. “They are very, very irritated, if not furious.”

The view that Russia’s position is a product of devious cunning assumes that Russia has made itself indispensable to both sides – or, as Cohen less charitably put it, “has created a problem and then offered to negotiate a solution.” Russia can wring concessions from the West in exchange for not selling Iran the S-300, safe in the knowledge that Iran knows it cannot get the weapons anywhere else – no matter how angry officials like general Monsourian get.

From the Western point of view, Russia’s position on the S-300 is only a reflection of its frustrating non-commitment on the question of Iran’s nuclear program. “Russia holds the key to the nuclear question in two ways: first of all, it wields a veto at the UN Security Council, and if Russia agrees to new sanctions, China is unlikely to stand in the way,” said Mark Fitzpatrick, a senior fellow in non-proliferation at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Secondly, Russia has the greatest leverage over Iran in terms of a close relationship and military sales. But maintaining the status quo suits Russia; tension in the region keeps oil prices high, and it denies the United States a solution to a pressing problem. And even without the S-300, Iran relies on Russia for a great deal of military supplies.”

Russia, then, appears to be doing extremely well out of playing Iran and the West off against each other. Or is it? The implication that Russia is willing to break deals that the United States happens to disapprove of could seriously affect its arms export business no only with Iran, but with other countries as well. Nor is its near monopoly on Iranian demand as secure as some analysts assume. “Other, less controversial customers are asking whether Russia is a reliable contractor,” said Lukyanov. “And just suppose the nuclear issue is resolved tomorrow. It would be politically acceptable for other countries to sell arms to Iran, and the Iranians would immediately start buying from other suppliers because Russia hadn’t the courage to fulfill its obligations.”

Nor is Russia’s caution on sanctions necessarily as manipulative as it looks, argues Lukyanov. “Iran is a very important neighbor whose influence in Central Asia is growing. And there is at least one ongoing conflict between the two –over the status of the Caspian Sea – that has not been resolved,” he said. “For Russia to disturb its relationship with Iran would be a very serious decision.”
The source
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