Why Did Russia Sell S-300 Missiles to Iran?

Journalist Reese Erlich says the trigger was the Saudi attacks on Yemen, alerting Iran that it may need to defend from similar attacks

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.

Moscow has lifted its own ban of selling weapons to Iran. Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov announced that Russia plans to send an S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran because it is pleased with the progress being made with the 5+1 over Tehran’s nuclear energy program. The Russian ban had been in place since 2010, and the Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, expressed his support for the move, and indicated that it was a step in the right direction.

Here to discuss all of this is Reese Erlich. Reese is a bestselling book author and freelance journalist who writes regularly for Global Post, Vice News, and NPR. His most recent book is Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect.

Thank you so much for joining me, Reese.

REESE ERLICH, FREELANCE FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT: My pleasure.

PERIES: So Reese, give us a sense of what this move is all about. Russia selling arms to Iran in the midst of negotiations on the nuclear agreement, which is not final yet.

ERLICH: Well, the Russians are clearly, have been allies of Iran in this battle. And what they’re telling the U.S. is that Iran has the right to self-defensive weapons. I think the triggering event was the fact that Saudi Arabia has been bombing Yemen, which is allied with Iran. And as far as the U.S.–sorry, as far as the Russians and the Iranians are concerned, is Iran has the right to protect itself from similar attacks by Saudi Arabia or anyone else.

From the U.S. standpoint, the lifting of these, embargo on this particular S-300 missile system violates the sanctions imposed by the UN and the U.S. is quite mad about it.

PERIES: And what is Russia attempting to do? Now there’s sanctions against Russia itself. This is somehow bucking the process that’s going on in terms of the nuclear deal that’s still being finalized between the P5+1, the U.S. and of course Iran. What does all this mean geopolitically?

ERLICH: Well, the U.S. is trying to link it to the nuke talks, of course. But in reality there’s no connection. These are conventional weapons, surface-to-air anti-aircraft missiles. They’re not capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and Iran doesn’t have nuclear warheads anyway. But I guess from the U.S. standpoint, the U.S. government wants to weaken Iran in any way it could, and if Iran has these new, relatively more sophisticated weapons, it means the U.S. or Israel would have a harder time bombing Iran.

But the other significant thing is that the Russians did not announce a date when these missiles would be delivered. And they had promised these missiles five years ago, and then decided not to deliver them. So it remains to be seen if this will be carried through, if and when.

PERIES: And what does this tell us about Iran itself? Accepting or buying these missiles at a time, at a very crucial and sensitive time when they’re trying to negotiate the lifting of sanctions vis-a-vis the nuclear agreement.

ERLICH: Well I think what–as from the Iranian standpoint, they’re telling the U.S., look, we don’t have nuclear weapons, we’re not building a nuclear bomb, and we don’t plan to. But we have a robust, conventional weapons system. They have aircraft and missiles and so on. And as far as the Iranians are concerned, they would be used defensively. They point out that Iran has never invaded another country in over 1,000 years, whereas the U.S. has been active in invading and occupying Iraq and Afghanistan and is backing the attacks on Yemen and so on.

So from the Iranian standpoint it’s strictly self-defense, and conventional weapons are different from nuclear weapons. As far as the U.S. and Israelis are concerned, any military activity by Iran is suspect, and they want to weaken Iran as a regional power.

PERIES: Russia entering this debate, discussion, at this time is significant vis-a-vis the shift that’s going on in terms of polarization of relations between U.S. and Russia. What’s Putin trying to say here?

ERLICH: Well, I think ever since the Ukraine crisis and the imposition of sanctions on Russia, Russia has taken a number of steps to stick its thumb in the eye of the U.S. Edward Snowden, the leaker from the NSA contractor is given sanctuary in Russia. The, of course Russia has been carrying out its activities in Ukraine and annexed Crimea, and I think it’s also stepped up its support for Assad in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. The Russians are trying to tell the Americans that there’s–you think you’ve got the upper hand by imposing sanctions on us, well, we have our ways of retaliating against you.

Interestingly enough, this new S-300 missile system is going to cost about three quarters of a billion U.S. dollars, and if the Iranians are able to pay for it that’s going to be a boost for Russia, and a blow against the U.S. sanctions against Russia. So as far as Iran and Russia are concerned, it’s a win-win.

PERIES: Does this set the stage for the collaboration between Iran and Russia, particularly given the declining oil prices and the impact this is having on their economies?

ERLICH: Well, they’ve been allies for quite a while. Ideologically, they’re polls apart. Russia is a nationalist power globally. Iran is lead by Muslim clerics who have a very different worldview ideologically. But they find themselves both aligned against the U.S. and U.S. policy in the region. So Russia has been supplying money and arms to the Assad government in Syria, so has Iran. And Russia has been part of any deal–for example, it’s one possible negotiation on the nuclear issue, it would be to have Russia take the nuclear waste and store it so it couldn’t be re-processed into possible bomb material.

PERIES: So Russia’s a part of P5+1, and is a part of the negotiations that are going on so what does this mean politically in terms of the finalization of the agreement?

ERLICH: Well, I think Russia’s interests are to not have–for Iran not to have a nuclear weapon. As is the rest of the world. And I think they’re serious about that, and I think they don’t want a competitor that’s somewhat unpredictable. Or a future competitor that’s unpredictable on their, close to their borders.

So however the–I think the ultimate resolution of this issue are going to hinge on what the U.S. and to a lesser extent the Europeans are willing to accept from Iran in the way of guarantees not to have a nuclear bomb. And whether the United States is serious about lifting the sanctions as the Iranians demand. Russia is playing a relatively minor role.

PERIES: Reese, thank you so much for joining us.

ERLICH; Thank you.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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