Iran-Russia Relations Overshadowed by S-300 Dispute

Monday, August 20, 2012

Shuaib Bahman
Senior Researcher of Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)

IRAS: Relations between Iran and Russia are not only at a high level in political fields, but also in military affairs as well. These relations have, however, taken a new turn after Russia decided not to deliver S-300 missiles to Iran, which prompted Tehran to file a lawsuit against Moscow with international judicial authorities. The lawsuit has enraged Russia prompting Moscow to threat Tehran that it may change its political positions toward Iran. The following article aims to provide insight into this issue.

Military and security contacts between Iran and Russia date back to the occupation of the Iranian territories in Caucasus. The contact became so serious under Qajar rule that Iran was actually turned into a protectorate of Russia. However, the country became a strategic ally of Britain and the United States after the military coup d’état on February 22, 1921, up to the Islamic Revolution in 1979. During that period, Iran considered the former Soviet Union as its main enemy. Of course, relations between two countries were quite close at some junctures, but their overall framework was set by international equations and traditional rivalries between the East and the West.

After victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, the general atmosphere of relations between Iran and the Soviet Union was influenced by Tehran’s principle of “Neither East, Nor West” as well as the occupation of Afghanistan. The situation remained the same until the end of the imposed war with Iraq and implementation of Moscow’s new policies under the former soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. As a result of those policies, the Soviet Union started to withdraw its forces from Afghanistan in 1989 and a new chapter began in Tehran’s relations with Moscow. In the meantime, the implosion of the Soviet Union and subsequent developments in newly independent countries, topped by a vacuum of power in those countries, offered Iran and Russia with new opportunities for cooperation.

Meanwhile, as a result of the imposed war with Iraq, Iran was banned from importing certain military equipment as well as transfer of modern military technology and relevant knowledge for a matter of 10 years. Therefore, during the post-war period, renovation of military systems which had been damaged and strengthening the Iranian armed forces became a priority for the country. Since that time, Russia has been among the most important military partners of Iran and many contracts have been signed between the two countries for selling military equipment one of which pertained to selling the S-300 missile defense system by Russia to Iran. The latter contract, however, was not fulfilled by Moscow and this issue has already faced bilateral relations between Iran and Russia with certain challenges.

S-300: From Contract to Lawsuit

S-300 missile systems are special to defending industrial facilities, state institutions, military bases as well as military command headquarters against the enemy’s aerial and space attacks. This system is quite capable of destroying ballistic targets and is also able to hit targets on the ground. The latest model of S-300 can target an enemy plane at a distance of 150 km and at an altitude of 27 km.

Russia has so far implemented a number of contracts it had signed for delivery of this missile defense system to a number of countries including to Belarus and Bulgaria. It has also signed contracts to deliver the most advanced version of this system to the Republic of Azerbaijan, China, India and Ukraine. In addition, negotiations have been underway between Russia and such countries as Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Greece, and Cyprus for selling various models of this missile defense system.

However, the main reason why this system has become so famous is a contract which was signed between Iran and Russia on December 2005 at an estimated value of 700 million dollars. As a result of that contract, delivery of this missile defense system to Iran has not only turned into a powerful variable and element in Iran’s relations with Russia, but has also aroused the sensitivity of other countries. Therefore, great efforts were made to make Russia cancel the contract and refrain from delivering the S-300 missiles to Iran, and apparently, those efforts have proved effective.

It seems that the S-300 contract has been revoked by Russia in compliance with the United Nations sanctions against Iran (as per the Security Council Resolution 1929) and due to strong opposition from the United States and Israel. When Dmitri Medvedev, the then Russian president, announced his country’s decision not to deliver S-300 missile defense system to Iran, his remarks were welcomed by the US officials and Washington announced that the measure is totally in line with the UN sanctions against Iran’s nuclear energy program.

The White House said in a subsequent statement that the decision by Russia shows that close cooperation still exists between the United States and Russia over issues of bilateral interest as well as global security. The Western countries, especially the United States, and Israel had previously taken Russia to task for its decision to sell the advanced missile system to Iran and believed that the system will enable Tehran to defend its nuclear facilities against an aerial attack.

On August 24, 2011, Iran officially announced that it has sued Russia for having failed to fulfill its contractual commitments for selling S-300 to Iran. Speaking to reporters at that juncture, Iran’s ambassador to Moscow, Mahmoud Reza Sajjadi, explained Iran’s lawsuit as such: “According to S-300 contract, if one of the parties fails to fulfill its commitments, the other party can take legal action against the party in default. One of the Russian officials who had traveled to Iran in this regard told us that ‘if you take legal action in court and they announce that delivery of S-300 system is not against the [UN sanctions] resolutions we will give it to you’. The general understanding was that delivery of S-300 system is not against the resolution and we filed a complaint in order to enable Russia find necessary legal mechanisms and authorization to deliver S-300 to Iran.”

It was then that the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Lukashevich reacted to Iran’s decision by saying that Iran’s measure had “surprised” Russia. He added that Moscow preferred the dispute to be settled through bilateral talks with Iran, not in an international court.

The Future Outlook

While from the viewpoint of Iranian officials Russia has surrendered to international pressure with regard to its contractual commitments for delivering S-300 missile system to Iran, the Moscow-based Kommersant newspaper recently quoted an “unnamed source” at the Russian Presidential Office as saying that if Iran did not stop its lawsuit on the S-300 missile defense system, Russia would cease to support Iran with regards to its nuclear energy program.

In reality, however, such reactions and threats will not only fail to bear fruit, but also damage cordial relations between the two neighbors. The Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov clearly noted in June 2010 that S-300 missile system was considered defensive equipment and could not be covered by anti-Iranian sanctions adopted by the UN Security Council. It is noteworthy that the issue of S-300 missile system is subject to a bilateral legal contract and cannot be politicized. Iran and Russia have signed a bilateral contract on selling and buying S-300 system and, certainly, the contract includes clauses on dispute settlement. At the same time, cooperation between Iran and Russia is large-scale and not all levels of cooperation should be ignored over a single contract.

Both Iran and Syria are important players in global equations and each one of them influences international relations in its own specific way. Russia is a nuclear power and also due to having veto right at the United Nations Security Council is still among the biggest powers in the world. Iran, on the other hand, enjoys a prominent geopolitical position in the geostrategic Middle East region and the entire Islamic world and is, therefore, considered a regional hegemonic power with global influence.

Therefore, in addition to its bilateral aspect, relations between Iran and Russia also have regional and international dimensions. The West is especially sensitive to relations between Iran and Russia in such areas as the nuclear energy and weapons and these issues have usually led to emergence of special attitudes toward either country. Therefore, bilateral relations between Iran and Russia can play a determining role in global relations.

This is why despite the existence of viewpoints and concerns in each country toward the other one the point which should be always born in mind is that Iran and Russia have common, similar and supplementary interests in many fields. Such common and supplementary interests can, thus, be used as a ground to help them to reach agreement on conflicting interests.

At present, relations between Iran and Russia are marked, inter alia, with lack of differences in principles and values, absence of territorial and border disputes, absence of tension in political relations between the two states, existence of common and similar interests at regional and global levels, adoption of similar and convergent positions on many global and regional issues, promotion of cultural relations and economic exchanges in recent years, attempts to establish a regional security mechanism in the absence of transregional players, discontent with the eastward expansion of NATO, dissatisfaction with the existing world order, and efforts to establish a just and multipolar order in the world.

The above features show how expanded as well as how coordinated and harmonized are relations between Iran and Russia. These characteristics as well as the existing capacities can help both countries to promote relations at strategic level. Therefore, before the existing gap in relations is further deepened, both sides should take rapid actions to dispel the other side’s worries. Undoubtedly, dispelling misunderstandings and promoting bilateral relations will be only possible through dialogue and negotiation.

Key Words: Iran-Russia Relations, S-300 Dispute, Contract to Lawsuit, Inter Alia, Dialogue and Negotiation, Bahman

Source: Iran and Eurasia Research Center (IRAS)
Translated By: Iran Review.Org

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