MOSCOW — Russia revived a deal Monday to send an advanced air-defense system to Iran, bucking U.S. objections and potentially altering the strategic balance in the Middle East.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to remove five-year-old restrictions on shipping S-300 surface-to-air missiles suggested a significant policy shift by Moscow following a framework agreement reached earlier this month that would limit Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for easing international sanctions.
In Washington, the end of the freeze on the missile deal between the two countries raised “serious concerns,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Monday. “I do think it’s safe to say that Russia understands that the United States certainly takes very seriously the safety and security of our allies in the region,” he said.
Secretary of State John F. Kerry phoned Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to object to the deal moving forward, though the State Department maintains that Russia’s move will not upset negotiations to rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“We see this as separate from the negotiations, and we don’t think this will have an impact on our unity,” State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said.
In military terms, the S-300 systems offer a potentially major security boost to Iran — the missiles, with a range of up to 125 miles, would give it an effective defense against an aerial attack.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who once again Monday excoriated the draft nuclear pact with Iran, has raised the prospect of airstrikes to destroy or hinder Tehran’s nuclear program.
The Israeli intelligence minister, Yuval Steinitz, said Monday that Russia’s decision to deliver the missiles to Iran is “the direct result of the legitimacy” that Iran has gained from the framework deal and that letting Iran “arm itself with advanced weapons will only increase its aggression.”
“This also proves that the economic momentum in Iran that will come in the wake of the lifting of the sanctions will be exploited for armaments and not used for the welfare of the Iranian people,” he said.
The missiles could also heighten security concerns in Persian Gulf Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia.
But Lavrov suggested that the preliminary agreement with Iran has changed Moscow’s calculations. Russia blocked the transfer of the missiles in 2010, under pressure from the West and in the wake of a U.N. decision on Iranian sanctions. The freeze was ordered by then-President Dmitry Medvedev, in what was essentially a gesture of solidarity with the West. “We believe that at this stage, the need for this kind of embargo, particularly a voluntary Russian embargo, has completely disappeared,” Lavrov told journalists.
Lavrov said the missiles could be shipped out “promptly” when Russian officials decide to send them.
He stressed that it was “very important” that Iran procure an air-defense system, “especially now that tensions have run high in the surrounding environment.” But he insisted that sending S-300s to Iran would “not jeopardize the safety of any state in the region, including, of course, Israel.”
On Sunday, the leaders of Israel’s liberal opposition party Zionist Union called for an “understanding” from the United States that Israel could carry out military strikes on Iran if it violates the potential nuclear accord.
Russia originally signed the missile contract with Iran, worth $800 million, in 2007.
The decision to lift the S-300 restriction comes as Russia and other nations are considering potential business opportunities in Iran if a final accord is reached and sanctions are rolled back.
Negotiators hope to reach a final agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by the end of June. But there is no firm timeline yet for easing sanctions against the country.
Sergei Ryabkov, Russia’s deputy foreign minister, told members of the upper house of parliament Monday that Russia and Iran are rolling out an oil-for-food agreement in what would be another step toward a resumption of unrestricted trade.
Lavrov said that Russia was especially concerned about potential damage to “the commercial and reputation aspect” of its dealings with Tehran, which has brought a $4 billion lawsuit against Moscow, if it continues to hold out on the missile sale. He insisted that the sale does not fall within the purview of existing U.N. sanctions, and U.S. officials have acknowledged as much.
The Obama administration has long maintained that Russia has been an effective partner in its efforts to contain Iran’s nuclear program, and the freeze remained even as U.S.-Russian relations soured with the return of Putin to the Kremlin. Since then, Washington has imposed a different set of sanctions on Russia in response to the fighting in Ukraine.
Rep. Eliot L. Engel (N.Y.), the leading Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, lambasted Russia in a statement Monday.
“In his latest outrage, Vladimir Putin is threatening to greatly strengthen Iran’s air defenses with a sophisticated Russian radar and missile system,” the statement said. “Either Putin is bluffing to gain favor with the Iranian regime and leverage with the West, or he will do it and embolden Iran just as a nuclear agreement is in sight. Step by step, Putin is turning Russia into an outlaw state.”
In recent months, Russian and Iranian officials have been working toward closer cooperation on defense and security, but the S-300 impasse was a key sticking point.
Iran has developed much of its own military equipment, including missiles and drones. But it has depended heavily on designs and expertise from China, Russia and elsewhere.
Russia’s arms-export industry is one of the few bright spots in a troubled economy. In 2014, Russia made $13.2 billion in arms sales, according to a report Monday in the Russian newspaper Kommersant — about $22 million more than the year before. Russia also built Iran’s lone energy-
producing nuclear reactor.
Karen DeYoung in Washington and Ruth Eglash in Jerusalem contributed to this report.