Iran clarifies: We have yet to receive S-300 missile system

Retracting earlier claim, Tehran now only says a deal has been made for delivery of the Russian anti-aircraft equipment, which could impede an Israeli strike

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

A Russian air defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27, 2013. (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)
A Russian air defense missile system Antey 2500, or S-300 VM, is on display at the opening of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky outside Moscow, August 27, 2013. (AP/Ivan Sekretarev)

Iran hurriedly retracted its claim Monday that the S-300 missile defense system had arrived in the country, saying instead only that an agreement for delivery had been reached, according to local media.

It was only the latest false start in a nearly year-long saga connected with the sale of the highly contentious anti-aircraft system. Since the signing of the nuclear deal last year, both Iran and Russia have reported the delivery of the missile system as imminent.

On Monday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Jaberi Ansari told local media explicitly that delivery of the system had already begun.

“Today I should announce that the first part of these equipment has arrived in Iran, and delivery of other parts will continue,” Ansari said at a press conference, according to a Mehr news agency report.

But just a few hours later, the agency’s story changed Ansari’s phrasing to: “Today I should announce that the first phase of the agreement is implemented, and the process will continue.”

Ansari also told the British Guardian newspaper the equipment had not actually been delivered, but rather that the “initial agreement for delivery” had been reached between the two countries.

The Iranian Tasnim news agency, which broke the story, similarly retracted its initial article and tweet about the S-300 delivery.

Instead, Tasnim quoted a Russian official who anticipated the delivery of the anti-aircraft battery would take place later in 2016.

“I think we will deliver the S-300 by the end of the year,” Sergei Chemezov told the Iranian news agency on March 11. “The first delivery will be in September or August.”

The incident sowed confusion in both English and Persian media. Some Iranian outlets reported the S-300 missile system itself had been delivered through the Caspian sea. Others claimed only some equipment related to the S-300 had reached Iran’s shores. And a third group referred only to the finalizing of the contracts for the anti-aircraft battery.

The Russian-made missile defense system is one of the most advanced of its kind in the world, offering long-range protection against both airplanes and missiles.

In 2010 Russia froze a deal to supply the system to Iran, linking the decision to UN sanctions instituted because of Tehran’s nuclear program. Putin lifted the suspension in July 2015, following Iran’s deal with six world powers that curbed its nuclear program in exchange for relief from international sanctions.

Israel has long sought to block the sale to Iran of the S-300 system, which analysts say could impede a potential Israeli strike on Tehran’s nuclear facilities. Other officials have expressed concern that the systems could reach Syria and Hezbollah, diluting Israel’s regional air supremacy.

The Israeli Air Force has trained for a scenario in which it would have to carry out strikes in Syria or Iran on facilities defended by the Russian-made S-300 air defense system.

In an interview late last year, IAF commander Maj. Gen. Amir Eshel said the S-300 was a “significant but not insurmountable challenge” for the IAF.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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