Kerry phones Russian FM, objects to missile supply to Iran

White House says move could imperil sanctions relief; Lavrov maintains deal does not pose a danger to Israel, is ‘purely defensive’

US Secretary of State John Kerry (left), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk as they walk together on the grounds of the Chief of Mission Residence in Paris, France, on October 14, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (left), and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov talk as they walk together on the grounds of the Chief of Mission Residence in Paris, France, on October 14, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Carolyn Kaster, Pool)

US Secretary of State John Kerry raised objections on Monday night with Moscow over a plan to sell advanced missile defense systems to Iran.

The White House said Kerry made the US opposition clear in a phone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. The call came as Lavrov argued that a preliminary agreement over Iran’s nuclear program made a 2010 ban on sending missiles to Iran no longer necessary.

White House press secretary Josh Earnest indicated the move could endanger plans to ultimately lift sanctions on Iran as part of a final nuclear deal. He said unity and coordination with nations like Russia is critical to the success of the negotiations.

The Pentagon also expressed concern about the move, saying it was “unhelpful.”

“Our opposition to these sales is long and public. We believe it’s unhelpful,” Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren told reporters.

“We are raising that through the appropriate diplomatic channels,” he said.

State Department Spokesman Marie Harf said the transfer of the S-300 missile system to Iran would not violate existing United Nations Security Council sanctions.

However, she said given the turmoil in the Middle East, the US believes “this is not the time” for the sale.

Israel expressed alarm over Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that he was lifting the block on the transfer of the controversial weapons system to Tehran, against which both the US and Israel have lobbied hard. There is concern that the S-300 would seriously complicate any attempt at military intervention against Iranian nuclear facilities.

A senior Israeli official told Haaretz on Monday night that the Kremlin briefed Israel on its decision a short while before announcing the move. The official said Israel is also worried components of the air-defense system will be transferred to Syria and Hezbollah, seriously hamstringing the air force’s ability to dominate the skies over Lebanon or Syria.

Lavrov said Monday that the advanced S-300 air-defense system set to be delivered to Iran was “purely defensive,” and posed no threat to Israel.

The system won’t “threaten the security of any state in the region, including, of course, Israel,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax, quoted by Bloomberg News.

Lavrov said Putin’s move to lift the block on transferring the weapon system was done after the nuclear agreement this month between world powers and Tehran made the self-imposed embargo unnecessary.

He added that Russia did not want to continue outlaying money to prevent the deal between Russia and Iran and hinted that Moscow was unhappy with international pressure to quash the sale.

“We could not have disregarded the commercial and reputation aspect. As you know, we bear serious financial outlays in connection with the suspension of the contract, and we do not deem such a position necessary any longer,” Lavrov said, according to Interfax.

Tehran filed a $4-billion lawsuit in 2010 against a Russian defense exporter for holding up the $800-million deal.

Israel’s Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz slammed Russia’s move, linking it to Iran’s newfound legitimacy following the Lausanne agreement this month with the P5+1 world powers.

“Even as Iran disavows article after article in the framework agreement that was announced last week, the international community is beginning to ease restrictions on it,” Steinitz said in a statement released Monday.

“This is the direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal being made with it. 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. Instead of demanding that Iran desist from the terrorist activity that it is carrying out in the Middle East and throughout the world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression,” he charged.

Israeli officials said supply of the system to Iran could prevent any military strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Channel 2 news reported. The officials said the supply, if it goes ahead, would change the balance of power in the region. The TV report also cited unnamed American officials responding with concern to the news.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on January 16, 2014. (photo credit: AP/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (left) during a meeting in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on January 16, 2014 (photo credit: AP/Sergei Karpukhin, Pool)

A decree signed by Putin removes a ban on “the shipment from Russia to Iran” of the S-300 missiles, the Kremlin said in a statement earlier Monday.

Russia signed a 2007 contract to sell Tehran the S-300 system, but the weaponry was never delivered amid strong objections by the United States and Israel.

Moscow blocked deliveries of the surface-to-air missiles to Tehran in 2010 after the United Nations slapped sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program barring hi-tech weapons sales.

The decision to lift the delivery freeze comes after Tehran and international powers, including Russia, made a major breakthrough this month by agreeing to an outline deal aimed at curbing Iran’s nuclear program.

The Lausanne framework marked a crucial advance in a 12-year standoff between Iran and the West, which disputes Tehran’s denial that it is seeking to build a nuclear bomb. However, Israeli officials, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have strongly condemned the deal for placing inadequate limitations on Iran’s ability to research and produce nuclear weapons.

Global powers must resolve a series of difficult technical issues by a June 30 deadline for a final deal, including the steps for lifting global sanctions imposed on Iran, and lingering questions over the possible military dimensions of its nuclear program.

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who will have the final say on any deal, has plunged the accord into doubt suggesting that “nothing is binding,” while President Hassan Rouhani demanded that sanctions be immediately lifted when any deal is signed.

Global powers Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States have said sanctions will only be gradually eased and want a mechanism to ensure they can be swiftly reimposed if Iran breaks its word.

Despite the dispute over the S-300 missiles, Moscow and Iran have remained on good terms, with Russia agreeing to build new nuclear reactors for Tehran and both sides supporting President Bashar al-Assad in Syria.

The S-300, developed by the Soviet Union in 1979, is a series of Russian long-range surface-to-air missile systems produced by NPO Almaz. The S-300 system was constructed for the Soviet Air Defense Forces in order to defend against aircraft and cruise missiles. Subsequent variations on the model were developed to intercept ballistic missiles.

AFP contributed to this report.

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