Russia-Iran: Why is the S-300 Sale Significant?

19 Jun, 2015    ·   4891

Debalina Ghoshal examines the motivations for and implications of the bilateral transaction

In April 2015, soon after the negotiations in Lausanne, Russia decided to supply Iran with the sophisticated defence system, the S-300, a deal due since 2010. The deal had been struck in 2007 but owing to pressure from the West and thereafter, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 1929 coerced Russia to cancel the deal. Though the Resolution did not include ground-to-air missiles, the move to cancel the deal was believed to aid the progress of the Iranian nuclear negotiations.

Since then, the deal has been mired in controversies. It was signed for US$800 million out of which Tehran immediately paid a sum of US$167 million. However, the system was never received. According to reports, Iran dragged this case to the International Arbitration Court of Geneval and also filed a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia.

The Lausanne talks in April 2015 are viewed by Moscow to have achieved a “substantial level of progress,” which has led to its immediate decision to sell the S-300s to Iran. This weapon system is believed to remove any scope of Israeli and also Saudi aircraft to bomb Iranian nuclear facilities and therefore, viewed by many as a game-changer. More so, this defence system is crucial since owing to Israeli and Saudi dissatisfaction over the Iranian nuclear deal has led the two to not rule out bombing Iranian nuclear facilities.

Why Now?

First, this is a step towards enhancing Russia-Iran military cooperation also viewed by the Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu as “a theoretical basis for cooperation in the military field.”

Second, the Russia-China-Iran nexus is growing as a counter against the North Atlantic Treaty Organiation (NATO). The Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy against the US is being implemented by China, Russia and also Iran. The missile defence system could protect Iranian weapon systems capable of deterring NATO states. The military cooperation is veiwed as Iran and Russia’s ability to counter the ‘expansionist’ tendencies of the US, especially in West Asia.

Third, the sale is also a response to the sanctions imposed on Russia following the Ukrainian crisis. The Russian economy has suffered due to sanctions, and defence sales would likely provide an impetus to its economy.Tehran has a budget of US$40 billion for modernising its army and hence, Russia could find this defence market lucrative. On Iran’s part, the S-300s will be a major relief for the Iranian air defence systems that have lagged behind in terms of development, considering the sanctions imposed the country.

Fourth, there are also other windows of opportunity for cooperation with Iran, especially, nuclear cooperation. Russia’s State-owned ROSATOM is already looking for a big stake in West Asia, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions would prove beneficial in this regard. Russia has played a crucial role in the Iranian nuclear programme; most recently, in November 2014, Russia signed a contract to build nuclear reactors in Iran.

Fifth, Iran is already an observer at the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) and may become a member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) in the near future. Russia and China both are backing this, and the strengthening of relations between Iran and Russia would also strengthen the pillars of these two organisations.


The arms-race in West Asia is growing and with States in the region acquiring sophisticated weapon systems, this could aggravate. Additionally, reports have confirmed that Israel was willing to sell drones to Ukraine in 2014, which has been seen as a destabilising move by Russia. However, in 2014, Israel cancelled the deal. Israel reasoned this as the result of its neutrality towards the Ukrainian crisis, and also as a response to Moscow’s decision to not sell arms to Iran and Syria then. This Russian deal may coerce Israel to revert to its earlier decision. It could also result in an increase in arms supply to Ukraine by the US. Therefore, the domino effect in arms races may not be confined just to West Asia but also to Europe. Finally, the weapons may lead to proliferation concerns since Iran is reported to provide weapon systems to asymmetric organisations including the Hezbollah and the Hamas.

That said, the initial deal struck in 2007 was to avail of the older S-300 defence systems. However, Russia has stopped manufacturing these systems and has instead offered Iran the Antey-2500s, an advanced version of the S-300s. It is a matter of time before Iran reveals whether it is willing to accept the advanced version. If Russia’s desire to check US influence in Asia and Europe becomes more intense, it could lead to the sale of the S-400s which are technologically more advanced than the S-300s.