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Moscow Inks Arms Deal With Tehran

Reports that Russia had signed a $1 billion arms deal with Iran surfaced on Friday, just as a senior U.S. State Department official was in Moscow to discuss counterterrorism measures.

Media reported that Russia last week had agreed to supply Tehran with the Tor-M1 air defense system, upgrade Russian-made fighter jets and deliver patrol boats in a deal that would mark the revival of large-scale arms sales to the Islamic republic.

Russia will deliver up to 30 short-range Tor-M1 air defense systems to Iran between 2006 and 2008, Interfax reported, citing an unidentified defense industry source.

On Saturday, the Russian Foreign Ministry indirectly confirmed the agreement, characterizing the weapons as "exclusively defensive" and in compliance with international agreements.

While they agreed that the tactical Tor-M1 system would pose no threat to Iran's arch-enemies -- Israel and the United States -- defense analysts said the anti-aircraft system would be well-positioned to ward off an air attack on the Bushehr nuclear reactor, which Russia is helping to build. Washington suspects that Iran is using its civilian nuclear program as a guise for developing nuclear weapons.

Nicholas Burns, the visiting U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, said on Friday that he had asked the Russian Foreign Ministry for an explanation for the deal.

"For 25 years, Iran has supported terrorists in the Middle East, and that is why we have very bad relations with them. You can understand why we do not support the sales of weapons to such a country," he said in remarks translated into Russian on radio station Ekho Moskvy.

The Foreign Ministry, for its part, denied any impropriety.

"All contracts we sign in the military and technical sphere are in full compliance with our international obligations, including nonproliferation obligations, and fully conform with Russian legislation," Foreign Ministry representative Mikhail Kamynin said in a statement.

In a similar vein, Moscow argues that its nearly $1 billion in contracts to construct the Bushehr facility will not help Tehran acquire the capability to build a nuclear weapon.

The sale of Tor-M1 systems would be the first major arms deal between Russia and Iran in more than a decade.

Five years ago, Russia walked out of a bilateral agreement with the United States banning weapons sales to Iran.

But Moscow's plans to turn Tehran into its No. 3 arms client after Beijing and Delhi failed to take off. The only sales that materialized were 30 Mi-171 helicopters for $150 million, according to the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow defense think tank. In July, Kommersant reported that Russia was in talks to upgrade and rearm three Iranian Kilo-class diesel submarines for $270 million.

The Tor-M1 is a low-altitude air missile defense system designed to shoot down aircraft, cruise missiles and precision-guided weapons.

A defense industry source, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the contract, confirmed the sale of the Tor-M1s but said the reported upgrade of MiG-29 fighters was still under negotiation.

State arms dealer Rosoboronexport and Almaz-Antei Air Defense Concern, the maker of the Tor-M1, refused to comment on the reports on Friday. But Maria Udalova, the spokeswoman for Izhevsk-based plant Kupol, where the system is assembled, said a contract had indeed been signed but refused to disclose with which country or the size of the deal.

"The Tor-M1 is an exclusively defensive weapon and would be good for protecting Bushehr. Unless the U.S. behaves aggressively toward Iran, there is no reason for it to be irritated by this deal," said Dmitry Vasilyev, an expert with the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies

"This is not an S-300 [long-range air defense missile]. The U.S. will not be happy, of course, but there is nothing critical in the deal for them," said Marat Kenzhetayev, an expert with the Center for Arms Control in Moscow.

Nevertheless, Kenzhetayev called the Tor-M1 deal "a big breakthrough" for the domestic arms industry after only a handful of deals with Iran since 2000.

Richard Grimmett, a defense analyst with the U.S. Congressional Research Service, cautioned against overplaying the significance of the deal.

"But, if it is in fact the first step in a long-term military supplying relationship by Russia of advanced conventional weapons, the United States government would likely view that as an indication that Russia may be willing to place its financial interests above the concerns of other states which do not wish to encourage Tehran to modernize its military to the point it could threaten its neighbors," Grimmett said in an e-mail.

In January, news of the imminent sale of Iskander-E missile systems to Syria caused consternation in Washington and Tel Aviv.

The news of the sale of the missiles -- which, with a range of 280 kilometers, could have hit targets anywhere in Israel -- broke only a day after Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov met with his U.S. counterpart, Donald Rumsfeld, in Washington for talks on cracking down on the trafficking of shoulder-fired missiles. President Vladimir Putin later said during an April visit to Israel that he had stopped the sale. However Putin also said that Russia would go ahead with the sale of the Strelets vehicle-mounted surface-to-air missile, whose range does not exceed five kilometers.

Russia has been keen to broaden its clientele for the past few years as traditional arms customers China and India look to diversify suppliers and produce their own arms under license rather than to purchase them abroad. For the first time in the past eight years, Russian arms exports are set to decline in 2005, down to $5.1 billion from $5.8 billion last year.

(The Moscow Times 05.xii.05)

 
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