Iran seeks to advance indigenous anti-aircraft missile development

Reuters

The Russian S-300 anti-aircraft missile system, January 7, 1997.

Article Highlights

  • Iranian purchase of S-300 Anti-Aircraft system caused alarm in DC

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  • Obama admin officials point to Russian slow-balling of the anti-aircraft contract w/ Iran as evidence of success for reset

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  • It is the Supreme Leader who sets the tone and calls the shots in Iran

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On 25 December 2007, Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency announced that Iranian authorities had signed an agreement with Russia to purchase the S-300 Anti-Aircraft system. The announcement caused alarm in Washington and Tel Aviv because the sophistication of the S-300 system could severely constrain access to Iranian airspace in the event of military confrontation. While the original models of the S-300 date to the late Soviet period, the system has evolved considerably in subsequent years; experts consider it among the most formidable surface-to-air missile systems.

While Russia initially denied Iranian reports of the weapons system purchase, Russian press subsequently reported an $800 million contract. The Iran-Russia deal sparked a U.S. diplomatic push. Senior Obama administration officials often point privately to Russian slow-balling of the contract as evidence of success for the administration’s signature “Re-Set” policy with Moscow. Russian delays in delivery of the S-300 system have been the primary irritant in the Iranian-Russian relationship, which otherwise has never been so warm.

With the Russians refusing to make good on their contract, the Iranian government filed a lawsuit at the International Court of Justice in Geneva demanding a $4 billion penalty over the voided contract, although as recently as last August Iranian officials offered to withdraw their claim in return for the S-300’s delivery. Russia’s refusal to honor its contract encouraged Iran to redouble its efforts to develop its own equivalent system.

In December 2012 Iranian Defense Minister Ahmad Vahidi announced plans to create an indigenous S-300, which he named the Bavar [Belief]-373. Vahidi, a former Qods Force operative given to hyperbole, declared last April that the Bavar-373 would be even more advanced than the Russian S-300. It is against this backdrop that the excerpted article from Tabnak.ir, a news website close to former President Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, should interest analysts.

Firstly, while many English-language reports emanating out of Iran discuss progress on the S-300 system, the Persian language reports surrounding the same speech speak instead of the S-200 system, which, while having a range up to 250 miles, does not have as advanced a tracking and radar system. The Soviet Union unveiled the original S-200 system in 1966, making the basic platform almost a half century old, even though, of course, newer versions of the S-200 are more advanced.

The reason for the inconsistency in the Iranian reports may suggest that, for all Tehran’s bluster regarding its missile program, it has been not as successful as it claims: successful tests tend to generate consistent reporting. Secondly, the reference to Mansour Sattari and Valfajr-8 illustrates the legacy of the Iran-Iraq War in contemporary Iranian culture. Valfajr-8 was the name of Iran’s successful February 1986 military operation to recapture the Faw peninsula, and Sattari was the father of the Islamic Republic’s radar systems and a major air force figure during the Iran-Iraq War, who died in a plane crash on 5 January 1995. In popular Islamic Republic discourse the Iran-Iraq War is referred to often as the “imposed war” (jang-e tahmili), with the subtext being that “arrogant power” (i.e., the United States) collaborated with Iraq or perhaps even ordered the Iraqi invasion. Constant references to the Iran-Iraq War suggest an Iranian desire to wrap people around the flag and to depict Iran’s missile development as a necessary action in the face of existential threat.

The last major analytical point would be the central role of the Supreme Leader in military matters. This raises an issue for negotiation with the Islamic Republic for, while most diplomatic discussion regarding Iran’s proliferation and nuclear activities occur between foreign ministries or national security officials, it is the Supreme Leader who sets the tone and calls the shots in Iran.

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