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IRAN: Will Tehran get Russian weapons or not?

December 22, 2008 |  9:41 am

Confusion reigned over reports that Russia might sell Iran sophisticated antiaircraft weapons despite a pledge not to.

It's no secret that Iran wants the S-300s, mobile long-range defensive weapons that could thwart potential missile or aircraft strikes on its controversial nuclear facilities.

Under Israeli pressure, Russians have promised not to make the sale.

But the chatter continues.

Today, Iran's foreign ministry spokesman was cagey. Hassan Qashqavi told reporters that he had not "received any report" regarding the missiles from "relevant" officials.

"You know we have cultural, economic and political as well as defense cooperation with Russia," he said. "I cannot confirm or deny the news. You all know that we have several agreements with Russia. Some of the agreements have been implemented, some not."

Over the weekend, Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kosari, deputy head of a parliamentary committee, sent shock waves across the world by declaring that Iran would soon take possession of a weapon.

Russians have been little help in providing clarity. Publicly, officials say they won't sell Iran the weapons. But today Moscow's Rosoboronexport, the state-owned company that manufacturers and distributes the weapons, issued a statement saying Moscow would continue to sell Iran defensive weapons, including antiaircraft.

"Notably, Russia develops military-technical cooperation with Iran in strict compliance with its international commitments deriving from nonproliferation regimes," the report said, according to the Interfax news agency. "This cooperation cannot be a source of concern for third countries."

Then came another report issued by the Federal Military-Technical Cooperation Service stating categorically that "media reports claiming the alleged delivery of S-300 systems to Iran are wrong," according to Interfax.

OK. That's pretty clear.

But then came another report citing an unnamed "military-diplomatic" source in Moscow as stating that the S-300 systems are being packed up and prepared for shipment to Iran. "S-300 air defense systems are expected to be delivered from the defense ministry's warehouses," the source said.

It could be that Moscow has no intention of selling Iran the weapons but wants to make it clear to the West what damage it could do to Washington's strategies if it were so inclined. Last week, Russia agreed to hand Lebanon 10 free MiG-29 fighter jets, undermining a U.S. aim not to give Beirut any weapons that could threaten Israel, which is Lebanon's neighbor.

Israel, the country most concerned with Iran's nuclear program, dispatched officials to Moscow last week to plead for a halt to any such sales. Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert and blogger, said in a recent post that Israel's main worry was not that the sale of the weapons would stymie an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, but that it would give Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei too much confidence as Tehran prepares to grapple with the incoming administration of President-elect Barack Obama:

"If Ayatollah Khamenei knows that there is little which Obama and Israel can do economically, and now militarily thanks to the missiles, then he will be less inclined to take up Obama’s offer for talks, and to reciprocate American gestures."

-- Borzou Daragahi in Beirut and Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran

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