MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia has delayed the delivery of advanced air defence missiles to Iran for technical reasons, a top Russian official said Wednesday, in the latest sign of strained ties between Moscow and Iran.
The comments on the delay in Russia’s controversial sale of S-300 missiles to Iran came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow in a bid to rally support for tougher action against Tehran.
“The delay is due to technical problems. The delivery will be carried out when they are resolved,” Alexander Fomin, deputy head of Russia’s Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation, told the Interfax news agency.
Russia’s S-300 contract with Iran has raised hackles in the United States and Israel, which believe that Tehran could use the sophisticated air defence missiles to defend its nuclear facilities against attack.
Western powers suspect that Iran is seeking to build an atomic bomb under the guise of its civilian nuclear energy programme, although Tehran says the programme is peaceful in nature.
Neither the United States nor Israel have ruled out air strikes in order to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Analysts say that S-300s could greatly complicate such air strikes.
Fomin, whose service oversees Russian arms exports, made the comments in an interview with Interfax while attending a defence exhibition in New Delhi, DefExpo India 2010.
He did not clarify what the technical problems were or how long it would take to fix them, Interfax reported.
Netanyahu, who has urged Moscow to stop the S-300 delivery, left Moscow on Tuesday after a meeting with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.
Russian media have speculated that Israel could agree to stop selling arms to Moscow’s foe Georgia in return for a Russian agreement to block the S-300 sale to Iran, which the Jewish state sees as its main threat.
Netanyahu did not deny such a quid-pro-quo in an interview published Wednesday in the Russian daily newspaper Kommersant.
“Whenever it comes to arms sales, we always take into account the concerns of all sides and we expect Russia to do the same — to act in the interest of stability in unstable regions,” Netanyahu said in response to a question on Georgia.
Israel supplied unmanned aerial drones to Georgia and helped train Georgia’s military before the Russia-Georgia war of August 2008.
Russia has been secretive about the Iran missile contract, but Interfax has reported that it calls for Moscow to sell Tehran five batteries of S-300PMU1 missiles for around 800 million dollars (530 million euros).
The S-300PMU1 — codenamed the SA-20 Gargoyle by NATO — is a mobile system designed to shoot down aircraft and cruise missiles.
Iran has expressed frustration with the delay in the missile delivery, and last week a top Iranian military commander said Tehran would build its own air defence missiles that would be even better than the S-300s.
Russia’s once-warm relations with Iran have recently become strained amid the international dispute over Tehran’s nuclear programme.
On Tuesday, Russia joined the United States and France in criticising a new push by Iran to step up uranium enrichment, and Moscow said it could not exclude a new round of sanctions against the Islamic Republic.
Moscow has long had close ties with Tehran and is building Iran’s first nuclear power plant in the city of Bushehr.