S-300 exposes Russia-Iran trust deficit

The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov announced yesterday, inter alia, that Moscow is going slow on the supply of S-300 missiles to Iran. He said the S-300 deal isn’t “a matter of the nearest future.” It’s a wonderful quibble over time past, time present and time future. What could possibly explain the Russian retreat?

Moscow certainly expected that the Iranians would summarily drop their $4 billion claim with the international court of arbitration in Geneva against Russia’s non-compliance with the 2007 deal. But this may not be happening .

Moscow doesn’t have a strong case to defend in Geneva. Of course, for the Russians it’d be a humiliation to be seen executing the deal while the suit is still pending. Obviously, a meeting point needs to be found. The trust deficit needs to be overcome.

Having said that, Moscow’s retreat also has a broader context. The Russians announced their “rethink” three days after the telephone call to Putin by King Salman bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia on April 20.

We don’t know what prompted Putin to invite Salman to visit Russia. In fact, as recently as the recent Sharm El-Sheikh summit meet of the Arab league (March 28-29) regarding Syria, Saudi Arabia and Russia had an ugly spat and the Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal had accused Putin of hypocrisy.

Clearly, the Saudis hope to strike a deal with Putin over Yemen so as to isolate Iran. They are preparing for a showdown with Iran, as the scrape yesterday in the Yemeni skies foretell. This is not a time the Saudis would like to see the Russians beefing up Iran’s air defence system.

Now, one thing Saudis can do for Russia is to calibrate the oil prices to move up, which is a critical issue for the Russian economy.

On the other hand, the priority at this stage for Tehran is to preserve the dynamic of their talks with the US on the nuclear issue, which have reached a crucial stage. Interestingly, Zarif penned an Op-Ed in the New York Times offering seamless cooperation with the US exactly a week after Putin signed the presidential decree in Moscow on S-300.

Put differently, if Putin had hoped that S-300 would complicate the US-Iranian engagement, that hasn’t happened.The excellent chemistry at the personal level between the Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Zarif and the US secretary of state John Kerry has helped the two countries to expand their confidential exchanges to cover issues such as Yemen. Significantly, Washington also has downplayed the S-300. President Barack Obama was plainly dismissive.

All in all, Moscow would have thought the April 13 decree on S-300 would be a masterstroke, but the calculations have gone awry. It remains to be seen how Moscow seeks to explain this retreat on S-300. Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s bold statement of April 13 on the issue is the current benchmark.

But the real thing to be watched is how the Putin-Salman dialogue develops. As I wrote yesterday, the shadow play going on in the Middle East has many sub-plots. (See my blog Saudi Arabia and 3 non-Arab musketeers.)

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Categories: Asia Times News & Features, M.K. Bhadrakumar

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