Iran’s Fars news agency, which is described as a semiofficial new agency (I guess that means they speak for the Iranian government, except when they don’t), says Iran has obtained four S-300 surface-to-air missiles from Belarus and some other unidentified supplier. I’m assuming the report means four S-300 systems, and not just missiles; the system includes the launcher and tracking and targeting radars.
Israel has long suggested that Iran’s acquisition of the S-300 would constitute a red-line that would compel Israel to launch an air attack. Steven Simon of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote in a brief back in November that S-300 deliveries to Iran would almost guarantee Israeli air strikes.
As Simon and other analysts note, Iran’s current air defense system is so weak and the S-300 is considered so good that if the system became operational it would greatly raise the costs of any Israeli strike. Most of Iran’s SAM systems are leftovers from the Shah days, such as their large inventory of U.S. built Improved Hawk, a medium range, mobile SAM system, that was delivered in the late 1970s.
What’s missing from Iranian air defenses is a modern, long-range SAM. That’s where the S-300 comes in. Iran announced in December 2007 that it had contracted to buy an unspecified number of the systems from Russia. The high-altitude, long-range S-300 is considered by some accounts to be comparable to the U.S. built Patriot air defense missile.
Israel views the S-300 as such a threat that in early June 2009, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s foreign minister, went to Moscow to convince Russia to halt the sale. In June, Russia said it would abide by UN Security Council sanctions against Iran and would not deliver the missiles; but the Russian Foreign Ministry then said the sale was still possible.
Earlier this spring, we posted photos of an Iranian military parade that featured a clearly not real mock-up of an S-300 launcher.
– Greg Grant