Iran’s S-300 lawsuit against Russia may backfire

I’m resuming posting briefs I write for Oxford Analytica. This one was published in early September.

In July, news broke that Iran had filed an arbitration case in Geneva seeking a 4 billion dollar fine against Russia for cancelling its contract to sell S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran. There has been speculation that the claim is actually part of a move by the two sides to restore the contract, perhaps as part of a larger deal that would have Russia resume significant military sales to Iran. In fact, Tehran’s move has angered Moscow.

Impact

o   The presence of the S-300 systems would make Iranian nuclear installations much less vulnerable to attack by Israeli or Western forces.

o   The situation complicates Russia’s relations with Iran, and makes it harder for Moscow to maintain ambiguity on Iran’s nuclear programme.

o   It is possible that Moscow has already threatened, in private, to cease UN Security Council vetoes of anti-Iranian resolutions.

o   If it moves forward, the case in Geneva is likely to be decided in favour of Russia.

What next

Tehran’s lawsuit may result in at least a temporary cooling of Russian-Iranian relations and a corresponding opportunity to increase international pressure on Iran over its nuclear programme. Russia is less likely than ever to resume sales of weapons to Iran in a situation where such a move would be seen as caving in to Iranian pressure. Instead, Moscow will seek to pressure Tehran to withdraw the claim without preconditions, and may publicly threaten to stop vetoing anti-Iranian resolutions in the UN Security Council if Tehran does not comply.

Analysis

The contract to sell five S-300PMU-1 battalions to Iran for 800 million dollars was originally signed in December 2007. The Russian government promptly became subject to a great deal of private and public lobbying by Israel, the United States and other Western countries that sought to have the deal cancelled.

Russia reverses its decision

Although the Russian government has resisted Western pressure for several years, it decided to cancel the contract in September 2010. Soon after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which imposed sanctions banning the sale of most missile systems to Iran, then-President Dmitry Medvedev went further by announcing that Russia would stop virtually all military exports to Iran. The Russian government then returned the 167 million dollar advance it had received from Iran for the missiles. The units themselves were disassembled. The total losses to Russian arms exporters as a result of the freeze on military sales to Iran could be as a high as 1 billion dollars per year.

Iran has periodically sought to restore the contract. These efforts initially consisted of quiet diplomacy, followed by public complaints. To increase pressure on Russia, in April 2011, the Iranian government filed a case with the International Chamber of Commerce in Paris, claiming damages of around 900 million dollars from the cancellation of the contract. Iran’s argument is that the UN-mandated sanctions approved in 2010 did not apply to the S-300 missiles, since these were ground-to-air missile systems and designed primarily for defensive purposes. Observers largely agree that Russia’s move went beyond what the UN sanctions required.

The S-300 dispute generated widespread attention again this summer, as the Iranian government withdrew its case from the Paris tribunal. Tehran refiled it at the International Court of Arbitration in Geneva, and raised the damages sought to 4 billion dollars. Neither side drew attention to the lawsuit; information about the filing became public in July with the publication of the annual report of Rosoboroneksport, Russia’s state arms dealer. Since Rosoboroneksport is listed as the defendant in the claim, the potential liability was listed in the report.

Iranian officials have repeatedly noted that they are not interested in receiving the money they would get by winning their case. Iran saw Medvedev’s decree as a public humiliation that affected its pretensions to status as a regional power, in addition to reducing its ability to defend itself against possible Israeli or US air strikes.

Iran wants contract restored

The Iranian ambassador to Moscow has openly stated that should Russia agree to send the missiles, Iran would withdraw its suit. The implication is that Iran was using the suit in order to pressure Moscow to reinstate the contract. The size of the claim is equal to one-third of Rosoboroneksport’s annual revenue.

Tehran makes serious miscalculation

Tehran believes that the return of Vladimir Putin to the presidency, combined with escalating war of rhetoric on the part of Israel vis-a-vis Iran, has created a window of opportunity for Russia to reconsider its decision. It may be easier for Putin to restore the contract than it would have been for Medvedev, who signed the original decree to cancel the sale. Iranian leaders also believe that Russia wants to avoid the regional chaos that would most likely follow Israeli or US air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities. One way of preventing such strikes is to bolster Iranian defences against air attack, which is the main purpose of S-300 missile systems.

However, if Iranian leaders believe that putting financial pressure on Russia will force them to resume arms sales, they have miscalculated. Russian leaders have already indicated that they will take a harder line against Iran’s nuclear programme if Iran does not withdraw the suit. One Kremlin official was quoted stating that if Tehran does not withdraw its claim in the near future, it will be on its own in dealing with the international community on nuclear issues.

Change of tactics

Iran appears to have recognised its error in judgment and has already begun to back off. The Iranian ambassador said that the size of the claim was increased by the court, rather than by Tehran. This seems unlikely, as even if the court chose to include punitive damages without an explicit request from Iran, the amount would have been discussed with the plaintiff in advance.

An end in sight?

Russia does not want to be seen as Iran’s pawn. At the same time, Moscow wants to maintain an ambiguous position on Iran’s nuclear programme — seeking to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons while helping it resist Western pressure to completely shut down its nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is for peaceful purposes.

While the case is unlikely to result in a long-term shift in Russian-Iranian relations, it may damage the relationship in the short term. Iran will test the domestic Bavar 373 long-range air defence system during military exercises in October. If the system proves successful, Tehran may feel less of a need to continue seeking the S-300 and may decide to end the episode by withdrawing its claim.

 

Ground force missile procurement plans

I’m working on part two of air force procurement plans, but just came across a brief article in NVO on plans for conventional missile system procurement for the ground forces. This is from a statement by General Dmitry Bulgakov, deputy minister of defense. As with all official statements about procurement plans, these should be read as intentions, rather than any kind of statement of what will actually happen, especially in regard to delivery timelines.

  • 9K720  Iskander ballistic missile systems: 6 systems received in 2010. Plans to purchase a total of 120 by 2020.
  • 9M133 Kornet anti-tank missiles: 18 missile systems purchased in 2010. Plans to purchase 180 missile systems by 2020.
  • S-300 medium range missiles: 120 to be purchased by 2020 (not clear if these are to be S-300VM for the ground forces or S-300PMU for the air defense forces).
  • 2S19 Msta-S self-propelled howitzers: 36 purchased in 2010. Total of 574 to be purchased by 2020.

Again, given the history of procurement delays, I would treat these numbers as aspirational, rather than realistic.

Why was the S-300 canceled?

The recent decree signed by President Medvedev canceling the sale of the S-300 surface to air missiles has raised some questions about decision-making in the Russian government about arms exports. Analysts who spend their time looking for tensions in the Russian “tandemocracy” have suggested that this decision is a sign that President Medvedev was able to get his way on this issue against the wishes of Prime Minister Putin. Other interpretations indicated that Iranian behavior in recent years or months led Putin to change his mind on the sale, which he supported since the initial decision was made several years ago. In this interpretation, in signing the decree Medvedev was simply doing what he was told by his “superior.”

I don’t think these are the only two options. I have always been skeptical of interpretations that depend on finding disagreements between Medvedev and Putin. At the same time, I don’t think Medvedev is Putin’s puppet. My interpretation of the Russian top leadership is that decisions are made largely by consensus among the 4-5 top people, with Putin acting as first among equals and in some ways the arbitrator/final decision-maker. This was true when he was president and hasn’t changed much in the current environment. In this light, Putin doesn’t have to have completely changed his mind, nor did he get rolled by Medvedev. Perhaps his view became less strong and the views of enough other players changed that the consensus moved in a different direction. Obviously I don’t have evidence that this is how decisions are made in the Kremlin right now, but there is some reasonable evidence that this is how it was done back in 2007. I haven’t seen anything that would lead me to believe that much has changed.

As far as the specifics of the S-300 decision, I don’t think the Russian leaders were ever all that strongly committed to selling the S-300 to Iran. I think that to some extent, it was always partially a bargaining chip that was used against the U.S. in moments when relations were problematic. So from that point of view, it’s possible that Putin didn’t change his mind at all, but the circumstances changed sufficiently that the balance between Russia’s bilateral relationships with the U.S. and Iran changed sufficiently that it became worthwhile to publicly shift positions on this sale. This would mean that U.S. policies toward Russia were bearing fruit.

This interpretation is supported by the breadth of the presidential decree, which prohibits the sale of virtually all military technology to Iran. Russian analysts estimate the total cost to Russian arms exporters of leaving the Iranian market to be around 11-13 billion dollars, of which the S-300 sale was just 800 million. If Russia just wanted to make a gesture toward the U.S., it would have been sufficient to ban the sale of the missiles while leaving other military cooperation intact. The fact that all military sales were banned implies that this is more than a gesture — it implies that Russian leaders have decided that they need to have much better relations with the United States and also with Israel. One possibility is that they hope that this change in policy will remove any remaining roadblocks to the Russian purchase of sensitive military technologies from the West. The Mistral deal is undoubtedly part of this calculus, but so is the purchase of more advanced UAVs from Israel.