Moscow’s decision not to sell Iran a sophisticated air defence system has provoked some annoyance among officials in Tehran, but they say they can make their own missiles anyway.
On September 22, Russia announced it was withdrawing from a deal to deliver S-300 missiles to Iran. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was quoted by the Interfax news agency as saying the supply contract was subject to force majeure, in other words circumstances beyond the control of either party.
Iranian defence minister Brigadier-General Ahmad Vahidi described the failure of the deal as a “loss of face” for Russia.
“The Russians have demonstrated that they are untrustworthy,” he said.
Iranian media have reported that the government may sue Moscow for breach of contract. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, head of the parliamentary committee for national security and foreign policy, said Moscow should pay compensation of some 800 US million dollars.
After Moscow agreed to the sale in 2007, it came under increasing pressure from Washington and the Israeli government, which felt that Iran’s acquisition of the missiles would have a negative impact on the military balance in the Middle East.
Iran does have several anti-aircraft weapons systems already. What sets the S-300 missiles apart, though, is their long range of some 140 kilometres, allowing them to down incoming ballistic missiles as well as aircraft and cruise missiles.
Despite the anger Tehran showed at the formal end of the deal, it was already aware the missiles were not going to be forthcoming, ever since the delivery date came and went in spring last year.
As he commented on the end of the deal, Defence Minister Vahidi said Iran was developing its own long-range weapons systems to offer a defence against missiles.
Plans to design a long-range ballistic missile defence shield were unveiled last December by Mohammad Hassan Mansourian, deputy commander of Khatamolanbia Air Defence Base, which is tasked with defending Iranian airspace. However, he acknowledged that building such a defensive system would be no easy task.
Only a few months later, in April 2010, Iran showed off a weapon that seemed to indicate it had achieved its ambition. An armed forces parade on April 18 featured a long-range ground-to-air missile system that senior military officials described as “similar” to Russia’s S-300.
Pressed on the nature of the missile on show, Major-General Hassan Firouzabadi, head of the armed forces joint chiefs of staff, said in English that it was an “unknown system”.
Iran may have sourced Russian-made weapons from third countries. In July, the Fars news agency ran a report – removed from its website soon afterwards – that two S-300 systems had been acquired from Belarus and two others from countries unknown.
Russian defence analysts say it is unlikely the Iranians would be able to copy and manufacture such a sophisticated system at the moment.
Tehran has, however, made claims to have done so in the past. For example, it said it took Russia’s Tor-M1 anti-aircraft missile and modified it from short-range capability to reach targets at 35,000 feet.
Iran has certainly been putting a large amount of effort into upgrading its air defence systems.
For proof, one only needs to look at the appointment of Vahidi as defence minister in August 2009. In the Nineties, he got the defence industry off the ground, missile factories in particular.
Soon after Vahidi became defence minister last year, he put Manouchehr Manteghi in charge of the military aviation industry.
Manteghi, dubbed the “Father of Iranian Missiles” by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, produced a working radar system during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, led the project to build the Shahab ballistic missile, and had a hand in designing and building the Omid satellite.
Despite criticising the economic programme of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s administration, Manteghi is still closely involved in the aviation industry, and is said to work with a team of 300 top experts personally handpicked by him.
Iran claims to have made significant progress with designing its own air-defence arsenal. For example, in April it unveiled a new system called Mersad, which combines sophisticated radar tracking and Shahin missiles to identify and bring down enemy aircraft at a range of 40 kilometres, as opposed to the S-300’s 140 km.
For even shorter range threats from the air, Iran manufactures the Mesbah 1 weapon, an artillery system that fires 4,000 rounds a minute.
After its knock-back on the S-300 deal, Tehran may now approach China and attempt to buy an analogous system from it. Tehran’s past purchases include the Chinese-made HQ9, a long-range air defence missile regarded as inferior to the S-300.
Iran promises more fireworks during military exercises scheduled for this month. Brigadier-General Amir-Ahmad Mighani, the commander of the Khatamolanbia Air Defence Base, has said new equipment will be on show.
While it is hard to distinguish between rhetoric and reality when it comes to such arms development claims, no one will know how well the new weapons work until they are actually tested.
Sahar Namazikhah is an Iranian journalist based in Los Angeles whose area of study is conflict resolution and peace-building. She was previously editor of several daily newspapers in Tehran. (Institute for War and Peace Reporting www.iwpr.net)