The sale of the S-300 missiles was originally initiated in 2010 but was postponed amidst criticism by Western powers regarding the prospect of arming a regime that was then under scrutiny for its nuclear weapon ambitions. Last year, several months before the July 14 conclusion of negotiations that exchanged sanctions relief for some restrictions on Iran’s nuclear enrichment program, Russia announced that it would be re-initiating the contract.
Subsequently, however, the planned completion of the sale met with a number of false starts, with Iranian officials repeatedly announcing that the first delivery of weapons was imminent, only for weeks to pass with no additional movement toward implementation. But early this month, reports finally quoted a Russian Foreign Ministry official saying that the first missiles would be loaded for transport in a matter of days. And now that claim has been supported on the Iranian side, with the claim that the first in a series of deliveries has now been completed.
The completion of this weapons transfer will no doubt be met with anxiety by various adversaries of the Iranian regime, including the government of Israel, which was markedly opposed to the nuclear agreement and has at times warned of the possibility of Israeli strikes against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure in the event that the diplomatic agreement proved ineffectual. Iran’s ownership of the S-300 missiles would help to guard against such attacks, as they can engage airborne targets from a distance of 90 miles.
Expansion of Iran’s military capabilities could also pose an offensive threat to Israel, which Iranian officials frequently threaten with total destruction. Last month, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted the test-launch of ballistic missiles that had the words “Israel must be wiped out” written on their sides in Hebrew. Those tests were conducted in defiance of a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid tests or further development of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Such provocations only serve to enhance foreign anxieties about the growth of Iran’s military arsenal. And Iranian officials often boast of such advancements, either through domestic development or as a result of legal purchases made possible by the end of embargos under the nuclear deal. Even as the Islamic Republic was still waiting for delivery of the S-300 missiles, it was also engaging in talks with the Russian Federation about the purchase of fighter jets, tanks, and more.
The long delays in the S-300 transfer have raised considerable questions about whether Russia is willing to go ahead with such sales at this time. But in the meantime, Iranian officials are making considerable efforts to present their own domestically produced arsenals as comparable to what could eventually be obtained through foreign markets. On Monday, World Affairs Journal reported that officials with the Iranian Defense Ministry and armed forces had claimed that a domestically produced battle tank that will be unveiled in the coming month is as good or better than the Russian T-90 model of tank.
The remarks coincided with the announcement that a range of other weapons will be unveiled this week, just ahead of Iran’s Army Day, which falls on April 17. Brigadier General Kioumars Heidari, the lieutenant commander of Iran’s ground forces, said of these military products, “We have modern and state-of-the-art equipment which can be used in proxy wars.”
Such comments seem to reinforce recent reports indicating that Iran has no interest in withdrawing from foreign conflicts such as the Syrian Civil War. Earlier this month, the White House claimed that Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps forces might have been decreasing their presence there, but these claims were quickly disputed by analysts. And last week, the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that the IRGC and its proxy forces were massing for a likely assault on Aleppo.
Iran has been fighting on behalf of the Assad regime for virtually the entire duration of the six-year civil war. Regardless of a recent international agreement halting hostilities among non-ISIL factions in the war, Iran has given no indication that it plans to alter its operations or cooperate with foreign efforts to establish a post-Assad transitional government.
On Monday, La Kabylie indicated that Iranian officials had once again reiterated their position on this issue. It quoted Ali Akbar Velayati, a close advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, as saying “Iran believes that the government of Bashar al-Assad should remain in power until the end of his presidency term and the removal of Assad is a red line for us.”
The refusal to compromise on this point arguably goes hand-in-hand with the regime’s militarist provocations, as well as with a persistent unwillingness to negotiate on other points as well. Soon after the completion of nuclear negotiations, Khamenei urged his subordinates to avoid negotiating with the West on any other matters. He has also spoken out with increasing frequency and intensity against the nuclear deal and its impact thus far on the Iranian economy.
On the occasion of last month’s Iranian new year celebration of Nowruz, Khamenei declared the year ahead to be the year of the “Resistance Economy,” thus urging a return to economic policies that assumed the continuation of US-led economic sanctions and sought to evade them or undermine their effectiveness. On Monday, the Gatestone Institute analyzed this speech and related commentary, interpreting it as an effort to threaten President Rouhani’s political future should he refuse to adopt Khamenei’s more combative economic policies.
The Gatestone report also emphasized that the regime’s power structure appears to feel threatened by the prospect of cooperative policies leading to what Khamenei has described as foreign “infiltration” into the Islamic Republic’s economy, politics, and culture. Illustrating this point, the report quotes Professor Hojatollah Abdolmalehi of Imam Sadeq University as warning that “beneath the inability of liberal economists to implement the Leader’s ‘Resistance Economy’ program is a proclivity to embrace secular and anti-religious overtones.”
The regime’s military overtures seem to illustrate some of the ways in which the hardliners at the head of the regime are pushing back against this perceived threat. A number of experts on Iranian affairs have observed that this is common practice when the regime is faced with expectations of reform or changing policies. And it has prevented the country from realizing reforms under other leaders who, like Rouhani, have been embraced as moderates by some in the West.