BEIRUT AND TEHRAN — Iran has left little doubt that it wants to buy a sophisticated antiaircraft weapons system from Russia. The confusion in recent days has been over the question: Has Moscow said yes?
Under pressure from Israel, which views Iran as one of its major threats in the Middle East, Russian officials have promised not to sell S-300 mobile long-range defensive weapons to Tehran. But a flurry of recent conflicting reports has muddled the matter.
On Monday, Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman was cagey. Hassan Qashqavi told reporters that he had not "received any report" regarding the missiles from "relevant" officials.
"You know we have cultural, economic and political as well as defensive cooperation with Russia," he said. "I cannot confirm or deny the news. You all know that we have several agreements with Russia. Some of the agreements have been implemented, some not."
Over the weekend, Iranian lawmaker Esmail Kosari, deputy head of a parliamentary committee, sent shock waves by declaring that Iran would soon take possession of the S-300 system, missile launchers that can shoot down aircraft at high altitudes.
Russian officials have been little help in providing clarity. Publicly, they say they won't sell Iran the weapons. But Ros- oboronexport, the state-owned company that manufactures and distributes the weapons, on Monday issued a statement saying Moscow would continue to sell Iran defensive weapons, including unspecified anti-aircraft systems.
"Notably, Russia develops military-technical cooperation with Iran in strict compliance with its international commitments deriving from nonproliferation regimes," the statement said, according to the Interfax news agency. "This cooperation cannot be a source of concern for third countries."
Then came another statement, issued by the Federal Military-Technical Cooperat- ion Service, saying categorically that "media reports claiming the alleged delivery of S-300 systems to Iran are wrong," according to Interfax.
That clear statement was followed by yet another report, this one also by Interfax, citing an unnamed "military diplomatic" source in Moscow as stating that the S-300 systems are being packed up and prepared for shipment to Iran. "S-300 air defense systems are expected to be delivered from the Defense Ministry's warehouses," the source was reported as saying.
It could be that Moscow has no intention of selling Iran the arms but wants to make it clear to the West what damage it could do to Washington's strategies if so inclined. Last week, Russia agreed to donate 10 MiG-29 fighter jets to Lebanon, undermining a U.S. aim of not giving the Middle East nation any weapons that could threaten neighboring Israel.
Israel, already deeply concerned about Iran's nuclear program, dispatched officials to Moscow last week to plead for a halt of any sale of the S-300 system. Meir Javedanfar, a Middle East expert and blogger, said in a recent post that Israel's main worry was not that the weapons might stymie an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear sites, but that they would give Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, too much confidence as Tehran prepares to grapple with the administration of President-elect Barack Obama.
Javedanfar noted: "If Ayatollah Khamenei knows that there is little which Obama and Israel can do economically, and now militarily thanks to the missiles, then he will be less inclined to take up Obama's offer for talks, and to reciprocate American gestures."
Mostaghim is a special correspondent.