Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday cleared the way for delivery of sophisticated air defense systems to Iran with a decree that U.S. officials warned could disrupt the emerging deal to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.
Kremlin officials cited the April 2 framework agreement between Iran and six world powers that is expected to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons as grounds for proceeding with delivery of the S-300 missile systems, which could give Russia a jump on others in resuming trade with the long-isolated Islamic Republic.
The announcement drew immediate criticism from the U.S., where State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said recent "destabilizing actions" on the part of Iran in Yemen, Syria and Lebanon suggest that "this isn't the time to be selling these kinds of systems to them."
But Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov insisted that "a modern air defense system is now very relevant to Iran, especially taking into account the severe escalation of tensions in neighboring areas."
Of special note, he told the Russia Today television network, was "the rapid development of military activity in Yemen in recent weeks." He added, "The S-300 is exclusively a defensive weapon, which can't serve offensive purposes and will not jeopardize the security of any country, including, of course, Israel."
Russia said its main objective was to demonstrate concrete progress after the deal on limiting Iran's nuclear program. The tentative pact, officials said, relieves Moscow of its 5-year-old commitment to hold back delivery of the S-300 missile systems Iran agreed to buy in 2007.
"It was done in the spirit of goodwill in order to encourage progress in talks," Lavrov said in televised comments. "We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo."
It was unclear whether Moscow was prepared to ship the missile systems any time soon, or what specific antiaircraft batteries might be involved. The S-300 has been out of production for five years, and the Russian output until 2010 involved an array of ranges and capabilities, analysts said, leaving it unclear whether Tehran could deter the kind of airstrikes that Israel has threatened if the nuclear deal falters and weapons production is suspected.
Still, a senior Israeli official condemned the Russian announcement.
"This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is obtaining from the deal being woven with it, and it is proof that the economic momentum in Iran that will come after the lifting of the sanctions will be exploited for arming and not for the welfare of the Iranian people," Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement.
Tehran's order for the S-300s was held up by then-President Dmitry Medvedev in 2010, in line with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which banned supply to Iran of conventional weapons including missiles, tanks, attack helicopters, warplanes and ships.
Putin's decree, which took immediate effect with his signature, ended Moscow's self-imposed restrictions on transport of the S-300 systems worth a total of $800 million, the Kremlin website said.
By offering to resume arms sales to Iran, Putin has potentially positioned Russia for a head start over other nations in restoring trade links with Tehran. A deputy foreign minister recently told Russian lawmakers that an oil-for-goods barter deal with Iran also was in the works as a result of the perceived easing of the nuclear standoff between Tehran and the West.
But the Kremlin overture also has the potential to ease the pressure on Iran as the negotiations enter the final stretch, while President Obama still faces the challenge of selling a permanent agreement to a reluctant, Republican-controlled Congress if a final deal is achieved.
White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said the United States "has previously made known our objections to that sale" of S-300s. Secretary of State John F. Kerry raised those concerns again to Lavrov in a phone call Monday, Earnest said.
"It's safe to say that Russia understands that the United States takes very seriously the safety and security of our allies in the region," Earnest said.
Much of the international community has welcomed the nuclear framework as opening a path for peaceful resolution of the decade-old debate about whether Iran is clandestinely pursuing nuclear weapons capabilities. However, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has condemned the pact and threatened unilateral action against Iran if he suspects Tehran of breaching the agreement. Those actions could include airstrikes, Israeli officials have said.
Some analysts saw the S-300 announcement as an attempt to pressure Western states to accept Tehran's terms for a permanent nuclear deal by a June 30 deadline.
"This is a message from Putin that a deal's within reach, and the West is going to have to be more flexible than it has been," said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a risk-assessment consulting firm.
Russia has consistently cooperated with the Obama administration and negotiators for the other world powers — Britain, France, China and Germany — in urging Iran to accept a deal that would ease sanctions in exchange for curbs on nuclear development. Moscow is eager to resume its traditionally robust trade with Iran and doesn't want the agreement reached in Lausanne, Switzerland, to unravel because of what it considers excessive Western demands.
Russia and Iran have enacted an oil-for-goods deal "on a very significant scale," Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov told the Russian upper house of parliament, the Federation Council, in a briefing after the Lausanne agreement. Under that arrangement, Russia would buy 500,000 barrels of Iranian crude a day in exchange for deliveries of grain and manufactured goods, Ryabkov said.
Israeli defense analyst Ron Ben-Yishai wrote on the Ynet website that the significance of any S-300 delivery for Iran's air defenses was unclear because it isn't known which version of the system Iran would receive or the effective range of the ballistic missiles, rockets, cruise missiles and aerial munitions it could launch. Also, he said, Israeli and U.S. air force officials have studied the S-300 systems deployed in Cyprus and elsewhere, presumably giving them time to develop disruption and decoy capabilities to confront it.
Delivery of any S-300 system to Tehran is "not expected to restrict a strike on Iran," Ben-Yishai concluded.
Russian media reported Monday that Tehran had been offered a newer ballistic missile system, the Antey-2500, instead of the older S-300 system that is no longer in production. Iranian officials were considering that option, the Tass news agency reported, quoting Sergei Chemezov, the head of arms maker Rostec.
The last S-300 delivery was to China in 2010, Russia Today said. The systems also have been operable in Algeria, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Cyprus, Kazakhstan and Vietnam, the broadcast noted.
Williams reported from Los Angeles and Richter from Washington. Times staff writer Michael A. Memoli in Washington and special correspondent Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem contributed to this report.