Question 1: Why do you think Putin announced decision right now?
Answer 1: Putin’s making an early move to improve relations with Iran, which deteriorated after Medvedev’s decision to suspend sales of S-300 PMU-1s to Teheran, before the rest of the great powers involved in negotiations can. Now that Iran has agreed to the outline of a deal with P5+1, chances that the sides will reach the final deal has increased. By lifting the ban before that deal is reached, Putin’s demonstrated to Iranian leaders that of all members of this negotiating group Russia is most committed to improving relations with it. Other members of the club (with the exception of China) will wait for the final deal before mending fences with Iran and they advocate phased removal of sanctions, while Russia is already lifting some of the bans. That won’t be lost on Iranian leaders as they will decide how to shape relations with great powers in future. Improving relations with Iran matter to Russia because the Islamic republic has potential to become a major export of oil and (eventually) gas to European markets, which remain important for Russia, so latter would benefit from some semblance of coordination with Teheran on those markets as well as on issues of transit of energy from other countries. Iran also has considerable potential to undermine Russia’s interests on Caucasus and Central Asia, so improvement of overall bilateral relationship decreases chances of Iran becoming a spoiler vis-à-vis Russia too. Also important is for Russia to preserve its role as a major supplier of arms to Iran even if the latter’s relations with Western countries (which compete with Russia on arms markets) drastically improve in the wake of the final deal.
Question 2: What sort of effect (if any) do you think this could have on an Iran nuclear deal?
Answer 2: It will somewhat increase pressure on other members of P5+1 to reach the final deal. But it is important S-300s are not a panacea for Iran neither when it comes to the sanctions regime in general nor when it comes to the military sphere of these sanctions, so deliveries of those alone won’t embolden Iran to walk away from the table. Most of all Iran needs lifting of UN and Western financial and economic sanctions and deliveries of S-300s’ do not accomplish that, of course. Moreover, while able to shoot down many of missiles and aircraft in case of an attack, five S-300 PMU-1s squadrons cannot shield all of Iran’s nuclear facilities and other schwerpunkt in case Western powers and their allies decide to use force against Teheran. So it is not a panacea against air campaign either.
Question 3: Do you see other current events/threats that could be driving Russia's decision?
Answer 3: One important motivator is cash. Five S-300 squadrons – that Russia has committed to supply – are worth $800 million, according to reports in the Russian media. Moreover, while Russia returned the advance payment of $167 mn, Iran demanded that Russia may penalties of almost $4 billion. I doubt that Russia would have paid those penalties, but losing an $800 deal completely would have dealt a tangible blow to Russia’s defense industry, especially given Russia’s current economic woes. Some might speculate that Putin might be lifting the ban to spite Obama, but I doubt considerations of revenge for sanctions over Ukraine have factored in. If Russia wanted to spite US in that domain, it would have played role of a spoiler during negotiations of the outline. In fact, it can still play that role during the negotiations of the final deal, but I hope it won’t happen. Whatever benefits Russia’s oil and gas industry may be enjoying Iran being excluded from Western markets will be outweighed if Iran acquires nuclear weapons or if Western countries wage a war against Iran to stop it from acquiring such weapons. When it comes to hierarchy of Russia’s national interests, a nuclear Iran represents a greater threat than increase in supplies of Iranian oil and gas to world markets.
Question 4: What do you think the West's reaction will be? And lastly, was Medvedev's decision to halt S-300 deliveries considered controversial at the time?
Answer 4: I am sure Western powers are not amused, to put it mildly. There will be criticism, but I doubt there will be retaliation. In fact, one might argue this decision doesn’t violate the letter of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. This UNSCR said: “all States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran of…. missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms.” If you look up the United Nations Register on Conventional Arms, then you will realize that it has no single definition of what constitutes “missiles and missile systems.”
United Nations Register of Conventional Arms Information Booklet, 2007, and Standardized form for reporting international transfers of conventional arms (exports)” of the UN Register of Conventional Arms on the Register’s web site contains the following definition for “Missiles and missile launchers”
(a) Guided or unguided rockets, ballistic or cruise missiles capable of delivering a warhead or weapon of destruction to a range of at least 25 kilometers, and means designed or modified specifically for launching such missiles or rockets, if not covered by categories I
through VI ((Battle tanks, Armoured combat vehicles, Large-calibre artillery systems, Combat aircraft). For the purpose of the Register, this subcategory includes remotely piloted vehicles with the characteristics for missiles as defined above but does
not include ground-to-air missiles.
(b) Man-Portable Air-Defence Systems (MANPADS).”
Medvedev (I am sure after consulting with Putin) decreed back on September 22, 2010 to ban exports of S-300s to Iran out of good political will as the US-Russian reset evolved rather than because Kremlin lawyers told him he had to do it to comply with UNSCR 1929. There was a period of confusion and debate in Russia after United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 was adopted on 9 June 2010. Some argued it didn’t explicitly ban deliveries of S-300PMUs while others disagreed. The debate ended only when Medvedev signed the September 22, 2010 even though many in Russia’s military-industrial complex opined he should not do so. This opinion gained strength as reset fizzled out with sources in Russia’s military-political leadership regularly telling Russian press that Russia is negotiating supplies of S-300Vs to Iran to compensate for ban on supplies of S-300PMU-1s. I should note that S-300Vs have longer range than S-300PMU-1s. I should also note that Russia could have also agreed to provide Iran with S-400s, which are even more capable systems than S-300Vs and which Russia has agreed to sell to China. Maybe not a silver lining, but worth keeping in mind.