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Iran - Air Defenses

In July 1972 the Imperial Iranian Air Force signed a foreign military sales (FMS) case for 24 batteries of Improved HAWK materiel totaling nearly $280 million, one of the largest sales of missile materiel that MICOM had ever negotiated with a foreign country. A ten-man Iranian Air Force fact-finding team visited U.S. government and contractor facilities in October 1979 to determine the status of the Iranian Improved HAWK program. The Iranian team asked for recommendations on reestablishing their air defense capabilities, which the Army planned to present to the Iranian Air Force's Chief of Staff.

On 04 November 1979, after Iranian revolutionaries seized the US Embassy in Teheran and took the occupants hostage on this date, the U.S. Department of State formally directed the suspension of the Iranian HAWK FMS program. MICOM had no further communications with the Iranian Air Force. Iran lacked the repair parts to keep its Hawk missile systems working. The Iranian equipment being held in the United States was placed in segregated storage in U.S. Army depots, and all contracts pertaining to the program were terminated. A legal decision that the equipment was Iranian owned and should not be diverted stopped attempts to use these assets to satisfy other customer requirements.

As of 1996 Iranian Air Defense forces included about 18,000 military personnel. The tradition of aircraft-based air defense, derived from the US-trained Air Force from before the 1978-79 revolution, was giving way to a expanding arsenal of ground-based air defense missile systems. Still, Iran was at the time unable to construct a nationwide, integrated air defense network, and continued to rely on point defense of key locations with surface-to-air missile batteries.

The bulk of Iran's Air Force Air Defense holdings by the mid-1990s revolved around 30 Improved HAWK fire units (12 battalions/150+ launchers), 45-60 SA-2 and HQ-2J/23 (CSA-1 Chinese equivalents of the SA-2) launchers. Also available were some 30 Rapier and 15 Tigercat SAM launchers. There are reports of the transfer of eight SA-6 launchers to Iran from Russia in 1995/1996. In January 1996 US Navy Vice Admiral Scott Redd said had recently added Russian-built SA-6 missile defense systems. Iran never publically displayed any evidence to this claim and with the general Iranian policy of doing so to prove strength it would suggest that these reports were unfounded. The Iranian Army also had a number of SA-7 MANPADS and claimed to retain a large number of its arsenal of Swedish RBS-70 SAMs, purchased from Sweden in 1985.

In 1997 the Iranian Air Defense forces declared the Almaz S-200 Angara (SA-5 'Gammon') low-to high-altitude surface-to-air missile (SAM) operational. The missile has a comparatively modest acceleration rate, and relies on its small wings for maneuverability. Furthermore, the mechanically steered radars used by the SA-5 are vulnerable to saturation by decoys. Sources disagree on the number deployed, with some claiming four batteries, while others claim ten. Another source reports that the Air Force had three Soviet-made long-range SA-5 units, with a total of 10-15 launchers, enough for six sites. Iran reportedly recieved two complete systems (with an unknown number of launchers) and 25 missiles for Russia just prior to the break-up of the USSR in 1991, and at least another 10 missiles from Ukraine in 1992-1993. Some of these missiles were publically displayed in subsequent Iranian military parades.

Russia and Iran quickly came to enjoy a close military sales relationship, and took steps for the Russians to sell modernized air defense systems to Iran. In February 2001 a spokesman for the Iranian foreign ministry stated that "Iran hopes for ongoing military-technical cooperation with Russia. Our country plans to modernize Iranian Air Defense and it will ask Russia to sell some air defense systems in support of that."

In December 2005 Iran entered into a contract to purchase 29 TOR-M1 (SA-15 Gauntlet) mobile surface-to-air missile defence systems from Russia worth more than USD 700 million (EUR 600 million). The TOR-M1 is a mobile system designed for operation at medium- and low-altitude levels against aircraft and guided missiles. Each unit consists of a vehicle armed with eight missiles and a radar that can track 48 targets and engage two simultaneously. The TOR-M1 systems have medium-range capabilities for intercepting planes and missiles and are not designed for ground operations. The systems and missiles were delivered between 2006 and 2007. Reports suggested that these systems were specifically acquired for point defense around Iran's nuclear facilities.

There is no dispositive source of information on Iranian air defense deployment. Key SAM-defended areas include Tehran and centers involved in nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programs. Iran appeared to have deployed the SA-5 batteries to defend Tehran, major ports, and oil facilities, providing long-range medium-to-high altitude coverage of vital coastal installations. The I-HAWK and SA-2 batteries were reportedly located around Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz, Bandar Abbas, Kharg Island, Bushehr, Bandar Khomeini, Ahwaz, Dezful, Kermanshah, Hamadan, and Tabriz, providing point defense for key bases and facilities. Some of these sites lack sufficient missile launchers to be fully effective. Some have been bolstered by the addition of radar-guided anti-aircraft artillery, including Sky Guard systems purchased from Italy during the mid-1980s.

Between 1998 and 2002 Iran imported approximately 6 JY-14 surveillance radars from the China National Electronics Import-Export Corporation. The radar can detect targets up to 300 km away and is now part of Iran's air defense system. Even with China's help, Iran's air defenses remained porous through to 2008, perhaps on par with Iraqi capabilities demonstrated in the 1991 Gulf war. The launchers appeared to be scattered too widely prevent relatively rapid suppression. Iran also lacked the low altitude radar coverage, overlapping radar network, command and control integration, sensors, and resistance to jamming and electronic countermeasures needed for an effective air defense net. Iran therefore continued to subscribe to the point defense mode, looking to protect key installations and avoid repeating scenarios similar to those that occured during the Iran-Iraq War where Iraqi aircraft succeeded in numerous occasions in targeting key economic facilities.

SA-10 (S-300)

The SA-10 (S-300) is a highly capable long-range all-altitude SAM. As early as 1994 it was reported that Iran had six SA-10 batteries (with some 96 missiles) on order from Russia. In February 1997 a $90 million sale of 36 missiles to Iran and three older SA-10 SAM systems, made up of components from Russia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan, fell through. On 30 December 2000 an announcement was made in Russia that Iran had informed Russian Defense Minister Igor Sergeyev about Iran's desire to purchase the S-300 anti-missile system. In March 2001 there were reports tha the Russians were close to cutting a deal with Iran on advanced missiles. Itar-Tass reported that Iran would soon close the deal on the Russian Tor-M1, Tor-M1T, and the S-300 surface-to-air missiles.

An $800 million contract to supply Iran with the S-300 missile system was signed at the end of 2007. Moscow was to supply five S-300PMU-1 battalions to Tehran. In December 2007 Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said Russia had agreed to deliver to Iran an unspecified number of advanced S-300 air defense complexes under a previously signed contract. However, Russia's Federal Service for Military-Technical Cooperation said the issue of the delivery of S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran was not a subject of current or past negotiations. Israeli defense sources said in July 2008 that Iran was expected to take delivery of Russian S-300 air defense systems by the end of 2008.

On 01 September 2008 it was reported that Russia may proceed with plans to sell advanced S-300 air defense systems to Iran under a secret contract believed to have been signed in 2005. Commenting on an article in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper saying Russia is using the plans as a bargaining chip in its standoff with America, Ruslan Pukhov, director of Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said: "In the current situation, when the U.S. and the West in general are stubbornly gearing toward a confrontation with Russia after the events in South Ossetia, the implementation of a lucrative contract on the deliveries of S-300 [air defense systems] to Iran looks like a logical step." Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hassan Qashqavi denied reports that Tehran had bought S-300 air defense systems from Russia. "Our missile and technical capability completely depends on the efforts of Iranian scientists," he said.

On 22 December 2008 the Russian federal service for military cooperation said in a statement that Russia was not selling S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran. "Reports on deliveries of S-300 systems are untrue," the statement said. An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said Tel Aviv had received assurances from Russia that it had not started S-300 deliveries to Tehran.

The Maltese-flagged cargo vessel Arctic Sea, officially carrying lumber from Russia to Algeria, was reportedly boarded by a group of eight men on 24 July 2009 and mysteriously disappeared in the Atlantic. It was discovered off Cape Verde on 16 August 2009 by a Russian warship and was towed to the Russian Black Sea port of Novorossiisk. Russian and international media was rife with rumors that the Russian-operated ship could have been involved in an arms-smuggling or trafficking operation on a state level, including suggestions that Russia attempted to deliver missiles for S-300 air defense systems to Iran or Syria. Russian investigators said that a through search of the Arctic Sea had been conducted and just lumber registered in the ship's cargo log had been found. "The presence of S-300 on board the Arctic Sea cargo ship is a complete lie," Lavrov told a news conference in Moscow on 08 September 2009.

In September 2010, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree canceling the contract in line with UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which bans the supply to Iran of conventional weapons including missiles and missile systems, tanks, attack helicopters, warplanes and ships. The termination of Iranian contracts, whatever its reasons, dealt a painful blow to the export revenues of Russian arms manufacturers, notably the companies specializing in air defense systems. According to some estimates, the contract for the supply of five S-300PMU batteries could have exceeded $800 million, with compensation payments estimated at $400 million.

Iran’s Defense Ministry and the Aerospace Industries Organization launched a $4 billion lawsuit against Rosoboronexport in an international arbitration court in Geneva in April 2011. According to Iranian officials, Tehran will withdraw its lawsuit only if Russia fulfills the original contract. Tehran has insisted that the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems do not fall under the UN sanctions because they are considered defensive weapons.

Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree allowing S-300 deliveries to Iran on 13 April 2015. The document came into force on the day it was signed. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Russia’s voluntary embargo on deliveries of S-300 missile systems to Iran is no longer needed due to progress in the resolution of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program.

"Initially, the decision to suspend the implementation of the contract, which was already signed and came into force, was made in September 2010," he recalled. "It was done in the interests of support for consolidated efforts of the six international negotiators to stimulate a maximally constructive process of talks on settlement of the situation around Iran’s nuclear program." The minister particularly stressed that "it was done absolutely voluntarily."

The Obama administration expressed concern 13 April 2015 over Russia's possible sale of sophisticated S-300 air defense systems to Iran, after President Vladimir Putin lifted a ban on supplying the advanced surface-to-air missile systems to the Islamic Republic. White House spokesman Josh Earnest said the administration had previously made known its objection to Russia's possible sale of S-300s to Iran, and that Secretary of State John Kerry "had the opportunity to raise these concerns once again in a recent conversation" with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Lavrov.

Explaining the decision to lift the ban on providing S-300s to Iran, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that given the progress reached between Iran and the six P5+1 world powers (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) recently in nuclear talks, the rationale for the international embargo on supplying Tehran with S-300s, and Russia's own ban, had "completely disappeared." Lavrov added that the S-300 is "exclusively defensive in nature, not adapted for offensive purposes and will not jeopardize the security of any state in the region, including, of course, Israel."

While Russia’s proposed sale of the advanced S-300 air defense missile system to Iran does not violate UN Security Council resolutions, the United States needs more details to determine if the sale could violate US sanctions against Iran, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said on 16 April 2015. “The transfer of this defensive weapons system [S-300] is not prohibited by UN Security Council resolutions, and we would need to know more about the specific program to determine the impact it would have on US sanctions programs,” Earnest said at a press briefing.

US President Barack Obama has played down concerns over Russia’s plans to lift a ban on the sales of S-300 air defense systems to Iran, claiming that the US could bypass the system, if it had to. “We have to keep this in perspective. Our defense budget is somewhere just a little under $600 billion. Theirs [Iran’s] is a little over $17 billion. Even if they’ve got some air defense systems, if we had to, we could penetrate them,” warned the president.

The issue of S-300 air defense systems deliveries to Iran should be elaborated, Russia's Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov told TASS on 23 April 2015. "Since the contract was concluded long ago, naturally that it's impossible to just dust it off in the form it has been preserved," Ryabkov said. "I can say that except adapting the contract for being implemented right now, we should clarify the situation with Iran’s lawsuit against the Russian side for improper fulfilment of that contract," he said. "We expect the problem to be solved at the bilateral agenda."

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