Why Ahmadinejad Lashed out at Russia

Mark N. Katz

  • Why is Ahmadinejad so publicly critical of Russia?

Ahmadinejad has harshly criticized for Moscow for cancelling its previously agreed-upon sale of S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran.  Tehran expected these weapons to be delivered in mid-2009, but Moscow first cited delays for "technical reasons."  Russia even claimed that the most recent set of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Iran did not cover the S-300s.  Although Tehran was annoyed at Moscow, the Iranians still hoped that the Russians would eventually deliver the S-300s.  But Moscow's recent announcement has dashed even this hope.

  • What does this development mean? 

Tehran had been especially eager to receive the S-300s because these may have been able to degrade (and hence, deter) an attack by Israel or even the United States aimed at destroying Iran's nuclear program.  By canceling the sale, Moscow is denying Tehran one way to do this--and thus could make such an attack more likely, or at least more credible.

  • How does it change things?

Moscow's cancellation of the S-300 sale to Tehran has to be seen as a success for the Obama Administration's campaign to get Russia to help the United States on the Iranian nuclear issue.  Moscow had previously been content to pursue a more ambiguous policy of promising the defense system to Tehran but then not delivering the S-300s.  The ambiguity created an incentive for Tehran as well as Western capitals to continue to court Moscow.

Moscow’s stance also helped the Kremlin project an image of Russia as a great power for its domestic audience. Moscow could claim that Russia pursued an independent foreign policy and did not just go along with the United States. These advantages may have diminished by Moscow's cancellation of the sale.  Of course, Moscow--or more precisely, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin--could also decide to reinstate the sale in the future.

  • Are the missiles that critical to Iran's military?

It will still be difficult for the United States or Israel to destroy Iran's nuclear facilities since these are reportedly dispersed in several locations and are well-protected or deep underground. Others are reportedly in major population centers.  Tehran would still have liked to acquire the S-300s since they could help limit the damage that the Iranian nuclear program might suffer from an attack.

  • What does it mean for Iran-Russian relations longer term?

The Russian cancellation of the sale of S-300s to Iran is just one more chapter in the tortured Russian-Iranian relationship going back at least two centuries.  It would not be surprising if Tehran responded by denying or cancelling Russian participation in one of Iran's petroleum extraction projects or re-directing Iranian business opportunities from Russia to China.  Still, as the Russians themselves may well calculate, Iranian retaliation may be limited since Tehran does not want Russia to vote for even harsher U.N. sanctions in the future.

Read Mark Katz's chapter on Iran and Russia in “The Iran Primer” 

Mark N. Katz, professor of government and politics at George Mason University, is a visiting scholar at the Middle East Policy Council in Washington, DC in 2010.