Russia signals halt on Iran missile sale

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Russia signalled Friday it was moving to halt its controversial sale of air defence missiles to Iran, in a policy shift the Kremlin said was needed after fresh UN sanctions over Iran's nuclear drive.

"S-300 supplies to Iran fall under UN sanctions," a Kremlin source said, referring to the mobile anti-air defence system Russia has long planned to deliver to the Islamic republic.

"Thus this type of weapon cannot be delivered to Iran," said the source, speaking on condition of anonymity on the sidelines of a regional security conference in Tashkent attended by President Dmitry Medvedev.

In a flurry of statements, a number of other senior Russian officials indicated that Moscow was changing tack on the missile deal, in the pipeline for years but strongly opposed by Israel and the United States.

"We will strictly and unswervingly follow the criteria and requirements in the resolution" Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said in a statement posted on the foreign ministry website.

Separately, Konstantin Kosachev, the chairman of the State Duma's foreign affairs committee whose public pronouncements are known to reflect Kremlin policy thinking, said the S-300 sale had to be stopped.

"In the circumstances, I am opposed to fulfilling this contract," Kosachev said in remarks posted on his Internet blog and picked up by Russian media.

He noted that that the UN resolution adopted Wednesday imposing fresh sanctions on Iran did not ban the sale of defensive weapons systems like the S-300 complex to the Islamic state.

But going ahead with the deal, long in the works, would "breach the spirit" of the resolution and should not happen, he said.

A senior Kremlin official with Medvedev in Tashkent said documents were being drawn up specifying exactly which types of weaponry could still be sold to Iran and which types were barred as a result of the latest UN sanctions.

The S-300 missiles were "likely" to be on the official Russian list of banned items, the official said.

In an apparent rebuke of the spokesman for his own ministry, who suggested Thursday the missile sale would go ahead, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the definitive word on the S-300s would come only in a decree from Medvedev.

"No one has been instructed to interpret specific points of this resolution," Lavrov said.

Russia never made a secret of its deal to sell the powerful S-300 system to Iran and for years insisted that the move would in no way upset the balance of power in the Middle East.

However despite years of talking about it, Russia never went ahead with delivery of the system, which military experts say could substantially enhance Iran's defenses of its nuclear facilities against attack from the air.

Russia in 2007 sold its TOR M-1 close-range surface-to-air missile defence system to Iran in a deal estimated at around 700 million dollars, and the S-300s were seen as a means to complement those weapons with longer-range defences.

The United States on Thursday acknowledged that the latest UN sanctions did not explicitly ban the S-300 sale to Iran, but nonetheless heaped praise on Moscow for its "restraint" in not going ahead with the deal.

"Russia has exercised responsibility, restraint and has not delivered those missiles to Iran," said State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad meanwhile lashed out Friday at the UN Security Council as a "tool of dictatorship" and said new sanctions over Tehran's nuclear programme "will have no effect."

The UN Security Council's fourth round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear drive imposed broader military and financial restrictions.

Despite close economic and energy ties with the Islamic republic, Russia supported the latest round of sanctions.

The resolution bans the sale to Iran of eight new types of heavy weapons and applies new restrictions on Iranian investments abroad.

© 2010 AFP

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