Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly warned Russian President Vladimir Putin over the leaking of arms to the Lebanon-based militant group Hezbollah after Moscow announced it would deliver S-300 anti-aircraft missile systems to Iran once the sanctions on Tehran are lifted.
President Putin approved a decree to lift a ban on the delivery of arms to Iran last Monday, a ban which Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov described as “needless,” after the six powers involved in the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran reached an agreement earlier this month paving the way for the end of sanctions on the country.
Moscow’s decision to lift the ban immediately drew criticism from Israel, which has been opposed to the agreement between Iran and the P5+1 - comprised of the U.S., Russia, the U.K., China, France, and Germany - with Prime Minister Netanyahu calling President Putin a day later to express his disappointment, an Israeli press release stated.
According to a report in U.S. periodical Defense News, however, last week’s press release omitted a warning from Netanyahu on Israel’s “red line” on the transfer of Russian military equipment to Iranian-backed militant group Hezbollah via Syria.
The report also cited Israeli officials saying the delivery of the S-300 systems in Iran would make it difficult for Israel to bomb Iranian nuclear sites. The officials additionally said the systems will become a legitimate target for Israel if it is believed they are being transferred to Hezbollah.
"We've discussed this with our friends in Washington and Europe and made multiple demarches to Moscow over a period of weeks and months. Our red line policy is clear: We view unauthorized third-party transfers of Russian-origin equipment as legitimate targets," one official was quoted as saying, adding the leakage of Russian-made SA-22 short-range and SA-17 medium-range anti-aircraft missiles from Syria to Hezbollah is also being monitored.
Moscow originally signed a deal with Tehran for the delivery of the S-300 system in 2007, but held back on the delivery since 2010 because of the U.N. sanctions. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu visited Tehran in January, where it was said the two countries made progress in arranging the delivery of the systems.
The world powers and Iran have set a self-imposed deadline of June 30 to reach a final agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program, ensuring Iran doesn’t acquire nuclear weapons, in return for the end of international economic sanctions on the country.
Putin warns Israel over Ukraine
Russian President Vladimir Putin has in turn warned Israel against selling military equipment to Ukraine out of spite following Moscow’s decision to lift its arms embargo on Iran.
“It’s the Israeli leadership’s choice. It’s their right to do what they think is appropriate. If [the arms they choose to sell] are lethal weapons, I think it will be counterproductive. It will only lead to another round of conflicts, to a rise in the number of victims, and the outcome will be the same,” President Putin was quoted saying in Russian media Saturday.
Russia has been at loggerheads with Ukraine since pro-EU protesters forced former pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych to flee the country in February 2014.
The ousting of Yanukovych was quickly followed by the annexation of the Crimean peninsula, a strategic region in the north of the Black Sea, after the pro-Russian regional autonomous government declared its independence from Kiev and voted to join Moscow in a subsequent referendum.
Pro-Russian separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine are also fighting for the independence of the self-proclaimed Donetsk People’s Republic, placing Russia at odds with the West amid fears of a Russian expansionist policy in the Baltic region.
The Russian government also reassured Israel that the delivery of the S-300 systems poses “no threat” to the country, according to a statement released by the Kremlin after the telephone conversation between President Putin and Prime Minister Netanyahu.
"Vladimir Putin explained the rationale for the decision in the current context and highlighted the fact that due to their tactical and technical characteristics, S-300s have a purely defensive significance and pose no threat to Israel," the statement said.
Iran’s Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan also defended the deal, saying the increase of expansion of cooperation between Iran and Russia could help improve stability in the region.
The U.S., however, expressed its opposition to the plan to deliver the anti-aircraft missile systems, with Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren calling the deal “unhelpful."