But a report by the U.S. global security consultancy Stratfor claimed Saturday that Tehran recently apparently got a big and very discreet helping hand from Russia. No time frame for the assist was given.
Yet, last June Moscow refused to deliver five batteries of powerful S-300-PMU strategic air-defense missiles Iran had bought for $800 million in December 2007, citing U.N. sanctions against Iran over its contentious nuclear program.
If Russia has provided Tehran with a new radar system, which Stratfor says reportedly went through third-party intermediaries Venezuela and Belarus, it is likely to have been one that would enhance Iran's air-defense network rather than merely add to it.
Stratfor didn't identify the Russian system that its sources said Belarus, a former Soviet republic, sold to a Venezuelan firm, "which then transferred it to Iran in a recent transaction in Abu Dhabi," capital of the United Arab Emirates.
"Radars can apply toward a variety of military applications and it remains unknown whether this rises to the significance of a land-based anti-aircraft radar system or something more commonplace," Stratfor reported.
"Still, the geopolitical circumstances surrounding the alleged sale and the involvement of Venezuelan and Belarusian intermediaries warrant a closer look."
Russia is striving to boost its arms exports, a key foreign currency earner. To mask sales it doesn't want exposed to international scrutiny it has frequently used Belarus, which has its own arms industry dating to the Soviet era, as a front.
Moscow used Belarus, and sometimes Ukraine and Bulgaria, to disguise arms sales to the Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein throughout the 1990s when Iraq was under tight economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations after the August 1990 invasion of Kuwait.
In recent years, Tehran has cultivated a close relationship with Venezuela under its leftist President Hugo Chavez, another opponent of the United States.
Moscow's refusal to supply Iran with the S-300s, needed to protect the Islamic Republic's key nuclear facilities, was widely seen as part of a Russian rapprochement with the United States.
Tehran was incensed by its failure to secure the S-300s and relations with Moscow appeared to nosedive.
But, Stratfor suggests: "Moscow had no intention of sacrificing its Iran lever completely. The report on this latest military transaction has raised the possibility that Russia sees little utility in exercising that lever once again."
U.S.-Russian ties have become strained once more over the nuclear arms reduction treaty and the U.S. drive for a Ballistic Missile Defense treaty, plus, Stratfor says, "hints that the United States may be resuming military support for Georgia via third parties in what would appear to be another provocation of Russia."
On Thursday, after months of angry exchanges over the S-300s, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met Russian President Dmitri Medvedev at Caspian regional summit in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. They were believed to have discussed military-technical cooperation.
Iran's military chiefs have claimed in recent weeks the Islamic Republic has been able to significantly upgrade its air-defense network, which has long been one of its weakest military components.
On Nov. 14, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Miqani, a senior air force officer, said Iran's defense industry was developing a new radar system that would extend its ability to detect hostile aircraft and missiles from around 250 miles to more than 1,850 miles.
That's a stunning technological feat if it's true. But the implication of the Stratfor report, which remains unverified, is that Iran is actually talking about a Russian system it has surreptitiously acquired.
Iran's defense minister, Brig. Gen. Ahmad Vahidi, said, "Today, we own sea-based and land-based radars as well as radars that are capable of identifying multiple air targets in various frequencies and different altitudes."
In June, The Wall Street Journal reported that in mid-2009 Iran gave Syria, its key Arab ally, an unidentified advanced radar that could threaten Israel's ability to launch a pre-emptive attack against Iran's nuclear sites.
It's not at all clear whether that system is related to the one Iran now boasts it has deployed. Last week Iranians held large-scale exercises to test their air defenses, which presumably included any new radars they have.