Iran out, but Russia eyes Turkey for S-300

June 21, 2010 at 1:56 PM
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MOSCOW, June 21 (UPI) -- Russia's arms export chief says Moscow hopes to sell Turkey the powerful S-300 air-defense missile system -- and possibly the more advanced S-400 -- after blocking delivery of the weapon to Iran.

"The Turkish army has a great need to acquire S-300 and S-400 systems, Anatoly Isaikin, director of the state-owned arms exporter Rosoboronexport, told the RIA Novosti agency.

Speaking at a defense exhibition in Paris, he disclosed that Russia was prepared to participate in a Turkish tender for missile systems along with Western arms manufacturers.

Last week, Moscow announced it was blocking the delivery of five batteries of S-300PMU systems sold to Tehran in a controversial $800 million contract in 2007. The Russians cited the fourth round of economic sanctions imposed on Iran by the U.N. Security Council June 9 over Tehran's refusal to scrap its alleged nuclear arms program.

Iran was incensed, even though the Russians had been delaying deliveries for months, apparently under pressure from the United States.

The Iranians want the missiles to defend their nuclear installations against a threatened pre-emptive strike by Israel.

If Russia does sell the S-300s to Turkey, it would mark a significant shift in Ankara's geopolitical orientation that would dismay the Americans.

During the Cold War the United States relied on Turkey, the only Muslim member of NATO, to be a bulwark against Soviet expansionism.

But under the Islamist government of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, which came to power in 2003, Turkey's priorities have shifted eastward to Iran, Central Asia and Russia.

U.S. concerns have deepened as Turkey's strategic alliance with Israel, the only other non-Arab power in the region, is crumbling following the killing of nine Turks aboard a Turkish-flagged ship seeking to break Israel's blockade of the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip on May 31.

The concern in Washington now, as Turkey moves ever farther away from its old allies in the West, is the possibility that if the Russians do sell S-300s to Turkey they could end up in Iran.

Russia's acquiescence on withholding the S-300 from Iran flies in the face of Moscow's drive to boost its arms industry, a key earner of foreign currency.

Moscow is using arms sales to bolster its efforts to restore the influence in the Middle East it enjoyed during the Cold War. Arms deliveries then were a key component in Soviet alliances with, at various times, Egypt, Syria, Algeria, Libya and Yemen.

The Strategy Page, an Internet site that specializes in defense issues, noted after Moscow announced it wouldn't deliver the S-300 to Iran: "A less discussed reason for not delivering the S-300s is Israeli claims that they have technology that can neutralize the S-300 radar and missile guidance electronics.

"That may or may not be true but the Russians are not eager to see yet another of their weapons defeated by Israeli countermeasures."

Turkey, a member of NATO, has traditionally bought its weapons systems and military equipment from the West, primarily the United States.

So acquiring Russian S-300s would mark a major departure that could open the door to further Russian systems for a military equipped largely with U.S. products.

Mixing weapons systems like that is expensive since it involves a whole new logistics and training program alongside the existing one and the different systems aren't always compatible.

Egypt, which acquired its arms from the Soviets until the early 1970s then switched to U.S. weaponry after making peace with Israel in 1978, is still stuck with much outdated Soviet-era equipment as it absorbs far more sophisticated U.S. systems.

Ultimately, if Turkey does acquire S-300s and seeks to pass them on to neighboring Iran in its drive to gain influence among its Muslim neighbors, it would be crossing a line in terms of its relationship with the United States.

Erdogan may not wish to take such a bold step. But Turkey's increasing assertiveness in its quest to restore its position as a paramount power in the region is fast gathering momentum.

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