From all accounts, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had a highly successful visit to Moscow on Monday. The single biggest outcome of his talks with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov should be the signing of the contract for the delivery of upgraded S-300 missiles by Russia to Iran.

The official Russian media reported that the delivery of the missile systems will take place 30-40 days after the signing of the agreement in Moscow (which is expected to be on Aug. 25.)

There is much political symbolism here insofar as Moscow is plainly mocking at the timeline of the US Congress’s approval/disapproval of the Iran nuclear deal will be mid-September. Clearly, as far as Moscow is concerned, Iran’s integration with the world community is deemed to have happened already.

Of course, the S-300 is not covered by any sanctions, since it is categorized as a “defensive” weapon. Nonetheless, the White House has protested. And, to be sure, this time around Moscow will ignore the protest.

Russian S-300-missile defense system

Without doubt, Russia is asserting its determination to strengthen its strategic ties with Iran. Even after the sanctions are removed, no western power is likely to step forward to supply sophisticated weapons to Iran for a foreseeable future. Russia’s standing as the number one supplier of military technology to Iran is virtually guaranteed.

The American and Israeli experts have admitted that the S-300 will be a game changer in the strategic balance in the Middle East, since it is a formidable weapon that will make an air attack on Iran very prohibitively expensive. In political terms, therefore, what Russia is doing is to provide an underpinning for Iran’s ‘strategic autonomy’, which Moscow no doubt sees as in its self-interests too in the prevailing geopolitical scenario in the region.

Iran’s ‘strategic autonomy’ has big implications for its capacity to withstand the pressure from the US and its regional allies and play an effective role in Syria and Iraq, where Moscow and Tehran have cooperated closely. The recent Iranian statements have comprehensively debunked the whispering campaign in the western and Arab media that Tehran is disengaging from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. On the contrary, the indications are that Iran is probably stepping up its support of the Assad regime against the backdrop of the US intention to commence air strikes in Syria.

Zarif’s visit to Moscow on Monday enabled the two countries to choreograph the long-term development of Russo-Iranian strategic ties in the new setting of the Iran nuclear deal. On the eve of Zarif’s arrival in Moscow, Russian Foreign Ministry said in a statement that Moscow’s political dialogue with Tehran had “recently become more relevant.” The statement, which was conspicuously effusive in tone, described Iran as one of Russia’s “closest regional partners” with which a “high level of mutual understanding” and “intense practical cooperation” exists.

It underscored the desire for closer coordination between the two countries on a range of international issues and said, “The advancement of our foreign policy cooperation will help strengthen peace ad stability in the Caspian region, in Central Asia, and the Middle and Near East.”

At a joint press conference with Zarif following the talks, Lavrov mentioned that the two countries shared “convergent views” regarding Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Libya insofar as they “advocate settling the issues in these countries through national dialogue without external interference or imposing any formulas” –  an open rejection of the US’ prescriptive approach.

All in all, therefore, S-300 deal also provides a barometer to take the temperature of the Russian-American ties. From the latest reading, the temperature is hovering around sub-zero level.

But that is not the whole story. The fact remains that China is also waiting in the wings. A commentary in the government-owned China Daily on Monday was the latest report speculating on a deal in the pipeline for the supply by China of the J-10 multi-role fighter jet to Iran. The report suggested that not only is the J-10 a “good option for Iran … capable of performing air-to-surface strikes and anti-ship strikes” but “China is also very flexible in payment issues” and “it is highly possible that Chinese aviation industry will transfer technology used on the J-10 to buyers.”

Other reports had mentioned that China and Iran are discussing a deal for the supply of 150 of the J-10 fighter jets. Curiously, an earlier report featured by People’s Daily last week mentioned that China and Russia would pursue a coordinated strategy “to give Iran’s armed forces a boost” by way of hitting back at the US for its containment strategies against them. To be sure, the big question today is whether the delivery of the S-300 system by end-September is tantamount to an opening Sino-Russian salvo of its kind being fired from Moscow aimed at Washington, with Beijing preparing to follow up soon.

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M.K. Bhadrakumar

M.K. Bhadrakumar is a former diplomat who served for more than 29 years as an Indian Foreign Service officer with postings including India’s ambassador to Turkey and Uzbekistan.

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