(CNSNews.com) – The State Department on Monday played down any link between the Iran nuclear negotiations and a Russian decision to lift a ban on selling the Iranians sophisticated surface-to-air missiles that could help protect their nuclear facilities against future military strikes.
Spokeswoman Marie Harf said Secretary of State John Kerry expressed concern about the decision in a phone conversation with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, but she added that the administration did not believe it would have any impact on the nuclear talks, or on the unity within the P5+1 negotiating group, which includes the U.S. and Russia.
After President Vladimir Putin on Monday issued a decree lifting a five year-old voluntary ban on the sale of the S300 system to Iran, Lavrov said the embargo was no longer needed due to the “substantial progress in settling Iran’s nuclear problem,” the Itar-TASS news agency reported.
He pointed to an April 2 announcement in Lausanne, Switzerland of a framework agreement between the P5+1 group – whose other members are Britain, France, China and Germany – and Iran over its nuclear program. That framework is meant to form the basis of a comprehensive final agreement by June 30.
Lavrov said the only reason the Kremlin imposed the ban in 2010 on an already-signed contract to sell the missiles to Iran was to support the P5+1 effort to reach a settlement on the nuclear standoff.
Given the progress achieved in the nuclear talks, he said, “we believe that at this stage there is no longer need for this kind of embargo.” He emphasized that imposing it had been a “unilateral and voluntary” Russian decision.
Harf told a daily briefing that the administration did not believe it was “constructive at this time for Russia to move forward with this.”
At the same time, she said the U.S. and Russians had worked closely in the P5+1 and “we don’t think this will have an impact on unity in terms of inside the negotiating room.”
Harf said U.S. concerns about the prospective sale were related to Iran’s conduct in the region.
“We think given Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region in places like Yemen or Syria or Lebanon that this isn’t the time to be selling these kinds of systems to them,” she said.
(Harf also said it was her understanding lifting the ban would not violate U.N. Security Council sanctions. UNSC resolution 1929 in 2010 did ban the sale or transfer to Iran of seven categories of conventional weapons, including “missiles or missile systems,” but contained a loophole in that S300s are not listed on U.N. Register of Conventional Arms.)
President Obama's spokesman said the White House has seen reports of the missile sale, and has already made known its objections to that sale.
"And I understand that Secretary Kerry had an opportunity to raise these concerns, once again, in a recent conversation with his Russian counterpart, Mr. Lavrov," spokesman Josh Earnest said.
"I'm not in a position to obviously speculate on the decision-making process that Russia is engaged in right now. But I do think it's safe to say that Russia understands that the United States certainly takes very seriously the safety and security of our allies in the region."
‘Will only increase its aggression’
The deal to sell Iran five S300 systems was worth $800 million when signed in late 2007.
In his comments Monday, Lavrov noted that the S300 was a defensive system, and posed no threat to any country in the region, including Iran’s primary foe, Israel.
“S300 is an air defense missile system which is of a purely defensive nature,” he said. “It is not designed for attacks and will not put at risk the security of any regional state, including Israel.”
At the same time, he said, having such a missile system was “now very relevant to Iran,” citing the security situation in the region such as the conflict in Yemen (where a Saudi-led coalition is carrying out airstrikes against Iran-backed Shi’ite militia.)
What Lavrov did not address, however, was the fact that the system could make it more difficult for any future military action – by the U.S., Israel, or any other country – targeting Iran’s nuclear facilities. The system was designed to protect military bases and other infrastructure against attack by enemy aircraft.
Asked about the issue of the missile system helping Iran to defend its nuclear facilities from attack, Harf replied “I actually just don’t know the facts here.”
“I think that when I said [the issues are] separate, it’s not – the S-300 isn’t part of the negotiations over their – the composition of their nuclear program,” she added. “But I’m happy to check with our team.”
The Israeli government, a leading critic of a P5+1 deal that would leave parts of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure intact while easing sanctions, criticized the Russian decision and linked it to the nuclear talks.
“This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal that is being prepared, and proof that the Iranian economic growth which follows the lifting of sanctions will be exploited for arming itself and not for the welfare of the Iranian people,” Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said in a statement.
“ Instead of demanding that Iran desist from the terrorist activity that it is carrying out in the Middle East and throughout the world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression,” he said.