How Iran Failed To Acquire A Russian Missile

The released WikiLeaks diplomatic documents include behind-the-scenes details about a failed weapons deal between Russia and Iran. Iran had planned to buy a Russian missile that would have been a powerful defense against a military strike on its nuclear facilities. But Russia abruptly halted the deal in September.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

Awkward as they may be, the release of thousands of U.S. State Department documents contain news of an apparent diplomatic success. Iran had planned to buy a Russian missile system, and failed. Those missiles would've been a powerful defense against a military strike on Iran, including a strike on its nuclear facilities.

NPR's David Greene has been following the story from Moscow.

Hi, David.

DAVID GREENE: Hi, Steve.

INSKEEP: So what do you see when you read these diplomatic cables, as they're called?

GREENE: I think you're getting a window into the high priority that American, Israeli, other officials were putting on this effort to halt this missile deal. And we should be clear: None of the governments have publicly discussed these new cables, so we're trying to put together pieces here. But last year, the U.S. ambassador to Russia, John Beyrle, wrote in a cable back to Washington that whether this sale of missiles to Iran went through had, for better or for worse, pretty much become the barometer of bilateral relations with Russia.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in another 2009 dispatch, gave talking points to our embassies in the Middle East, basically saying: You've got the leverage with the Russians because you have a military relationship with Moscow. Tell them they cannot be true political partners if they're in the business of making Iran stronger.

INSKEEP: So the U.S. reached out to its allies through the embassies. The embassies are supposed to tell the allies to tell Russia: Don't make this missile sale. There was a coordinated, diplomatic effort here to prevent this missile sale. Why was the U.S. so concerned about this particular piece of military hardware?

GREENE: Well, we're talking about a long-range, surface-to-air missile. It was developed by the Soviets back in the '70s. They deployed it during the Cold War, and it would have allowed Iran to feel pretty confident that it could ward off an attack on its nuclear sites. You can understand why they paid all this money - somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million - to try and buy these. In Moscow, the military establishment, they'd love to sell. It was a money maker, and it also showed that Russia didn't have to listen to the U.S. when it came to dealing with Iran. And when the Kremlin started hinting that it was going to scrap the plan, I remember back to an interview that I did with a prominent defense analyst with a lot of ties in the government, Ruslan Pukhov, and he was furious. I mean, he said he felt like Russia was snubbing Iran.

Mr. RUSLAN PUKHOV (Centre for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies): We showed ourselves as not reliable partner. We can use many euphemisms and try to explain why we do it or can keep silence, but there is a fact.

GREENE: Pukhov was actually so incensed when I kept asking him if Russia had caved to U.S. pressure, that he just cut off our interview - and he started cursing in Russian.

Mr. PUKHOV: (Russian spoken)

GREENE: What's still not clear is why Russian President Dmitry Medvedev scrapped the deal this year. In the documents, there's reference to a possible quid pro quo: Israel working on a deal to sell the Russians several dozen spy drones, and Israel reportedly finalized that sale just around the time Medvedev was canceling the missile deal with Iran. But last night, Georgy Mirsky, an expert on the Middle East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, had a different take. He said Russia actually didn't need so much convincing. It's true, the Kremlin is skeptical that Iran is pursuing nuclear weapons. But Mirsky said what frightened Russia is what Israel could do. If Iran was about to get Russian-made missiles and forever have a way to protect its airspace, Israel might have decided to hit nuclear targets in Iran before those missiles were in place.

Professor GEORGY MIRSKY (Russian Academy of Sciences): The only thing that would be very dangerous is a decision of the Israeli government to strike on its own. The consequences would be horrible.

INSKEEP: That's an analyst speaking with our own David Greene, following up on the intricate diplomatic maneuvering that ended without a Russian missile sale to Iran - something that is detailed in the WikiLeaks cables that have been released this week.

And David, I suppose there's also the question of who really made this decision within Russia.

GREENE: That's a broad question that came up in these new cables. U.S. officials here in one dispatch refer to the president, Dmitry Medvedev, as playing Robin to Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's Batman. And the officials also describe Prime Minister Putin as the alpha dog. So you know, in some ways forget missiles to Iran; in the Russian press, that's what was getting a lot of the buzz.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: So did Vladimir Putin thank the United States for describing him as the alpha dog?

GREENE: Maybe. I mean, he loves that image. He's a black belt in judo. He recently jumped behind the wheel of a Formula One race car and took it for a spin. But I talked to one political commentator, Yulia Latynina, and she had an interesting take. She said many Russians have gotten the wrong picture, that the nickname has been translated here into something closer to alpha male.

Ms. YULIA LATYNINA (Political Commentator): The difference is, the alpha male is the greatest guy around, and the alpha dog is the most vicious guy in the pack.

(Soundbite of laughter)

INSKEEP: They don't think of dogs quite the same way in Russia, I suppose.

GREENE: Perhaps not.

INSKEEP: David, thanks very much.

GREENE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's David Greene in Moscow, with the latest on the revelations in the WikiLeaks cables.

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