Can Saudi Weapons Deal Prod Russia To Turn Back on Iran?

(CBS/iStockphoto)
Saudi Arabia is looking to purchase billions of dollars in weapons from Russia in an effort to get the Kremlin to scrap plans to sell surface-to-missile Iran, according to a Financial Times story this week.

But official Russian sources have not confirmed the Kremlin's willingness to agree to such a deal, reports CBS News' Alexei Kuxnetsov. In fact, even analysts with knowledge of the Kremlin's policies sounded rather skeptical.

Back in 2007, Iran announced plans to acquire Russia's S-300 weapons system for upwards of $1 billion. Since then, Russia has been facing pressure from the United States not to go through with the sale.

According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia's offer to buy the latest version of the system, the S-400 – akin to the U.S. Patriot missile defense system – for $2 billion is the latest attempt to get Moscow to back out of its deal with Tehran.

"The U.S. pressure is the stick, and a huge Saudi arms package is the carrot," Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, told the Times.

Pukhov said the deal may actually go as high as $7 billion.

Alexander Khramchikhin, a senior analyst with the Institute for Political and Military Analysis in Moscow, told Kuznetsov that while a deal between Russia and Saudi Arabia could be theoretically possible, a "number of stumbling blocks" make its probability near zero.

"The problem is that the Russian military industrial complex is currently incapable of producing the requisite number of S-400s," Khramchikhin explained. "Russia itself has only 2 squadrons ... So currently selling anything to a foreign client is out of the question, and the production of new S-400s will take time and money."

Khramchikhin also said Saudi Arabia represents a "dubious partner … with quite a shady reputation" to the Kremlin.

"The country has been a source of financing of international terrorism for decades and officially professes Wahhabism as its main religion. Given the years-long campaign against Islamic separatists in Russia's north Caucasus, the Kremlin should by definition be allergic to dealing with any country where Wahhabism is the state religion," he said.

If the deal were to go through, Russia could certainly survive the breaking ties with Iran, Khramchikhin said, but Iran's long history as a trading partner makes it unlikely that the Kremlin would turn their back on them in favor of Saudi Arabia.

Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the Russia in Global Affairs journal, echoed similar sentiments to Kuznetsov.

"Maintaining good and productive relations with Iran – a country which is Russia's neighbor and whose political clout in the region has been steadily growing over the past 10 years – is of a much greater priority for Russia than a short-term economic profit from a deal with Saudi Arabia," he said.

But Lukyanov said that "from a purely commercial point of view, such a contract with the Saudis would probably make sense, especially if the latter are ready to pay significantly more for Russian made missiles, than Iran would."

It would expand the market for Russian weapons and possibly strengthen Russia's other global ties, Lukyanov indicated.

"There is one more reason, why the information about such a deal could be true," he said. "Two days prior to Obama's statement on in Europe, Dmitry Medvedev was meeting with the so-called Valdai club members and said something that hardly anyone seemed to notice back then. Medvedev indicated that Russia's stance on Iran may be changing and cited the concerns on the part of the League of Arab countries about too close a rapport between Russia and Iran. This is a very significant statement since, Russia has never ever mentioned the position of the Arab countries in connection with its bilateral relations with Iran. But for some reason, Medvedev felt it necessary to highlight this connection."

  • Daniel Carty

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