- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2010

KIEV | In a sign of cooling relations between Tehran and Moscow, Iranian Transportation Minister Hamid Behbahani has ordered all Russian commercial pilots working in the country to leave within 60 days.

“Upon an order from the president, the Road and Transportation Ministry has set a two-month deadline, upon the expiry of which all Russian pilots will have to leave the country,” Mr. Behbahani told the Fars news agency Saturday. “When our country itself possesses plenty of professional and specialist pilots, there is no need to bring in pilots from abroad.”

Iran’s government is unhappy with Russia’s perceived position that it would support renewed sanctions against the Islamic Republic, pushed by the U.S. in the U.N. Security Council over Iran’s nuclear program.

Russia also delayed the delivery of the Almaz-Antei S-300 air-defense system to Iran. Among other nations, Israel has strongly objected to the contract for the S-300, which Russia’s Rosoboronexport (ROE) originally signed with Iran in 2005.

Anatoliy Isaikin, director of the government-run export agency, told reporters in January that ROE saw no formal obstacles to selling weapons to Iran.

But Russian officials are not all speaking with one voice on this issue. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Security Council Deputy Secretary Vladimir Nazarov more recently hinted that Moscow would delay the S-300 delivery provided Israel would curtail any arms sales to Georgia.

Russian media reports stated that they had unofficial confirmation that Moscow and Tel Aviv had agreed to just such an arrangement when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow last month.

Israel’s supply of weaponry to Georgia is a sore spot with Russia’s military due to the success that the former Soviet Republic had with some of these systems in the August 2008 military conflict in its breakaway province of South Ossetia. An example is how well the Georgian Sukhoi Su-25s performed during Russia’s incursion on their territory.

Iran’s current air-defense network relies on largely previous-generation surface-to-air networks, some of which have been upgraded. The S-300 is a state-of-the-art system that would significantly boost the ability of Iran’s air defense system to deter a strike on their nuclear facilities by U.S. or Israeli air forces.

“Ever since the revelation of the clandestine Qom nuclear facility, Russian-Iranian ties have been worsening,” said Patrick Clawson, a specialist in Iranian affairs at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

U.S.-led sanctions against Iran barred the Islamic Republic from purchasing any Boeing or Airbus aircraft, so Tehran turned to Russia as a supplier of airliners and military cargo transports to supplant the aging fleet of Western aircraft that were inherited from the shah regime.

There have been several fatal accidents involving Russian aircraft in Iranian commercial and military service during the past few years — which has been seen as one of the reasons prompting the Iranian transport minister’s order.

Diplomats and contractor personnel working on military assistance projects in the Ukrainian capital Kiev who are familiar with the constant pressure by Moscow against NATO expansion say there is another dimension to the continued delays in the S-300 delivery to Iran.

Russia is continuing to try to use the delivery of S-300s to Iran as a “bargaining chip” in the battle over the placement of U.S. missile-defense installations in Eastern Europe.

Plans to place missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic were shelved by the Obama administration. However, Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov, longtime KGB veteran and friend of Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, has said the U.S. alternative option that calls for deploying shorter-range SM-3 anti-missile interceptors in the Black Sea territorial waters of Romania and possibly Bulgaria in 2015 is “just as bad or even worse.”

The Russian opposition has puzzled U.S. and other NATO officials because a year ago Russia itself suggested these locations as suitable alternatives to Eastern Europe land-based defenses.

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