MOSCOW — Russia may scrap its ban on S-300 anti-aircraft missile sales to Iran if Syrian President Bashar Assad is replaced, said Ruslan Pukhov, who heads a Russian defense think tank.
Then-President Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree prohibiting the sale of Russian weapons, including S-300s, to Iran in 2010 after the United Nations imposed sanctions against the Islamic republic. Iran has sued Russia for breach of contract.
"The S-300 ban was a political decision and these systems are not actually subject to sanctions," Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies in Moscow, said in an interview Tuesday. "If the Syrian regime is changed by force or if Russia doesn't like the outcome" of a peaceful transition to a new government, "it most likely will respond by selling S-300s to Iran."
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, along with his counterparts from the United States, Britain, France and China, endorsed a United Nations plan for political transition in Syria on Saturday. Lavrov said the road map doesn't imply Assad's ouster and Russia says it will continue to block efforts in the U.N. Security Council to impose sanctions on Syria to force him out.
Assad's government is fighting a growing insurrection in which as many as 17,000 people have died in the last 16 months, according to non-governmental organizations. At least 114 people were killed in Syria Monday, the Local Coordination Committees in Syria said in an e-mail.
"The fall of the Syrian government would significantly increase the chances of a strike on Iran," said Pukhov, who also sits on a Defense Ministry advisory board. "Resuming S-300 shipments to Iran may be a very timely decision."
Western powers say the Persian Gulf nation is hiding a nuclear-weapons program, and the United States and Israel have declined to discount the possibility of military strikes against its atomic installations.
Due to the export ban on S-300 exports to Iran Russia lost about $1 billion dollars, according to Pukhov's think tank. Russia built Iran's $1 billion Bushehr atomic plant, the country's first, and the country has said it would like to order new Russian-made nuclear power stations.
After shipments of S-300 were stopped in 2009, Iran also canceled talks on buying 40 TU-204 passenger aircraft, which would have added about $3.5 billion of revenue, CAST says.
President Vladimir Putin may resume shipments to Iran in retaliation for the U.S. selling weapons to Georgia and at the same time to promote Russia as an arms exporter, Pukhov said.
"Russia needs to bolster its image as an exporter as a decline in weapons exports is inevitable" because the country "is fulfilling its contract obligations in arms trade quicker than it gets new contracts," he said.
Russia has signed export contracts worth $5.7 billion this year, up from $3.3 billion in the first half of 2011, Putin said. It shipped $6.5 billion of defense equipment overseas in the first half of 2012, up 14 percent from a year earlier.
Arms exports more than doubled to $13.7 billion in 2011 from $6 billion in 2005 and exceeded $44 billion over the last seven years, Putin said on July 2 in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Defense accounts for 2.5 percent of Russian exports.
Fifty-five countries including India, China, Venezuela, Syria and the U.S. buy Russian weapons. Sales of new-generation air defense system S-400s to China may begin as early as 2015, Pukhov said.
In Syria, Putin has focused on negotiations over sanctions or military intervention after Russia lost billions of dollars of arms and civilian contracts as a result of the Arab Spring uprisings that toppled autocratic regimes in the region.
Since 2006 Syria signed with Russia arms contracts for about $5.5 billion, according to CAST estimates. In 2012, Syria is due to receive Russian weapons for about $500 million, CAST estimates.
Russia has contracts with Syria to deliver fighter jets, anti-aircraft systems and anti-tank systems, according to Pukhov's think tank. Vyacheslav Davidenko, a spokesman for Rosoboronexport, Russia's arms export monopoly, declined to comment.