Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Wednesday that Israel had asked Russia not to go through with a major deal to sell advanced fighter jets and other weapons to Iran.
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But Lieberman told political reporters that the chances of halting the deal were low because the sale would be in Russia’s economic interest. According to Russian media reports, the $10-billion transaction includes fighter jets, advanced T-90 tanks, helicopters and artillery.
Viktor Ozerov, head of the Russian Federation Council’s Defense Committee, has said the negotiations are still underway and that if the deal is concluded, the weapons will be delivered in stages over several years. He said the first shipment could only take place in 2020, when the sanctions against selling arms to Iran are due to be lifted.
Lieberman, however, noted that at this stage Russia and Iran are only discussing a possible deal; nothing has been signed. He said Israel raised the issue during Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to Israel last week, as well as in talks with the Kremlin and other officials in Russia.
“Obviously, this doesn't please us very much,” Lieberman said. “But the Russians aren’t asking us. We’re talking with them and trying to explain, but ultimately every country acts in accordance with its own interests. Russia is in economic trouble and it will do what’s in its best interests.”
Several months ago, after a delay of a few years, Russia transferred to Iran advanced S-300 air defense missiles. The shipment, which is intended to protect Iran’s nuclear installations, went ahead after Tehran signed the nuclear deal with the major powers in July 2015, which went into effect a few months ago.
Israel tried for several years to press President Vladimir Putin to delay the missile shipment, but in the end the Russians went ahead despite the protests of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Lieberman also commented on the Russian forces operating in Syria. He said their reinforcement with advanced missiles and an aircraft carrier would not crimp the Israel Defense Forces’ ability to operate in Syria. The IDF, however, is now “entirely visible” to the Russians,” he said.
“Their radar sees every takeoff by one of our planes,” Lieberman said. “This doesn’t please us much, but this is why we have gone for a coordination mechanism with Russia so as to avoid unnecessary clashes. We’re not forgoing any of our interests, and we’re walking a fine line.”
About a month ago, the Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that the IDF had asked the Russian Defense Ministry that new coordination procedures be crafted between the two sides. This came after the installation of S-300 and S-400 anti-aircraft missile batteries in Syria.
The Israeli request came after the Russians had several weeks earlier installed the batteries at their naval base in Tartus, after Washington had suspended talks with Russia on Syria, and in anticipation of possible U.S. strikes against the Assad regime’s army because of the slaughter in Aleppo.
“Via the hotline that exists between the parties, the Israelis sent us a request to formulate a new procedure and new rules of engagement to be added to the existing coordination mechanisms,” a Russian source told Izvestia.
The source said the Israelis requested this to prevent the Russians’ missile system being mistakenly used against Israeli planes. “We are currently formulating our response and will relay it to the Israelis within the agreed-on framework,” the source said