Iran’s announcement this week that it has four batteries of the Russian S-300 air-defense missile system is a media ploy. The Iranian statement mirrors precisely a line of speculation pursued by the open-source intelligence industry back in 2006. After Russia transferred S-300 systems to Belarus that year, Jane’s Defense Weekly suggested that Belarus might forward some S-300s to Iran. The deliveries to Iran were supposed to include two of the Russian batteries transferred to Belarus, along with two additional batteries from an undetermined source, which were reportedly being refurbished in Belarus.
Belarus has consistently denied that this transfer ever took place. If there was such a transfer, it almost certainly occurred several years ago. But it’s more likely that Iran has received no S-300 batteries from Belarus and is merely recycling some old speculative analysis that sounds particularly plausible. The perfect match between the August 4 announcement and the scenario postulated in 2006 is suspicious: if Iran did have S-300s today, the leadership would be much more likely to make only vague references to it, if it made any. But the Iranians come off instead as if they are trying to bolster the credibility of their claim with unnecessary details, added because they seem to bear out previous speculation.
The S-300 is a mobile system, but if the Iranians do have the opportunity to deploy it around their most important facilities, it will be very hard to hide. It’s extremely unlikely that U.S. and Israeli intelligence have missed that very detectable event. Nor is it probable that Iran has had the system for four years and done nothing with it.
Iran seems to be waging information warfare with this announcement, which appeared on Iranian TV and was probably made as much for domestic consumption as for its foreign impact. Whether it’s a bluff or a dare, it’s not what the Iranians would be most likely to do if they really did have operational S-300 batteries in place.