OCCUPIED JERUSALEM (AFP) â€” Israel on Sunday lambasted Russia over the sale of anti-missile systems to arch-enemy Iran, the latest round of what the local press has dubbed the Iranian-Israeli arms race.
Iran, already under intense international pressure over its nuclear activities, has reportedly bought 29 mobile air defence systems from Moscow in a deal worth more than $700 million.
“When a country sells arms to Iran, it strengthens the military strength of the state and serves only the interests of the most negative elements in the region,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Marc Regev told AFP. The contract with Russia, which is already helping Tehran build a nuclear reactor in Bushehr, coincided with an Israeli announcement it had successfully testfired an Arrow defence missile against a mock Shahab missile.
Tehran’s rapid progress on its ballistic missile programme is a major cause for concern in the international community. Israel’s own fears were heightened in October when Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the Jewish state must be “wiped off the map.”
Iran has been constantly upgrading the Shahab-3 missile, a single-stage device that is believed to be based on a North Korean design and have a range of at least 2,000 kilometres â€” meaning that arch-enemy Israel and US bases in the region are well within range.
“For the first time we have verified the Arrow’s capabilities against the Iranian Shahab and this test has allowed us to demonstrate that we have the means to counter Iranian threats,” Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz said Sunday.
The latest test of the Arrow, or Hetz in Hebrew â€” which is not yet operational â€” followed a pledge by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel would never allow Iran to come into possession of nuclear weapons.
The Shahab-3, which means “Meteor” or “Shooting Start” in Farsi, was once described by Israel’s Mossad spy agency as the greatest threat to the Jewish state’s existence since its creation in 1948.
First launched in 1988 during the now-defunct Star Wars strategy under former US president Ronald Reagan, the US-inspired Arrow programme was stepped up after Israel was hit by 39 Iraqi Scud missiles that left two people dead during the 1991 Gulf War.
Development of the Arrow is half-funded by the United States, which provides Israel with about $3 billion in military and civilian aid each year.
Israel has repeatedly warned that Iran may be close to developing a nuclear weapon, saying that the Islamic republic might be as little as six months away from having the means to build the bomb.
Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, defended the Russian deal in an interview with AFP.
“Is this a problem? Do we need permission?” he said. “We have contracts with other countries to buy or sell arms. This is not the first time we have signed a contract with the Russians.”
Russia’s news agency ITAR-TASS on Friday quoted an unnamed top Russian defence ministry official as saying the deal involved 29 Tor M-1 mobile systems capable of bringing down both aircraft and missiles.
Israeli newspapers noted the weapons buildup with some alarm, with respected military commentator Alex Fishman calling the arms race a “cancerous illness” in a column in the top-selling Yediot Aharanot newspaper.
“The Iranians do not yet have nuclear weapons, but we are already at the early stage of the game: We are running an arms race against them for defensive weapons, trying to understand where they’re headed and to run a few steps ahead,” Fishman wrote.
“The race will go on unless some sort of miracle happens to stop this lunacy, which sucks billions of dollars from each side.”