US: Russian fighter jet sale to Iran would violate arms ban

The Obama administration said Thursday that a proposed Russian sale of fighter jets to Iran would violate a U.N. arms embargo on Tehran, setting up another standoff related to last year’s nuclear negotiations.

Russia’s RIA news agency reported Wednesday that Russia planned to sign a contract to sell a batch of its Sukhoi Su-30SM multi-role fighters to Iran this year.

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said delivering the Sukhoi-30 jets, which are comparable to American F-15E fighter bombers, requires the approval of the U.N. Security Council. Under the July 14 nuclear deal with Iran, world powers agreed to maintain a ban on conventional arms sales to Iran for five years, unless the sale is approved in advance by the Security Council.

“U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 prohibits the sale to Iran of specified categories of conventional arms … without approval in advance on a case-by-case basis by the U.N. Security Council,” Toner said.

The U.S. will raise the matter with Russia, Toner said, adding that all six countries that negotiated July’s landmark nuclear agreement with Iran “should be fully aware of these restrictions.”

Iran’s Defense Minister Gen. Hossein Dehghan said last week that Iran would purchase an unspecified number of the Russian planes. He provided no timeline for delivery, but said Iran would be involved in manufacturing the aircraft.

The dispute is the latest standoff following the nuclear deal that sets long-term limits on Iran’s uranium and plutonium programs in exchange for hundreds of billions of dollars in future sanctions relief.

The U.S. and its negotiating partners — Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia — reached an understanding with Iran to phase out U.N. bans on Iranian weapons deals and ballistic missile work after periods of good behavior.

Both embargoes are still in effect, though U.S. officials say Iran has conducted at least two ballistic missile tests since last summer. In response, Washington imposed new sanctions on Iran just hours after five American citizens left Iran as part of a prisoner exchange last month.

Like the ballistic missiles work, U.S. officials say the Russian plane sale would not constitute a nuclear deal breach. But it would amount to another in a long string of Iranian violations of Security Council resolutions.

Iran regained access to tens of billions of dollars in frozen assets overseas when it satisfied its obligations under the nuclear deal last month.

Iran’s rivals in the Middle East are worried by the windfall. Shiite Iran is battling Saudi Arabia and other Sunni countries in proxy conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and Israel is threatened by Tehran’s support for militant groups Hamas and Hezbollah.

Dehghan said Iran would seriously focus on its “air force and fighters,” a fleet that still depends heavily on domestically modified versions of long-outdated warplanes, including former Soviet MiGs and American F14A Tomcats from the 1970s.

The U.S. is also concerned by Russia’s delivery of advanced S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran. That deal was frozen in 2010, but Russian President Vladimir Putin approved its transfer last April. Unlike the fighter jets, however, the S-300 systems are defensive and therefore not covered by any U.N. prohibition.