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Saudis eye Russian air defense system

RIYADH, Agence France-Presse | 10/2/2009 12:00:00 AM |

Saudi Arabia is weighing buying an advanced Russian missile system to shore up its defence against a potentially nuclear Iran, Gulf analysts and diplomats say.

Saudi Arabia is weighing buying an advanced Russian missile system to shore up its defence against a potentially nuclear Iran, Gulf analysts and diplomats said. They said Moscow and Riyadh are close to sealing a deal on a multi-billion-dollar weapons package that could include Russia's advanced S-400 missile defense system.

It is the newest version of the S-300 long-range surface to air missile system that Moscow has been in discussion for several years to sell to Iran, which denies Western charges of aiming to become a nuclear power. But heavy Western and Israeli pressure and a possibly more lucrative deal with Riyadh have persuaded Moscow not to go through with that sale to Tehran, diplomats in the Gulf said on condition of anonymity.

"The Saudis would rather this weapon system not be sold to Iran or Syria," another possible buyer, said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. The S-400 missile defense system could be a part of a much larger deal with Russia that would signify an important diversification of Saudi arms purchasing from its traditional suppliers - Britain, France and the United States.

On August 29, Russia's Interfax news agency said a two-billion-dollar arms package for the Saudis could include up to 150 helicopters - 30 Mi-35 attack helicopters and up to 120 Mi-17 transport helicopters - more than 150 T-90S tanks, 250 BMP-3 infantry fighting vehicles and "several dozen" air defense systems.

Contracts for the sale of the tanks and the helicopters "could be signed as soon as this year," an unnamed source told Interfax. With the S-400, and a reported plan to buy new U.S. F-15 fighters, the Saudis are seeking to plug gaps in their overall defence capabilities vis-a-vis Iran, Karasik said. In early September, the well-informed U.S. arms business blog DoDBuzz reported that Riyadh is close to finalizing a contract for 72 F-15E Strike Eagles with advanced radar and armaments.

Saudi officials are increasingly concerned that Western pressure has failed to prevent Iran's development of nuclear know-how, analysts and diplomats said. Like Western governments, Riyadh is unconvinced by Tehran's insistence that its nuclear ambitions are entirely peaceful. The Saudis already have French and US missile defense equipment, including U.S. Patriot batteries. But the S-400 is believed to have a much greater range than the Patriot.

The Saudis seek several advantages from the deal, first being a way of persuading Moscow to put pressure on Tehran to rein in its nuclear ambitions. "I think the Saudis see it as a way to get the Russians to be a back channel to Iran," Karasik said.

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