MOSCOW - Russia has struck a deal to sell short-range, surface-to-air missiles to Iran, the defense minister said Monday, confirming reports that have raised concern in the United States and Israel.
Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov didn't give details. But Russian media have said that Moscow agreed in November to sell $1 billion worth of weapons to Iran, including up to 30 Tor-M1 missile systems over the next two years.
"A contract for the delivery of air defense Tor missiles to Iran has indeed been signed," Ivanov was quoted as saying by the Interfax news agency.
"This unequivocally will not change the balance of forces in the region," Ivanov added. Tor M1 missiles are short-range, surface-to-air missiles already used by several other armed forces, including China.
The reports last week prompted expressions of concern from the U.S administration and Israel, which considers Iran to be its biggest threat. Israeli concerns recently were heightened after Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged that Israel be "wiped off the map."
Top politicians in Israel have ratcheted up the tough talk against Iran, led by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called for a pre-emptive strike against Iranian nuclear installations. Such a strike would be similar to a 1981 attack, ordered by then-Prime Minister Menachem Begin, that destroyed an unfinished Iraqi nuclear reactor.
"I will continue the tradition established by Menachem Begin, who did not allow Iraq to develop such a nuclear threat against Israel, and by a daring and courageous act gave us two decades of tranquility," Netanyahu told the daily newspaper Maariv. "I believe that this is what Israel has to do."
Interfax said the Tor-M1 system could identify up to 48 targets and fire at two targets simultaneously at a height of up to 20,000 feet.
On Saturday, an influential Iranian official played down the deal, telling the official Islamic Republic News Agency that Tehran has been trading arms with many countries and would continue to do so.
The Russian Foreign Ministry, without commenting on the reported missile sale, also said Saturday that all Russian weaponry supplied to Iran is purely for defensive purposes.
However, a senior Bush administration official, who declined to be named because he was not authorized to speak publicly on the subject, said last week that any arms sale to Iran is a source of concern. The official would not say whether Russia had advised the United States of any negotiations with Iran.
The United States and Russia are supporting efforts by the European Union to persuade Iran to halt development of nuclear weapons in exchange for economic incentives, such as trade opportunities.
Russia, which has a long and lucrative relationship with Iran, has offered to try to resolve a key dispute by offering to enrich uranium for an Iranian civilian nuclear energy program as a safeguard against Iran using enrichment for weapons purposes.