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Israel lobbies Russia on Iranian arms sales

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel has lobbied Russia to pull away from selling a strategic air-defense system to Iran but has received only vague assurances, Israeli defense sources said on Monday.

Last week Israel agreed to supply surveillance drones worth $50 million to Russia. The Israeli Haaretz newspaper said this followed a pledge by Moscow not to sell Iran the S-300, which could protect Iranian nuclear facilities against air strikes.

An Israeli defense official said he had no knowledge of such an undertaking by Russia in its talks with Israel on the matter. Moscow has given mixed messages on the prospects of Iran buying S-300s, a deal one Russian newspaper valued at $800 million.

A recently retired Israeli official informed about bilateral security talks with Russia said that while Israel has made clear its objections about Iran receiving S-300s, “the Russians don’t make promises of this kind.”

“The most we have at this point is a vague assurance that the deal is not going ahead,” the ex-official said. “But that could change at any time, and one of the relevant factors is Israel’s policies on Iran.”

Assumed to have the region’s only atomic arsenal, Israel supports U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to deny Iran the means of making a bomb. But Israel has hinted it could resort to force in a standoff that has often pitted Western powers against Russia.

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Iran denies its nuclear program has military designs and has found support in Moscow, which is supplying the Iranian reactor at Bushehr. Like China, Russia was a reluctant backer of U.N. sanctions designed to curb Iran’s uranium enrichment, a process that can produce weapons-grade fuel.

An industry source familiar with the decision by state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries to supply Russia with three types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) said Moscow’s interest had been piqued during last year’s border war with Georgia, a U.S. ally whose forces used Israeli-supplied drones.

By bringing Russia into its circle of foreign UAV clients, Israel hoped to bury any ill-will over the Georgian conflict and win scope to apply pressure over Iran, the industry source said.

“What was our alternative, to say no to the Russian request for our drones? The thinking was: let’s go ahead and sell, and then try to gain sympathy on the S-300 issue,” the source said.

Known in the West as the SA-20, the most advanced version of the S-300 can fire at multiple targets up to 150 km (90 miles) away and can travel at more than 2 km (1 mile) per second.

Editing by Robert Woodward