Among Israel’s main concerns regarding the possible sale of Russian S-300 air-defense systems to Syria is that they may then be transferred to Iran, International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz said Tuesday.

Up until now, Moscow has refused to deliver those state-of-the-art anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran, which has tried repeatedly over the last decade to attain them.

“We are very concerned about the new supply of sophisticated arms to Syria itself,” Steinitz – who also holds the Strategic Affairs and Intelligence portfolios – said in a speech at The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA). “We don’t understand Russia’s position about it. Why should anyone supply [Syrian President Bashar] Assad with advanced ballistic or anti-aircraft or antiship rockets at this very time?”

Steinitz listed three reasons for Israel’s strong opposition to the sale: It could encourage Assad to continue waging war against the rebels and discourage him from compromising with the opposition; the weapons, because of Syria’s instability, could find their way into the hands of Hezbollah or other terrorist organizations; and they could be transferred to Iran.

“Maybe, because of the disorder in Syria, [or because] of the very heavy dependence of Syria on the Iranian assistance, some of those weapons might unfortunately find their way to the Iranians. This is very bad, and [would go] against the weapon embargo on Iran,” Steinitz said.

As a result of that international arms embargo, according to assessments in Jerusalem, Syria currently has advanced arms systems that are not in Iran’s possession, and there is little keeping the Syrians from transferring those weapons to Tehran.

Steinitz added that the S-300 missiles did not only have a defensive capability. He said that because of their ability to shoot down aircraft up to 200 km. away, these missiles could also be used offensively.

Deployed near Damascus, for example, the S-300 could target Israeli aircraft, including civilian aircraft, flying over Haifa and Tel Aviv, he said.

The minister, who said Israel had good relations with Russia and a “very good and close dialogue” with the Kremlin, added that there was reason to believe the Russians could be persuaded not to deliver these weapons at this time.

“We have reason to believe that there is still room to convince the Russians on this matter,” he said. “We received clarifications, or we have reason to believe that these missiles were not yet delivered, or may not be supplied in the near future at least.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin, meanwhile, defended on Tuesday Russian arms sales to the Syrian government, but said Moscow had not yet delivered the S-300s to Damascus.

Putin told a news conference after a summit with European Union leaders that Russia did not want to upset the military balance in the region and that all its arms sales to Syria were in line with international law.

He also praised the S-300 missile system as one of the best in the world, but added, “The contract was signed several years ago. It has not been fulfilled yet.”

Last month, Assad told Lebanese news outlet Al-Manar that Syria had received a first shipment of S-300 missiles from Russia under a deal signed before the current conflict raging in his country.

Meanwhile, the United States said it is not ready to say the Syrian government used chemical weapons in the war-ravaged country, despite a French finding that this has in fact happened.

“We need more information” about claims of such use, White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters.

France said that there was no doubt the Syrian government had used the nerve agent sarin against rebels, and that all options, including military action, were under consideration in reaction to the development.

“There is no doubt that it’s the regime and its accomplices” that are responsible for use of the gas, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on France 2 television.

“All options are on the table,” he added. “That means either we decide not to react, or we decide to react including by armed actions targeting the place where the gas is stored.”

Regarding Iran, Steinitz said the world was still badly underestimating Tehran’s potential nuclear threat, and that the Islamic Republic’s aspirations were not to be a one-bomb-in-the-basement country, but to be a nuclear power developing dozens of nuclear bombs annually.

“We must speak of an Iranian nuclear arsenal, not just a bomb,” he said, contrasting Iran with North Korea.

“If [the Iranians] get the bomb, they will get many nuclear bombs,” he said, while North Korea’s ambitions, he continued, were “local,” primarily having to do with securing the survivability of the regime and being able to blackmail the West for aid.

“Iranian ambitions are global,” he stated. “Iranian leaders are speaking about a changing balance of power between Islam and the Western world, of a new era of global Islamic hegemony.”

Furthermore, Steinitz said, Iran’s nuclear industry was already bigger than that of North Korea and Pakistan, and if indeed the Iranians reached their objective of spinning some 54,000 centrifuges at the Natanz nuclear facility, that alone would allow them to create the fissile material needed for 20-30 bombs per year.

Though the Iranians have yet to build a bomb, the industry they are creating is aimed at building “hundreds of nuclear bombs in a decade or two,” he said. This development, he added, would not only be a regional game-changer, but also change the course of “global history.”

Steinitz praised the international sanctions on Iran, saying they were costing the Iranian economy some $70 billion a year. But, he pointed out, Iran’s leadership has shown it is willing to pay that price if in the end it gets a bomb.

“If we will be able to convince them that come what may, they will not be able to see the fruits of this nuclear project, that they will not be able to produce a bomb, that they are suffering for nothing, that they are paying something for nothing, this will force them to reconsider,” he said.

Steinitz asserted that the only way to do this was to couple the international sanctions with a credible military threat.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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