#PutinAtWar: Russian Missiles Reach Combat Deployment in Iran

Photos show Russian-made S-300 surface-to-air missiles ready in Iran

Background: (Source: GoogleMaps); Left; Right: (Source: Twitter / @AlSuraEnglish).

S-300 surface-to-air missile systems (SAMs) reached operational status in Iran, newly-released images on social media show. In early 2016, Iran used its annual Army Day parade to publicly present parts of a long-awaited Russian made air defense system.

The deployment confirmed Iran now possesses advanced anti-aircraft systems, bought from Russia, which give it the ability to defend against aircraft, drones, cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles in distances up to 250 kilometers. These recent developments might further complicate already tense relations with Israel, which lobbied the Kremlin to not supply Iran with this system.

The S-300 (NATO reporting name SA-10 Grumble) SAMs have been on order since 2007, but Russia postponed the sale three years later after the UN Security Council passed the Resolution 1929 relating to Iran’s nuclear program, which was lifted only in 2015.

On September 2017, Iran displayed newly acquired SAMs for the first time during an Iran-Iraq War anniversary event in Tehran. The exact status of the new delivery remained unclear until newly surfaced photos on social media provided information about how the Iranian regime planned to employ them.

A deal to end Iran’s nuclear program between Iran, the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, United States, and United Kingdom), and the European Union was struck in January 2016, which lifted sanctions and removed the barriers for the delivery. During a military parade in southern Tehran on April 2016, Iran presented parts of the S-300 SAM, including missile tubes and the radar equipment, but the fully operational system was still awaited.

Evidence of deployment

On August 12, 2018, a photograph surfaced on the social media, claiming to show the S-300 SAMs already in combat readiness. The post claimed that these systems were spotted at the Mashhad International Airport, in northeastern Iran.

Photo of S-300 SAM in Mashhad airport. (Source: Twitter / @AlSuraEnglish)

These images confirmed earlier reports that circulated at the end of 2017. A video posted in December 2017 reportedly showed a convoy moving towards Mashhad transporting the Russian-made SAMs.

A video allegedly showing S-300 on the move to Mashhad. (Source: Twitter / M3t4_tr0n).

This video did not possess enough geolocation data to be verified, but the background in the video resembled the desert landscape around the city of Mashhad. Furthermore, the video clearly presented the S-300 SAM separate launch trailers, without the actual missiles. A visual comparison revealed that the vehicle seen towed on the flatbed truck was the same model as presented during the 2016 victory parade.

Comparison of the vehicle recorded in the video and the S-300 presented during the military parade. Left, Right: (Source: Twitter / M3t4_tr0n), Center: (Source: Deutche Welle).

Another photo, likely taken by the same civilians, showed the S-300 launch canisters covered under a camouflaging net.

S-300 missiles, most likely part of the same convoy. (Source: Twitter / M3t4_tr0n)

The Twitter user, who posted this photo and video, claimed that the convoy was going towards Mashhad without providing any clear proof. Nonetheless, photos that surfaced recently confirmed these claims and showed the exact location of the deployed SAMs.

Mashhad International Airport

Google reverse image search yielded no duplicate results, which suggested the photo was not posted before and likely accurately captioned. As the Mashhad International airport also has a military base, these photos were likely original.

Hangars visible on the left side of the photo, structures with grey roofs and part of the runway allowed to verify the location to be in the Mashhad International Airport. The only location that fit the description was located on the northwestern part of the airport, as seen in the image below.

Geolocation of the S-300 missiles seen in the picture. Left: (Source: Twitter / @AlSuraEnglish); Right: (Source: GoogleMaps).

The exact location of the picture pinpointed on the interactive map is included below.

Geolocation of the S-300 missiles seen in the picture. (Source: GoogleMaps)

When zoomed into the picture, silhouettes of the S-300 SAMs were visible. It was unclear which exact vehicle was carrying these systems, but the erected missile tubes are a distinct feature of these, and other, Russian-made SAMs. Most likely they were the same Almaz-Antey S-300PMU2 Favorit variant that was spotted in the Iranian military parade.

Visual comparison. Left: (Source: Twitter / @AlSuraEnglish); Bottom Right: (Source: Deutche Welle).

S-300 systems are capable of destroying aircraft, drones, and cruise missiles, and ballistic missiles at a range of up to 250 kilometers.

Approximate effective distance of the deployed S-300 SAMs in Mashhad. (Source: GoogleMaps)

The system could be used to guard against possible bombing of its nuclear facilities, and the S-300 would allow early detection of approaching aircraft. Russia also supported Iran’s narrative, insisting that the missiles were “entirely defensive”, and were of no security threat to any country, including Israel. However, key Iranian nuclear sites are located out of Mashhad‘s S-300 SAM missile reach. As of now, other locations of the recently purchased SAMs remain unknown.

Iran‘s nuclear facilities map and approximate effective distance of the deployed S-300 SAMs in Mashhad. (Source: BBC)

Conclusion

In recent years, the Middle East and North Africa region emerged as Russia’s second most important arms market after Asia. Russia has exported the S-300 to several different countries, but Iran remains to be amongst the most controversial.

Not only is Iran in direct confrontation with Israel, which is only increasing with Iranian active involvement in Syria, but relations with the U.S. are more tense than in recent years. As of now, it is unclear where the other Iranian S-300s are stationed in Iraq, but it appears they are actively deployed, judging by this new imagery. The SAMs that are currently stationed in Mashhad are likely designated for defense of Iran’s northeastern air space rather than to protect nuclear objects that are quoted in their official statements.


Lukas Andriukaitis is a Digital Forensic Research Associate at the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab (@DFRLab).

Follow along for more in-depth analysis from our #DigitalSherlocks.