MOSCOW — President Vladimir Putin on Monday opened the way for Russia's delivery of a sophisticated air defense missile system to Iran, a move that would significantly bolster the Islamic republic's military capability.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry objected to Moscow's decision in a phone call to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, and the White House indicated the move could endanger plans to ultimately lift sanctions on Iran as part of a final nuclear deal.
White House press secretary Josh Earnest said unity and coordination with nations like Russia is critical to the success of the negotiations.
Putin's move was quickly welcomed by Tehran, while it worried Israel, which saw it as a sign that Iran already had begun to cash in on the nuclear deal with world powers that is expected to be finalized by the end of June.
Russia signed the $800 million contract to sell Iran the S-300 missile system in 2007, but suspended their delivery three years later because of strong objections from the United States and Israel. Putin on Monday lifted that ban.
The preliminary agreement on settling the Iranian nuclear standoff reached earlier this month made the 2010 Russian ban unnecessary, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a televised statement.
The deal reached by Iran and six world powers is intended to significantly restrict its ability to produce nuclear weapons while giving it relief from international sanctions. The agreement is supposed to be finalized by June 30, and there is no firm agreement yet on how or when to lift the international sanctions on Iran.
The S-300 missile system, which has a range of up to 200 kilometers (125 miles) and the capability to track down and strike multiple targets simultaneously, is one of the most potent air defense weapons in the world.
"The S-300 is exclusively a defensive weapon, which can't serve offensive purposes and will not jeopardize the security of any country, including, of course, Israel," Lavrov said.
Deployed in big numbers, the system could provide a strong deterrent against any air attack. If Israel decides to attack Iran's nuclear facilities, the S-300s would further complicate the already daunting task.
Israeli Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz said the framework nuclear agreement helped legitimize Iran and cleared the way for Monday's announcement by Russia.
Israel has harshly criticized the U.S.-led nuclear deal, saying it would give Iran relief from sanctions while leaving its nuclear program largely intact. Israel believes Iran still intends to develop a nuclear weapon.
"This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran obtained from the emerging nuclear deal," Steinitz said. He added that the arms deal shows that Iran plans to use the relief from economic sanctions to buy arms, not improve the living conditions of its people.
"Instead of demanding Iran stop its terror activities that it spreads in the Middle East and the entire world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression," Steinitz said.
Lavrov didn't say when Moscow could deliver the missiles. Russian officials previously said that the specific model of the S-300 that Russia was to deliver under the 2007 contract is no longer produced, and offered Iran a modified version of it called S-300VM, or Antey-2500.
In Tehran, Gen. Reza Talaeinik said the decision by Russia on delivery of the air defense system will help improve ties between Tehran and Moscow, the semi-official Tasnim news agency, which is close to Iran's military, reported.
"With no doubt, this will boost ties and interactions between Iran and Russia," said Talaeinik. "When ties are based on mutual respect and observing rights, the ground will be paved for cooperation in other fields, too."
Back in 2010, Russia linked its decision to freeze the missiles' delivery to the sanctions the United Nations Security Council imposed on Iran over its nuclear program, but Lavrov argued Monday that the Russian move was voluntary and not directly required by the U.N. resolutions.
"It was done in the spirit of good will in order to encourage progress in talks," Lavrov said. "We are convinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an embargo, specifically for a separate, voluntary Russian embargo."
Iran responded to the Russian ban by filing a lawsuit with a court in Geneva seeking $4 billion in damages for breach of contract, but the court has not issued a ruling.
Lavrov said that Russia had to take into account "commercial and reputational" issues linked to freezing the contract.
"Because of the suspension of the contract, Russia has failed to receive significant funds," he said. "We see no need to continue doing that."
He added that Iran badly needs modern air defense systems because of a tense situation in the region, specifically in Yemen.
Lynn Berry in Moscow, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran contributed to this report.