Obama on Russian Missile Sale to Iran: No Big Deal, They're Just 'Defensive'

President Obama said today he's "surprised" that Russian President Vladimir Putin actually waited until now to sell missiles to the Iranians.

Putin said during a live Q&A program yesterday that it was acceptable to lift the ban on selling the S-300 anti-aircraft missile system to Iran because Tehran is “demonstrating a lot of flexibility and an obvious desire to reach a compromise on their nuclear program.”

Putin also stressed that it's Russia's prerogative to lift a unilateral ban and that Iran "does not pose any threat to Israel whatsoever."

He said that since Russian companies made the $900 million equipment, “Why should we take the loss?”

Appearing at the White House today with Italian Prime Minister Mattero Renzi, Obama said the sale "was slated to happen in 2009, when I first met with then-Prime Minister Putin."

"They actually stopped the sale, paused or suspended the sale at our request. And I'm frankly surprised that it held this long, given that they were not prohibited by sanctions from selling these defensive weapons," Obama added.

"When I say I'm not surprised, given some of the deterioration in the relationship between Russia and the United States, and the fact that their economy is under strain and this was a substantial sale. I do think that it sends a message about how important it is for us to look like we are credible in negotiations if in fact a deal fails, and we are needing to maintain sanctions."

Obama steered this into a criticism of Congress.

"Because I've heard some in Congress who are opposed to this deal say either let's just slap on even more sanctions, or we'll do sanctions unilaterally, regardless of what other countries are willing to do. The reason that the sanctions regime has worked is because painstakingly we built an international coalition that has held this long," he said.

"And if it is perceived that we walked away from a fair deal that gives us assurances Iran doesn't get a nuclear weapon, then those international sanctions will fray. And it won't just be Russia or China. It will be some of our close allies who will start questioning what -- our capacity or the wisdom of maintaining these."

Obama stressed that "we don't want to put ourselves in that position."

"We want to make sure that if there's no deal on the Iran nuclear program, it's because the Iranians were not willing to accept what the international community considered to be an appropriate and fair approach to this problem," he added.

Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said he called Putin earlier this week to express "grave concerns" about the sale.

"The Prime Minister told President Putin that this sale will only encourage Iranian aggression in the region and further undermine the stability of the Middle East."

Israel has expressed concern that the missiles will make their way to Hezbollah.