Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1245, (7 - 13 May 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Russian weapons for Iran

The recent deal between the international community and Iran on the country’s nuclear programme has reactivated a Russian missile deal with Tehran, writes Shahir Shahidsaless

Al-Ahram Weekly

On 13 April, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a decree to lift the ban on supplying an S-300 air-defence missile system to Iran. Tass, the Russian news agency, reported that the decree was effective immediately.

The S-300 is one of the most advanced anti-aircraft missile systems in the world. It is said to be able to track up to 100 targets simultaneously while attacking up to 12 at the same time. It has a range of about 150 km and can hit targets at altitudes of 27,000 metres (90,000 feet).

The $800 million contract to deliver the system to Iran was signed in 2007 but was suspended in 2010 by then Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. According to the Russians, the suspension was due to UN sanctions imposed on Iran because of its disputed nuclear programme. Tehran then filed a $4 billion lawsuit against Russia in the Geneva Arbitration Court.

Some observers maintain that Russia’s decision to supply the missiles to Tehran is a reaction to Western sanctions imposed on Russia over actions in Ukraine. Western countries, including the United States, accuse Moscow of covertly deploying troops and weapons to back pro-Moscow separatists in Ukraine. Moscow denies the accusations.

Last year, when tension between Russia and the West over Ukraine was at its peak, some experts asserted that Russia would involve its S-300s, something that did not happen. Given that the ban’s lifting has come at a much later date than expected and, more importantly, that major retaliatory measures have already been taken by Russia against the Western countries, speculation that the sudden decision is meant a counter the West’s policies in Ukraine does not seem convincing.

Another explanation for Putin’s decision could be indicated by recent comments by Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister. “A modern air-defence system is now very relevant to Iran, especially taking into account the severe escalation of tensions in neighbouring areas and the rapid development of military activity in Yemen in recent weeks,” Lavrov said.

According to a report in the US-based online site Daily Beast, “Many US defence officials from the air force, navy, and marine corps agree that the Russian missile system effectively renders entire regions no-go zones for conventional jets … [and] only high-end stealth aircraft like the $2.2 billion B-2 Spirit, of which the air force has exactly 20, and the high-performance F-22 Raptor [and] … F-35 joint strike fighter … [will be able] to operate inside those zones.”

The report goes on to quote a military expert saying, “No warplane now operating can remain inside well-defended areas for long.” If Iran were to obtain the S-300 system, that would be “a complete game changer… That thing is a beast, and you don’t want to get near it.”

Iran’s security is more important for Russia than ever today, and Russian leaders view Iran as a regional power and long-term potential partner, as both countries are strategically opposed to US hegemony, especially the Russians who are against a unipolar world. The two countries’ close cooperation in Syria stems from this shared position.

Although it is true that Iran’s stability is paramount for Moscow, that alone cannot be the reasong that Russia has lifted the S-300 ban. A Saudi attack on Iran without the operational support of the US would be irrational, and Israel, the most powerful military in the region, is unlikely to “go it alone” in striking Iran. US participation in a war against Iran also does not pass rational examination.

Iran and the US, now moving into a state of détente, each hope to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear programme and later align their interests to fight Salafi extremists in the region, resolve the Syrian crisis, and perhaps also halt the unfolding crisis in Yemen.

The announcement of the end to Saudi air strikes in Yemen last week in fact only halted them briefly, and later strikes were reported in several provinces with coalition warships attacking the port city of Aden on Sunday.

While the aforementioned factors may have occupied a space in Russian calculations, the primary motivation is the view that the recent nuclear talks may be successful, thus ending the sanctions on Iran and the country’s international isolation. This could lead to enormous new business opportunities in a largely untapped market.

Mohamed Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, said recently, “This step will eliminate one of the problematic points in relations with Russia.” Leonid Ivashov, a former Russian general who now heads the Centre for Geo-Political Analysis in Moscow, said the move was part of a race for future business in Iran.

Last September, the two countries signed projects worth $70 billion to develop their trade and economic ties in an array of sectors, including heavy industry, mining, trade, agriculture, tourism, banking, technology, electricity and gas and oil. The projects were grounded due to the sanctions, however.
Russia also desperately needs the Iranian market, as Western sanctions and the fall in oil prices have caused the Russian economy to contract. The ruble has been devalued, capital outflows have increased and Russia’s international reserves have fallen from $510 billion in January 2014 to $360 billion this February.

Meanwhile, since the 1979 seizure of the American embassy in Tehran and the ensuing hostage crisis, the White House’s key strategic objective has been to limit Iran’s military capabilities. It was with this strategic thinking in mind that US President Barack Obama pressured Moscow to refrain from delivering the S-300 system to Iran.

One would naturally expect Obama to at least criticise the new Russian move, given that if the delivery materialises it could make the White House’s long-time “all options on the table” mantra look hardly practical and thus lead to a more assertive Iranian stance in the region.

To many experts’ surprise, however, Obama not only abstained from criticism but even justified the ban’s lifting.

“I’m frankly surprised that [the ban on S-300 deliveries to Iran] held this long, given that they were not prohibited by [UN Security Council] sanctions from selling these defensive weapons,” Obama said.

“This is actually a sale that 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,” he added.

Obama’s statements sparked “shock and amazement” among Israeli analysts. “Jaws dropped” throughout Israel’s Channel 10 News studio when the announcement came, said Ben Caspit, a diplomatic commentator. “He’s amazed that the Russians honoured an agreement with him [for this long]? That’s what is astonishing [about Obama’s announcement],” Caspit said.

While the Obama administration is in a clear battle with its opponents over a nuclear deal with Iran, could Obama’s reaction mean that Russia has received a wink or a nod from the Obama administration to go ahead with the deal in order to disarm the Israelis and Congressional hawks?

This would make military options in Iran nearly impossible, leaving a nuclear deal as the only viable option.

The writer is a political analyst writing primarily about Iranian domestic and foreign affairs and co-author of Iran and the United States: An Insider’s View on the Failed Past and the Road to Peace.

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