July 31, 2008
By Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
The forthcoming Russian anti-aircraft system in Iran may
precipitate an early Israeli strike - or promote the posture of
mutually assured destruction (MAD) between Israel and Iran. Both
options look bad.
In March 2009, Russia will deploy modern S-300 long-range
anti-aircraft missiles in Iran. By June 2009, they will become
fully operational, as Iranian teams finish training with Russian
instructors, according to U.S. and Russian sources.
Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of
the Russian Senate, visited Washington last week. He said Iran is
likely to produce a nuclear bomb "soon." Given the blood-curdling
rhetoric of its President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it is feared that
Iran may use it against Israel.
The deployment of the anti-aircraft shield next spring
effectively limits the window in which Israel or the United States
can conduct an effective aerial campaign aimed at destroying,
delaying or crippling the Iranian nuclear program.
The Islamic Republic will use the long range anti-aircraft
system, in addition to the point-defense TOR M-1 short-range
Russian-made system, to protect its nuclear infrastructure,
including suspected nuclear weapons facilities, from a potential
U.S. or Israeli preventive strike.
The S-300 system, with a radius of more than 90 miles and
effective altitudes of about 90,000 feet, can track up to 100
targets simultaneously. It is considered one of the best in the
world and is amazingly versatile. It is capable of shooting down
aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads.
Israel has been very effective in electronic warfare (EW)
against Soviet- and Russian-built technologies, including
anti-aircraft batteries. In 1982, Israeli Air Force F-16s smashed
the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in the Bekaa Valley and within
Syria, allowing Israel full air superiority over Syria and Lebanon.
Syria lost more than 80 planes, one-third of its air force, in two
days, while Israel lost one obsolete A-4 Skyhawk to the ground
In 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s flew undetected over Jordan and
Saudi Arabia on their mission to destroy Saddam Hussein's Osirak
More recently, the Israeli Air Force surprised the Syrians when
they destroyed an alleged nuclear facility in the northeast of the
country in September 2007, apparently flying undetected to and from
However, the mission over Iran, if and when decided upon, is
very different than operations over neighboring Syria.
First, if Israel waits till next March, there may be a new boss
at the White House, one who emphasizes diplomacy over military
operations. Even if the Bush administration allows Israel the
overflight of Iraqi air space and aerial refueling, a putative
Barack Obama administration might not, opting for an "aggressive
diplomacy" approach instead.
Second, Israel, does not have long-range bomber capacity, such
as the Cold War-era U.S. B-1 heavy supersonic bomber, or the B-2
If Israel chooses a bombing campaign, it may decide to conduct
several waves of air attacks, to ensure targets are destroyed. As
Iranian retaliation is all but certain, it may target not only the
nuclear program, but also its means of delivery, including Shahab 3
intermediate range ballistic missiles capable of hitting
Israel may also face massive retaliation from Hamas and
Hezbollah, Iranian-supported terrorist organizations, although for
Iran to attack U.S. targets in the Middle East would be suicidal.
Many in the Middle East will publicly denounce if Israel attacks,
while quietly thanking Jerusalem for doing a job that needed to be
done, as they did after Osirak was destroyed.
To prevent retaliation, Israel may have to take the Iranian oil
terminal at Kharg Island "hostage." Kharg Island ships 80 percent
of Iran's oil. Its loss to Israeli bombing would leave Tehran with
no revenue for a long time to come. If Iran launches rockets
against Tel Aviv, Israel may bomb not only Tehran, but destroy
Kharg Island as well.
Operational challenges abound. Israel's EW planes, needed to
suppress anti-aircraft batteries, are slow and unarmed, and could
become a target for Iranian anti-aircraft missiles or even fighter
Most important, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is just not
up to the job. After all, his dithering performance in the 2006
mini-war against Hezbollah was lousy, and there were numerous flaws
in Israel's decisionmaking, strategy, preparedness, logistics and
command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I).
Moreover, the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and
Hezbollah demonstrated Mr. Olmert's lack of strategic vision,
previously unprecedented for the Jewish state: exchanging live
terrorists for dead bodies sent a signal that Israel is weak and
can be kicked.
It was a sign the current Israeli Cabinet is strategically
blind, deaf and dumb. It is not with the current leadership that
Israel should go to war with the emerging regional superpower,
Iran. Nevertheless, the temptation to pre-emptively defang Tehran
may prove irresistible in view of Tehran's hatred and
As noted by Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War
College, "When one is dealing with a national leadership which is
motivated by the ethnic and religious hatred, one needs to remember
that such a leadership becomes obsessed and loses its ability to
Iran's leadership believes Russia and China will provide it
protection, of which the S-300 is an important component, and that
the sanctions are ineffective.
Under the circumstances, the Israel-only preventive bombing
campaign - without the United States - may be too risky to pull
off. If the United States sits this crisis out, Israel may develop
a survivable second-strike capability and settle for deterring Iran
by taking its cities and main oil facilities hostage.
This was known during the Cold War as Mutually Assured
Destruction (MAD). This time, the world would receive it courtesy
of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President
Going MAD would make the Middle East even more fragile than now,
and would make the life of its inhabitants ever more difficult and
Ariel Cohen is a
senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Washington Times
The forthcoming Russian anti-aircraft system in Iran may precipitate an early Israeli strike - or promote the posture of mutually assured destruction (MAD) between Israel and Iran. Both options look bad.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D.
Visiting Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Policy in the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign and National Security Policy, a division of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies, at The Heritage Foundation
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