Russian state news agencies have confirmed that Moscow signed a
contract in 2007 to sell advanced, long-range S-300 air-defense
systems to Iran, and "the contract itself … is being
gradually executed." However, an anonymous official claimed that
"the further implementation of the contract depends in large part
on the developing international situation and the decision of the
country's leaders." Just like with the U.S. Air Force base being
evicted from Kyrgyzstan, Russia has created a problem and then
offered to negotiate a solution.
This revelation comes after Russian President Dmitri Medvedev's
announcement Tuesday that Russia is preparing to undertake a "large
scale" and "comprehensive" rearmament of the Russian military. It
also follows the March 13 statement by Major General Anatoly
Zhikharev, the commander of the Russian Strategic Aviation that the
Kremlin is considering Venezuelan and Cuban offers to host
strategic Russian bombers.
Pushing the "Overload" Button
This series of events stands in stark contrast to the series of
overtures by the Obama Administration. These started with Vice
President Joe Biden's suggestion that America push "the reset
button" on relations with Russia. According to The New York
Times, President Obama sent a "secret," hand-delivered letter
to President Dmitry Medvedev suggesting that if Russia cooperates
with the United States in preventing Iran from developing
long-range nuclear missile capabilities, the need for a new missile
defense system in Europe would be eliminated-a quid pro quo
that President Obama has denied. The letter proposes a "united
front" to achieve this goal.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton then sought to build on the
"reset " button in her first meeting with Russian Foreign Minister
Sergei Lavrov in Brussels two weeks ago. As a token, she brought a
yellow box with a button and the word reset on both sides in
English and Russian. Unfortunately, the State Department got the
Russian word for "reset" wrong, and instead it said "overload."
This is highly symbolic, as incompetence and haste in foreign
affairs are the enemies of wisdom, or as the Russian proverb goes,
"Measure seven times before cutting."
The latest revelation of the S-300 sale to Iran comes after
America's good-faith gestures toward Moscow and occurs just two
weeks before President Obama will meet President Medvedev in London
at the G-20 summit in April.
Gargoyles in Tehran
The Russian S-300 system (NATO designations SA-10 Grumble, SA-12
Giant/Gladiator, SA-20 Gargoyle) is considered to be one of the
most advanced surface-to-air systems in the world. The long-range
surface-to-air missile system defends against aircraft, cruise
missiles, and ballistic missiles.
The S-300's radar can track up to 100 targets and engage up to
12 targets simultaneously within the 200-kilometer (120 mile) range
and up to 27 kilometers (16.4 miles) in altitude.
Although the sale of the S-300 to Iran is not prohibited, such a
deal would be a game changer in the Middle East. Tehran could
threaten U.S. and allied troops' aerial assets in Afghanistan and
Iraq if Iran were to deploy the system along its borders.
Furthermore, it would boost the defense of Iran's Bushehr reactor,
which Russia has built. Finally, Tehran could also use S-300s to
protect its Natanz uranium enrichment plant, Arak heavy water
plant, and other components of its sprawling nuclear and missile
A nuclear-armed Iran would be a threat to the region as Iran
uses its nuclear arsenal to foster its hegemony in the Persian Gulf
and beyond and would likely trigger a regional nuclear arms race.
Israel, Turkey, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia would not sit idly while
Tehran is building its nuclear arsenal.
There are some voices in the expert community, the Obama
Administration, and Europe who believe that the Kremlin is able and
willing to exert pressure on Iran to prevent it from going nuclear,
as the high-level bipartisan panel jointly organized by the Nixon
Center and Harvard University's Belfer Center's recently suggested.
This may be a case of wishful thinking, and Russia's relationship
with Iran should be examined more closely.
Moscow's Trojan Horse-and a Bargaining Chip
Since the Iraq War, the Kremlin championed the notion of
"multipolarity," in which U.S. influence would be checked by
Russia, China, India, and a swath of authoritarian states. Today,
Russia uses Iran as a geopolitical battering ram against the U.S.
and its allies in the Gulf. Putin and Medvedev are calling for a
new geopolitical and economic architecture-not only in Europe but
throughout the entire world-based on spheres of influence.
Iran is Russia's stalking horse in the Middle East. Moscow views
the rabidly anti-American regime in Tehran as a key platform to
revive its regional and international influence and challenge U.S.
influence at the same time. Russia's interests in Iran go back to
the Soviet era, when Moscow sold weapons to both Baghdad (its
principal client) and Tehran. The Kremlin supports Iran's nuclear
program, knowing that sanctions will help to keep Iran in Russia's
commercial sphere of influence.
Moscow's interests are both geopolitical and commercial and
militate against substantial cooperation or any potential "grand
bargain." The Kremlin would like to see Washington delaying or
canceling plans for European missile defense, scaling back
relations with Eurasia's independent states, preventing Ukraine and
Georgia's membership in NATO, and overlooking Russia's domestic
human rights abuses. Yet President Medvedev announced earlier this
month that there will be no linkage to Russian support of Iran.
Thus, any such bargain is doomed to failure. These factors must be
taken into account when considering any version of a "grand
Russians Bearing Gifts
The Obama Administration should use extreme caution in
negotiating Russian cooperation on Iran. While the White House is
understandably preoccupied with Russian policy, it should balance
it with boosting missile defenses, engagement with America's
European allies, and ongoing involvement in Eurasian and Caspian
Inability to see through the Russian game on Iran may lead to a
deteriorating security situation in Eurasia and a decline of
American influence in Europe and the Middle East. If Russia,
however, reconsiders its anti-American stance and offers concrete
actions, not just rhetoric, the United States should be prepared to
pursue matters of common interest, such as keeping power-hungry
Iran in check. In the meantime, the sand in the Middle Eastern
doomsday scenario hourglass is running out.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is
Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and
International Energy Security at the Allison Center of the
Katherine and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute at The Heritage