Progress made so far in the Iran nuclear negotiations has added an interesting new element to the discussion: Russia’s proposed delivery of a new missile system to Iran, which might render Israeli air strike capabilities largely ineffective.
Even before any final agreement has emerged as a result of the negotiations, Moscow has moved to restart its delivery of the Russian S-300 missile defense system to Tehran. Russia initially agreed to impose a shipment ban in 2010, owing to outside pressure after UN sanctions kicked into gear against Iran.
Russian President Vladimir Putin officially lifted that ban on Monday, despite a warning from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the threat the S-300 system may pose to security in the Middle East.
“The window narrows substantially—the Israelis are buying F-35s, so they’ll have stealth aircraft, and they of course have ballistic missiles, which are capable of reaching, but perhaps only doing less damage to Iranian facilities,” Tom Donnelly, defense and security policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, told The Daily Caller News Foundation, speaking of the S-300’s implications for Israeli strike capabilities.
“The S-300 doesn’t take an Israeli strike off the table completely or eliminate it completely, but it makes the Israeli task much harder and the projected effect smaller,” he said.
European Union foreign policy chief called Russia’s announcement a “complication,” but emphasized that it certainly won’t derail nuclear talks. Russia’s involvement is yet another indirect affront to the U.S., as the S-300, a system with both offensive and defensive capabilities, has been opposed by successive administrations. If the Russians are “trying to jump in with two feet,” Donnelly added, this means China will take an interest, since it’s much more dependent on oil from the Middle East.
According to Donnelly, however, even assuming that Iran receives the S-300 later this year, the system emphatically is not as simple as “buying and plugging in a lamp, and God knows how competent they’ll be at running it and whether it will be vulnerable to electronic attack, but it’s a serious capability, no doubt about it. It substantially improves Iran’s ability to defend itself.”
Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev said that any order takes a minimum of 6 months to fulfill and declined to give a more specific date.
“Beyond the capabilities of the system, the Iranian nuclear program is said to be highly dispersed and underground. Israel might not have earth penetrating bombs of sufficient power, even when it is able to penetrate the Iranian airspace,” Michaela Dodge, senior policy analyst for defense and strategy policy at The Heritage Foundation, told TheDCNF.
“That being said, the system would make it more difficult for Israel to attack. This could result in an increased pressure to provide additional military assistance to Israel,” Dodge added.
From the U.S. side, the S-300 entails a delay in the time it would take to breach Iranian air defenses, although it isn’t clear how many days the new defense capability would add to the campaign.
But Donnelly stated that regardless of the missile defense system, “there’s no doubt that if we wanted to, we could penetrate … You would just have more difficulty pounding the jelly out of somebody. That may change your political calculation, too.”
General Martin Dempsey confirmed on Thursday that the S-300 system does not pose a serious block to U.S. military capabilities, given knowledge of the potential shipment for some time. The prospect of a military strike is still on the table as an option the U.S. has repeatedly refused to disclaim.
The shipment itself will likely not change the nuclear negotiations themselves. “It’s hard to see the administration changing a doggone thing,” Donnelly said. “I would be shocked if the S-300 affected the negotiations one way or another. They want the deal come hell or high water, and they’ve done their best to disassociate the nuclear question from any other questions about Iran.”