Iran’s test this week of a long-range missile capable of striking Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East revives an old strategic question: How to confront the growing threat posed by the regime in Tehran? After all, if Iran acquires more or less modern air defense systems, all Western threats become empty, and the creation of Iranian nuclear weapons becomes a question of time. So, the most important objective of all present sanctions against Iran is to prevent the modernization of Iran’s air defenses.
Tehran’s best hope in this regard is the contract for supply of Russian-made S-300 air defense systems, which it secretly signed with Moscow two years ago. The S-300 (SA-10 Grumble) is a multi-target anti-aircraft system reportedly capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously while engaging up to 12. The system, with a range of about 200 km, can hit targets at altitudes of 27,000 meters.
While negotiating the S-300 contract in December 2005, Russia supplied Iran with less sophisticated Tor M-1 surface-to-air systems with shorter range, which are now believed to be deployed at Iranian nuclear installations. Objections from the United States and Israel failed to undermine the transfer. Russian officials insisted that Tor M-1s were “defensive in their nature,” so the deal between Moscow and Tehran was nobody else’s business.
In light of this history, a major task for US diplomacy now is to persuade Russia not to supply the S-300s. Days before President Obama's April meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedevan unnamed Russian defense official told reporters that not only had the S-300 contract been signed two years before, but Russia had been "gradually fulfilling it without delivering the missiles." In addition to missiles, the contract is believed to include 40 to 60 missile launchers, each carrying four missile tubes, radar, and a control station.
At the same time it was delivering missiles to Iran, the Kremlin was sending signals that, if the meeting between the two presidents goes well, it would sacrifice its $800-million contract with Iran for good relations with the US. Those leaks were clearly designed to put additional pressure on Obama.
Not that it was necessary, as the president seems ready to “reset” U.S. relations with Moscow. According to the New York Times, Obama even wrote Medvedev a letter offering to abandon plans for deployment of parts of the anti-ballistic missile system in Poland and the Czech Republic in return for Russia's help in ending the standoff with Iran on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. The White House quickly denied the existence of such a letter, but the story looks plausible in light of Obama’s ongoing efforts to engage diplomatically with both Iran and Venezuela.
By some accounts, those efforts are succeeding. After the two presidents' statements about "fresh start" in US-Russian relations, in the course of which Medvedev publicly described Obama as “a good comrade,” some pundits speculated that Russia probably won’t proceed with the supply of S-300s. But things are more complicated.
For one thing, Russian and Iran enjoy a close business partnership. Consider that, for at least eight years Iran had tried and failed to persuade Russia to sell it the S-300s. And yet, Iran did not try to buy those weapons elsewhere – for example, from China, which has and exports its own version of S-300. Russia, too, showed no fear of competition, even though such missiles are common on the international markets. Neither side, in short, seems to feel any discomfort with what appears to the outside world to be a total failure of negotiations.
The most recent example of this surprisingly resilient alliance was the February visit of Iranian defense minister Mostafa Mohammed Najjar to Moscow. The hosts, top officials at Russian state arms exporter Rosoboronexport Company, treated him not only with prolonged discussions on present and future cooperation, but also with a guided tour of Russian defense companies in various cities. Najjar didn't make a secret of the fact that the S-300s were on his agenda; indeed, most observers saw it as the main issue. At the end of the visit, however, Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov officially confirmed that the contract was frozen. Yet, Najjar hinted his failure actually wasn't that disappointing, and declined to chastise his hosts. At a news conference in Moscow, he said that Tehran would make a statement on the S-300s contract "when it is necessary."
Was Najjar bluffing, or did he have real reasons to be optimistic? To answer this question, one has to look at another visitor to Moscow, who was there a few days before, and ostensibly had nothing to do with Iran. That was President of Belarus Alexander Lukashenko. What he wanted was a $2 billion loan. He didn't get it, but as he was leaving Moscow, he seemed oddly satisfied. The reason? Instead of the money he wanted, President Medvedev offered Lukashenko an agreement to create a common air defense, which they duly signed. The joint system will include five air force units and 10 air defense units. Those 10 units are equipped with Russia’s newest S-400 missiles. The new anti-aircraft systems will replace the S-300s deployed in Belarus at present. What will happen with the old S-300s? One can safely predict that those S-300s will soon surface in Iran, with Russia feigning ignorance about their origins.
The same scheme has worked on many occasions in the past. When Russian weapons surfaced in Iran, Syria or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, in the hands of such terrorist groups as Hamas or Hezbollah, Moscow invariably denied being the source. That is why Belarus, whose defense industry is non-existent in comparison with those of arms-trade "majors," is nevertheless in the top ten of the world’s arms exporters. The officials in Minsk claim they only sell weapons abandoned by the Soviet Army leaving Europe in the late '80s, but this simply cannot be true. First, some kinds of hardware sold by Belarus had never been deployed in Europe during the Cold War. Second, the country has already sold many more weapons than the Soviet troops in Europe ever possessed.
The operation of that scheme between Russia and Belarus is a very sensitive subject for Moscow. Few journalists dare to investigate it nowadays, particularly after what has happened to Ivan Safronov of the newspaper Kommersant. In March 2007, Safronov returned from a trip to Middle East and told colleagues he had a scoop to publish about the use of Belarus as Russia’s proxy for arms trade. A few days later, he was found dead, thrown out of a window between the third and the fourth floors on the stairwell of his apartment bloc, with oranges from his bag spilled on the stairs below. The detectives were quick to pronounce it a “suicide,” and to point the finger of suspicion at Safronov’s colleagues and bosses at the newspaper, who had supposedly mistreated him. But the circumstances of his death suggested that this was a classic cover-up.
Something similar might be said of Russia’s alliance with Iran. Notwithstanding some conciliatory gestures, there is little evidence that Russia sees the threat from Iran in the same way as the United States, or that it is prepared to suspend its lucrative ties in the interest of its relations with a new American president. Now, as Iran flaunts its missile might, the United States must be wary of confusing its hopes for a new relations with the hard experience of Russia’s role in the global arms trade.