Rus­sia acts to shield Iran against airstrikes

Sell of rock­ets raises alarms on nuke deal

The Washington Times Weekly - - Geopolitics - BY GUY TAY­LOR

Rus­sia gave the green light to a longstalled $800 mil­lion deal to de­liver an ad­vanced anti-mis­sile rocket sys­tem to Iran, bring­ing sharp crit­i­cism from the White House and Is­rael and new po­lit­i­cal peril for Pres­i­dent Obama’s prospec­tive nu­clear deal with Tehran.

Iran has pushed since 2007 to pur­chase the S-300 sys­tem from Rus­sia — hard­ware that an­a­lysts say will dramatically in­crease Iran’s abil­ity to de­fend it­self from airstrikes, in­clud­ing a strike on its nu­clear fa­cil­i­ties from ei­ther the U.S. or Is­rael should in­ter­na­tional ne­go­ti­a­tions break down.

Is­raeli of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion by Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin to al­low the sale was a clear sign that Tehran is al­ready cash­ing in on a ten­ta­tive nu­clear deal with world pow­ers, a deal that in­cludes an eas­ing of sanc­tions on the Ira­nian econ­omy and faces a dead­line of the end of June for a fi­nal deal.

If de­ployed in sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, the S-300 sys­tem could pro­vide sub­stan­tial cover against a po­ten­tial Is­raeli strike. With a range of up to 125 miles and the ca­pa­bil­ity to track and hit mul­ti­ple tar­gets si­mul­ta­ne­ously, the sys­tem is re­garded as among the world’s most po­tent air de­fense weapons.

The Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion de­nounced Moscow’s move. But while Sec­re­tary of State John F. Kerry phoned Rus­sian For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov to voice his dis­con­tent, lower-level of­fi­cials in the ad­min­is­tra­tion sug­gested that the White House plans no con­crete steps to try to pre­vent the sale.

State Depart­ment spokes­woman Marie Harf told re­porters that Rus­sia’s move does not ap­pear to vi­o­late ex­ist­ing sanc­tions against Iran — pre­sum­ably be­cause the S-300 sys­tem is de­signed for de­fen­sive rather than of­fen­sive pur­poses. She also said the ad­min­is­tra­tion does not be­lieve the devel­op­ment will se­ri­ously un­der­cut the nu­clear talks.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest took a much more pointed tone, say­ing Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion to de­liver the sys­tem to Iran could en­dan­ger wider plans for re­liev­ing in­ter­na­tional sanc­tions on Tehran as part of a fi­nal nu­clear deal.

Rus­sia is a part of the so-called P5-plus-1 group, which also in­cludes the U.S., Bri­tain, China, Ger­many and France. The group two weeks ago reached a pre­lim­i­nary deal with Iran that would slow parts of the Is­lamic repub­lic’s nu­clear pro­gram in ex­change for re­lief from eco­nomic sanc­tions. The catch is that key de­tails of the process by which sanc­tions re­lief would oc­cur have not been worked out.

“One of the things we have in­di­cated has been crit­i­cal to our suc­cess in this diplo­matic process has been the unity of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity,” Mr. Earnest said last week.

“The United States and our part­ners in Europe have been able to work closely with Rus­sia and China to bring Iran to the ta­ble,” he said. “So we value the co­or­di­na­tion and unity that we have been able to main­tain through­out this rather long process.”

His com­ments sug­gest that the White House saw Mr. Putin’s move as a break in that unity. But with U.S. and its part­ners headed soon into the next round of nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions with Iran, the im­pli­ca­tions of the devel­op­ment are not clear.

Moscow signed an $800 mil­lion con­tract to sell the S-300 mis­sile sys­tem to Tehran in 2007 but yielded to strong ob­jec­tions from the U.S. and Is­rael in 2010 and suspended the hard­ware’s de­liv­ery.

At the time, Rus­sian of­fi­cials said the de­ci­sion to ban the sys­tem’s ship­ment was made in light of U.N. Se­cu­rity Coun­cil sanc­tions on Iran’s nu­clear pro­gram. But Rus­sia now claims that the U.N. sanc­tions never tech­ni­cally blocked the de­liv­ery of the equip­ment and that Rus­sia vol­un­tar­ily de­layed the de­liv­ery.

Ap­pear­ing on Rus­sian tele­vi­sion Mon­day, Mr. Lavrov said Moscow called the S-300 “ex­clu­sively a de­fen­sive weapon” and said Mr. Putin acted in light of the pre­lim­i­nary nu­clear agree­ment reached this month be­tween world pow­ers and Tehran.

“It was done in the spirit of good will in or­der to en­cour­age progress in talks,” the Rus­sian for­eign min­is­ter said. “We are con­vinced that at this stage there is no longer need for such an em­bargo, specif­i­cally for a sep­a­rate, vol­un­tary Rus­sian em­bargo.”

The Rus­sian com­ments did lit­tle to as­suage Is­rael, which has been sharply crit­i­cal of the deal Mr. Obama and his al­lies have ne­go­ti­ated with Tehran. Is­raeli Cabi­net min­is­ter Yu­val Steinitz said the mis­sile deal was “a di­rect re­sult of the le­git­i­macy that Iran ob­tained from the emerg­ing nu­clear deal.”

Mr. Steinitz as­serted that the arms deal with Rus­sia shows how Tehran plans to use any im­pend­ing sanc­tions re­lief as a win­dow to pur­chase weapons — not to im­prove the living con­di­tions of av­er­age Ira­ni­ans.

While Iran’s lead­ers say their nu­clear pro­gram is for purely peace­ful pur­poses, hawk­ish an­a­lysts in Wash­ing­ton shared Mr. Steinitz’s con­cerns.

Rus­sia’s de­ci­sion to de­liver the S-300 sys­tem to Iran serves as “a re­minder of the dan­gers con­nected to the re­cent nu­clear ne­go­ti­a­tions and pos­si­ble deal with Iran,” said El­liott Abrams, a se­nior fel­low for Mid­dle Eastern stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions.

“As sanc­tions are re­moved, and as funds flow to Iran, it will strengthen its mil­i­tary pos­ture,” Mr. Abrams wrote in an anal­y­sis posted Mon­day on the group’s web­site. “Iran with an op­er­a­tional S-300 sys­tem will feel more im­mune from attack and is likely there­fore to be­come even more ag­gres­sive in its be­hav­ior through­out the Mid­dle East.”

Ben Wolf­gang and Tom How­ell Jr. con­trib­uted to this ar­ti­cle, which is based in part on wire ser­vice re­ports.

“As sanc­tions are re­moved, and as funds flow to Iran, it will strengthen its mil­i­tary pos­ture.”

— El­liott Abrams, a se­nior fel­low for Mid­dle Eastern stud­ies at the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A Rus­sian S-300 air de­fense mis­sile sys­tem on dis­play at the open­ing of the MAKS Air Show in Zhukovsky out­side Moscow. The Krem­lin says Rus­sia has lifted its ban on the de­liv­ery of a so­phis­ti­cated air de­fense mis­sile sys­tem to Iran. Rus­sia signed the $800 mil­lion con­tract to sell Iran the mis­sile sys­tem in 2007, but later suspended their de­liv­ery be­cause of strong ob­jec­tions from the U.S. and Is­rael.

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