S-300 anti-aircraft missile.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In January, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu traveled to Tehran to sign a major military cooperation deal with Iran that included renewed missile sales, increased military cooperation and provisions for joint training exercises.
The mullahs ruling Iran seemed to think their position in nuclear negotiations with the P5+1 nations (which include Russia) was strong enough, and the US was desperate enough, that they could be as provocative as they wanted to be without endangering the outcome of negotiations. They were right.
Now Russian President Vladimir Putin, who never misses an opportunity to thumb his nose at the US, has taken the next step and lifted the ban on the sale of S-300 rockets and air defense systems, originally imposed in 2010 by then-president Dmitry Medvedev.
Possession of the air defense systems – which in their more advanced technological versions have the ability to down not just aircraft, but also missiles, at a range of 150 km. – would further complicate a US or Israeli air strike on Iran’s nuclear weapons program. Aircraft approaching Iran would come under attack at much greater distances than at present.
A senior Russian government official quoted in The Moscow Times said that Russia had started supplying grain, equipment and construction material to Iran in exchange for crude oil under a barter deal.
There are a number of lessons to be learned from this warming of Russo-Iranian relations, both for Israel and for the world. First, the Obama administration’s “reset” policy with Russia has failed miserably. Back in 2010, when Medvedev put in place a five-year ban on S-300 sales to Iran, Obama administration officials attributed the Russian decision to successful US policy. Officials said they had explained to the Russians that the sale was “a red line that couldn’t be crossed.” So much for red lines.
Second, as Israel and other nations have warned, the framework agreement that Iran and the P5+1 nations (the US, the UK, France, Russia, China and Germany) reached in Lausanne has increased the legitimacy of conducting business and even arms sales with the Islamic Republic.
After witnessing Russia’s disregard for the US’s red lines, other nations will undoubtedly follow suit.
This seriously calls into question the ability to reinstate a sanctions regime if Iran is caught cheating. The term “snap back,” used to describe how economic sanctions will go back in place should Iran violate the terms of the agreement, may sound, well, snappy. But will it be? There is a lesson in this for Israel as well: The Jewish state has little, if any, ability to influence Russia’s foreign policy.
Israel hosts one of the largest Russian expat communities in the world, leading to close business and cultural ties between the two countries. Putin would probably never intentionally do anything to harm about one million Russian- speakers living in Israel.
Israel has even hurt relations with smaller countries in an attempt to improve relations with Moscow. Out of deference to Russia, Israel scaled back its arms sales to Georgia, a country that once viewed Israel as a model and an inspiration as a small nation that survived a struggle for statehood in the face of overwhelming hostility from its neighbors.
But none of these gestures and common interests have managed to deter Putin from improving his relations with Tehran.
Russia is hardly a superpower. Its economy is about the size of Italy’s. Burdened by underdevelopment, racked with corruption, and weakened by a major brain-drain, Russia is an economic basket case. Once-inflated oil prices, which had been preventing the Russian economy from entering a free fall, have since plummeted.
In contrast, the US is a superpower, with the world’s most innovative and vibrant economy and the largest military force. Ties between Israel and the US go beyond common foreign policy interests. They touch on deep, underlying values.
Many members of Congress, not just Republicans, have sharply criticized the Iran nuclear negotiations. They are debating legislation this week that could give them power to approve, amend or kill any deal with Tehran.
Let’s hope that Russia’s S-300 announcement convinces the still-undecided members of Congress that the Obama administration is in desperate need of congressional oversight.