As Russia plans to supply Iran with advanced missiles, the Clarion Project examines the likely knock-on effects of the deal for the U.S. and its allies.
The U.S., Germany and Israel condemned Russia's announcement that it will change course and sell the advanced S-300 air and missile defense system to Iran. Anonymous officials are relaying feelings of near panic to various press outlets, saying the delivery of the system would essentially eliminate the military option to stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.
Russia repeatedly threatened to sell the system to Iran and Syria since 2007 but relented under Western pressure. The Iranian regime even sued Russia for $4 billion for going back on its agreement to deliver the system. Russia's formal announcement and request that Iran drop the lawsuit indicates Moscow is genuine in its stated intention to deliver the system.
The Russians will reportedly be paid $800 million by Iran for the system. Its advanced abilities include targeting 24 missiles or 30 aircraft simultaneously; a reach of 19 miles into the air and a distance of 155 miles. It can intercept aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles. Russia has already trained Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps personnel in how to use it.
Earlier, Israel strongly suggested delivery of the S-300 system to Syria was a red line and it would be attacked before it became operational. It is widely assumed the same standard would apply to Iran because a potential strike on its nuclear program is already a very complicated and hazardous scenario.
The Daily Beast's headline declares the system "could make U.S. attacks on Iran nearly impossible." If the system terrifies U.S. officials, then the fear of Israeli officials must be exponentially greater because of their government's more limited military capabilities.
"[The S-300 is] a complete game changer for all fourth-gen[eration] aircraft. That thing is a beast and you don't want to get near it," a senior Marine Corps aviator told the publication.
A senior Air Force commander said it "essentially makes Iran attack-proof by Israel and almost any country" without fifth-generation aircraft like the F-35. The U.S. has sold the F-35 to Israel but those aircraft may not be able to destroy important targets buried deep underground like the Fordow site.
The issue isn't only feasibility but cost. The S-300 makes the risk to pilots dramatically higher. Military experts interviewed by the Daily Beast said a U.S. attack using the most advanced aircraft is possible but "extremely difficult," particularly because of the S-300's mobility. It is launched from a truck, making it difficult to locate.
Other sources disagree that the S-300 eliminates the military option and assume the U.S. and Israel have studied the system enough to adequately prepare for it. An anonymous official linked to Russia's Defense Ministry told a reporter in 2013 the Israelis "likely have a million ways to combat the S-300 electronically."
That statement, however, relies purely on optimistic speculation. There is no open-source information that Israel or the U.S. have covert capabilities that could neutralize the S-300.
Russia's announcement adds a second timeline to the one that we all hear about regarding Iran's nuclear "breakout" capacity. The West must now count down the days to when the military option is neutralized by the S-300 or, at the least, made much more costly.
Iran says it expects Russia to deliver the system this year, but that is not confirmed from the Russian side. A Russian official said it will take at least six months. One Russian expert estimated we won't see the system in Iran for at least a year and a half. Additional time is needed to install and activate it.
The U.S. and its allies have at least six months to pressure the Russians. The U.S. and Israel can threaten to send advanced arms to Russian adversaries like the Ukraine and Georgia. Another course of action is to threaten additional measures to undermine the Syrian dictatorship, which is allied with President Putin and houses a major Russian naval base at Tartus.
If Putin is motivated by money, then sanctions must be threatened that cost the Russians a greater amount than the $800 million they are expecting to receive from Iran. Entities involved in the transaction like the S-300 producers can be threatened with penalties for arming a state sponsor of terrorism.
Israel should also make it more publicly known that it will not tolerate the activation of the S-300 in Iran, just like it did in Syria. The Israelis have the credibility that the U.S. currently does not when it makes military threats. It must be understood that Israel will not be deterred by the possibility of casualties among Russian personnel involved in delivering the system and setting it up.
Russia says the decision to send the S-300 to Iran was made because of the negotiated nuclear framework announced by the U.S. This is yet another reason that the deal benefits Iran's nuclear weapons aspirations.
If Israel does not strike to stop the S-300's activation, then Iran's nuclear program has the protection it needs for the day when it does go for the bomb. If Israel does strike, then it is Israel that will be blamed for the nuclear deal's collapse. Iran is in an advantageous position in either scenario.
The S-300 needs to be treated as an important component of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. If Iran intends to make a nuclear arsenal, then the S-300 is likely seen as essential as highly-enriched uranium.
Former Obama Administration adviser Dr. Gary Samore told the Clarion Project that a credible threat of military action is critical to deterring the regime. If he's right, then the delivery of the S-300 could present us with the dreaded decision between war and a nuclear-armed Iran.