Today, The Wall Street Journal reported that “the Kremlin has formally lifted its own ban on the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran, setting the legal groundwork for the possible Russian sale of a powerful air-defense system to Tehran.” Initially they were to be delivered in 2007, but in 2010 Russia suspended the delivery. This was an important gain for the United States and for Israel: among other things, possession of the system would make an air strike at Iran’s nuclear weapons program far more difficult.
Here’s an Australian assessment of the S-300: It is:
“without doubt the most capable SAM system in widespread use in the Asia Pacific region. From its genesis during the 1970s this former Soviet PVO system has continuously evolved, through a series of incremental and larger enhancements. At this time the PLA [People’s Liberation Army of China] is the largest single user of this family of weapons, after the Russian Federation….While the S-300P/S-400 series is often labelled as ‘Russia’s Patriot’, the system in many key respects is more capable than the US Patriot series, and in later variants offers mobility performance and thus survivability much better than that of the Patriot….Rapidly deployable, high survivable, and highly lethal, these weapons are especially difficult to counter and require significant capabilities to robustly defeat.
At the time, in 2010, the Obama administration took considerable credit for the Russian move. The White House praised the suspension decree by Russia’s then-president Medvedev. The New York Times reported that the administration was “eager to demonstrate cooperation with Russia,” and added that the White House:
said in a statement that Mr. Medvedev “has demonstrated leadership on holding Iran accountable to its international obligations from start to finish.” It added, “This continues to demonstrate how Russia and the United States are cooperating closely on behalf of our mutual interests, and global security.”
Foreign Policy published a whole article entitled “How the Obama Team Convinced Russia Not to Sell Arms to Iran.” The Russian decision was “a dividend of the Obama administration’s ‘reset’ policy with Russia” and “is being touted by the White House as a new dawn in the U.S.-Russia relationship.” Here’s more, from Obama administration officials:
“The decision was a bold one that acknowledges how important it is to us and how important Medvedev takes this reset with President Obama.” The officials explained that the Obama administration made clear to Medvedev and other Russian officials that the sale of the S-300 to Iran was a red line that couldn’t be crossed….
Oh well: that was then and this is now. American “red lines” aren’t what they used to be, Medvedev is gone, and the “reset” with Russia is an embarrassment. So is the way the Obama administration claimed credit for changing Russia’s policy toward Iran.
Not everyone got it wrong. That same Foreign Policy article contains this comment from David Kramer– assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights in the George W. Bush administration, then president of Freedom House, now a senior fellow at the McCain Institute: “Let’s wait a bit before we pop open the champagne.” Kramer added that “Alas, speaking the truth about Russia isn’t likely to happen as long as the Obama administration spins its ‘reset’ policy with Russia as one of its major foreign policy successes.”
Such a spin has been getting harder and harder over the Obama years, and the S-300 sale is just another reminder of that. It is also a reminder of the dangers connected to the recent nuclear negotiations and possible deal with Iran. As sanctions are removed, and as funds flow to Iran, it will strengthen its military posture. 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.