Unlike most sales, arms sales have a wider impact beyond the primary parties (buyer/seller) and indeed, the recent announcement of the long sought sale of an improved S300 system to Iran by Russia has a wider circle of interested parties and corresponding impact beyond those two. First, though, we begin with the buyer.
Iran – Filling a Gap
Sometime in the mid-1990’s Iran came to believe its chief future protagonist would be an Israeli-US alliance. To counter such an alliance it formulated a defense policy that centered on three-pillars: a massive land force with recallable reserves in excess of 20 million men, a large ballistic missile force consisting of short-, medium- and intermediate- range weapons that could hold targets in the Middle East and as far way as Europe at risk and a “surge” capability to generate nuclear weapons from stockpiled reserves. In at least two of these three areas, Iran has shown demonstrated success and resolve. Annually, 600,000 are inducted into training under a revised national service program. The ballistic missile program has shown continued growth as an indigenous industry with continued aid from China and North Korea – the unveiling of the 1300km Shahab III MRBM during the “Noble Prophet” exercise in 2006 being just one of the latest examples. And while the recently released NIE on Iranian nuclear weapons development still leaves some disputing its assumptions, the image of the aforementioned missiles arriving over downtown Tel Aviv, Riyadh or Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain with a massive conventional, chemical or biologic payload vice nuclear won’t necessarily temper concerns.
Still, Iran has demonstrated one major shortcoming over the years – laid bare for the entire world to see during the Iran-Iraq war and heightened in light of US capabilities demonstrated during Desert Storm and Operation Iraqi Freedom. It has a notoriously poor counter air system, from radar, to command and control to missiles to aircraft. A recognized shortcoming by the Shah, it was being addressed with the purchases of significant amounts of US equipment in the 1970’s that included the F-14/AIM-54 weapon system and HAWK surface to air missiles along with the supporting radars and C3 infrastructure. The Khomeini Revolution put short shrift to that modernization, leaving Iran with a patchwork of capabilities manned by poorly trained personnel and a system short of parts. The war with Iraq exacerbated those shortcomings and attempts to supplement with third party sources (North Korea, China, Russia, and Brazil) never quite measured up. Absent an effective air force then, the next best defense is the latest, or near latest, SAM technology.
Here, through a confluence of events, Ahmadinejad has been successful where his two mullah predecessors, Hashemi Rafsanjani and Mohammad Khatami had failed. Coming on the heels of obtaining a $1B contract for the TOR-M1 in December 2005, the agreement for the S300PMU1 adds another layer of defense for Iran’s air defenses. With the wide area defense S300 added to the point defense TOR-M1, and both being mobile, making them more difficult to target, the stakes for an air strike or air campaign against Iran will be substantially increased. So what changed such that Ahmadinejad succeeded where his predecessors failed? The party line hadn’t changed all that much – indeed, some might argue that it had turned more hard-line. Was that the reason? Or does the answer lie farther to the north, in Moscow perhaps?
Russia – It’s Just Business?
Emerging from the economic and social chaos of the 1990s, the Russia of the new century is a different creature and not to be mistaken as a re-emergent Soviet Union. Whereas ideology, even as cold and lifeless as Communism was, resided at the core of the Soviet state, the new Russian state has little interest in or patience with ideology. Indeed, according to Dmitri Trenin writing in the Spring edition of Washington Quarterly, the Russian state of today under President Putin is very much a bureaucratic capitalistic state where “what is good for Gazprom is good for Russia” Those in positions of power in Russia have not arrived there through inheritance or as Party apparatchiks, but instead via a hard fought system. Not a one is a public politician, but instead a businessman who is used to dealing with a ruthless domestic business and political climate – and is willing to take that same mindset to the world stage. In some respects, one wonders if they were to meet up with some of the more infamous robber barons of the late 19th century if a certain comrade-in-arms kinship wouldn’t be formed.
Nevertheless, the fact that this new found ruthlessness comes via the levers of the hypersensitive petroleum industry doesn’t sit well with Europe and to a lesser extent, the US – but that is of little concern to the Russians. In this post-Soviet, post-modern world all comers can be partners or competitors equally, be they George Bush or Mamoud Ahmadinejad. Agreements turn on interests, the core of which are Russia’s. And Russia’s interests no longer lie in the Gorbachev view of some alliance or union with Europe or the EU. They are as an independent, strong geopolitical entity on the world stage – modernized and more Western, as Trenin puts it, but still strengthening its relations with Asian and Latin American countries while remaining at peace with the Muslim world.
And if the price of that peace is selling more advanced military equipment to the Muslim world at the price of upsetting the US and the West? Well, it’s nothing personal, it’s just business. After all, the US barely raised an eyebrow with the sale of the TOR M-1 to Iran in 2005. That certainly had to have signaled a change in the environment to the Russians over sales of other modern equipment to the Iranians. Besides – that equipment requires supplies and “advisors” to help operate it, both of which have proven to be vulnerabilities in the past should they be temporarily or more permanently withdrawn.
Israel – Preemptive Concerns
Presumably, plans are in place for a variety of long-range strike options based on previous Israeli actions (Osiraq) and declared policy regarding a potentially nuclear armed Iran. Centerpiece of those strikes (again this is informed speculation) would come from elements of the IAF which have demonstrated those capabilities in the past (and even, some say, the recent past). Certainly the sale of the S300 system to Iran had to have been met with concern in the Israeli MoD. Long acquaintance with the capabilities of the earlier S200 system as well as the TOR M-1 via exposure to the Syrian integrated air defense system (IADS) would have provided extrapolation as to the S300’s enhanced capabilities (if not collection from their own sources).
The addition of a highly capable, area defense SAM system like the S300 would significantly impact the planning of said strike packages, requiring the addition of aircraft to account for attrition and extra ECM for penetration and other support. The larger the strike package, the less covert it becomes and the less covert it becomes, the more difficult it becomes to move it through airspace that is more monitored now than it was in the early 1980’s during the Osiraq strike and do so over longer distances. Absent a significant submarine fleet armed with cruise missiles that might be launched submerged to support such a strike effort, which leaves as one of the only alternatives the possibilities of a preemptive ballistic missile strike.
Israel does posses the wherewithal in the form of the capable and tested Jericho II IRBM ballistic missile to do so. With a range out to 1500 km and a payload of 1,000 kg, the Jericho II (of which there are presumed to be 50+ deployed). As for the warhead, although Israel has never confirmed possessing nuclear weapons, one would be hard pressed to believe that they do not, especially given the close work in a variety of areas they had with the South African government for a number of years (including work that led to the Jericho II). By now one expects that given nominal Israeli scientific and engineering capabilities, that warheads similar to the early US W-49, used on the Thor and Jupiter MR/IRBMs with a yield of 1.4M will have been developed for the Jericho. Of course the escalatory issues all that brings to the fore is fodder for yet another column – suffice to say the introduction of the S300 will greatly raise the bar for the Israelis which in turn, brings pressure back to bear on the US.
US – Failure of Vision
The sale of the S300 system comes at the very least as a failure of vision on the part of the US. Wrapped up in the Iraqi war, the Administration failed to serve notice to Russia of the severity with which it took notice of delivery of the TOR M-1 system, or any other major upgrade to Iran’s defense capabilities during a time when there was significant question as to their intent and pursuit of nuclear weapons, counter to IAEA convention. Bringing pressure to bear early in the process would help expose Russia’s motives – was it really just business as purveyor of arms to a needy client? Or was it a more likely case of looking to exploit a weak spot to gain leverage, a geopolitical quid-pro-quo for somewhere else, say Kosovo? For one thing Russia has made clear – it fully expects to draw full cost for any concessions it geopolitical concessions it might be inclined to make. This is in addition to the the fact that while there is little interest in re-establishing the old Soviet Empire, there is ample interest in protecting the “near-beyond” or what basically constitutes the border of the old Commonwealth of Independent States. There is clear interest in getting the US out of the ‘stans, in keeping Georgia out of any integration or union with the West, and in preventing or turning back any further encroachment eastward by NATO.
Is the agreement to selling the S300 then a tit-for-tat for American GBI’s in Poland and missile defense radar in the Czech Republic? Perhaps – but the fact remains that Russia has clearly signaled an intent to play hardball on the world stage with this sale. And more than the resumption of flights over the Arctic by a handful of Cold War bombers or an epochal voyage by a one-off carrier group, this signals Russia’s future intent and willingness to be a forcing function to a multi-polar world. And come whatever the next administration, it had better be prepared to play hardball when necessary, because rest assured, the Russians will without hesitation.