Last week, the Kremlin announced that Russian president Dmitry Medvedev signed a decree banning delivery of its advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran. For years, Iran watchers have followed Russia’s 2007 contract to deliver the system to Iran closely, given the S-300’s potential to upend the regional status quo. The highly capable system can defend sites against attack by a range of platforms, including aircraft and ballistic missiles.
Iran’s possession of such a system would represent a significant upgrade of its current air defenses, which currently includes some antiquated Shah-era U.S. systems. Experts have been concerned that a Russian fulfillment of the contract might cause Israel to strike preemptively, given that nuclear facilities protected by the S-300 system would be much more difficult to attack. In addition, S-300 batteries at some sites – Iran’s nuclear reactor at Bushehr basically sits on the shoreline of the Persian Gulf – could be used to threaten U.S. aircrafts operating outside of Iranian airspace.
Obama administration officials were quick to crow about the supposed Russian change of heart as a success of its “reset” with Russia. In a breathless post at his blog The Cable, Josh Rogin quotes a senior administration official saying that "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 problem is, this “bold” decision is not a final decision. Nothing in Medvedev’s announcement cancels the 2007 contract and, as Rogin notes, the ban could be lifted at any time. Days later, Russian deputy foreign minister Ryabkov made clear that Russia’s military cooperation with Iran would continue, saying, "We will not able to develop military-technical cooperation with Iran in these categories [of weapons], but there are other directions.” As Max Boot wrote at Contentions, “In other words, the Russians are up to their old tricks — paying lip service to stopping the Iranian nuclear program while sabotaging efforts to really get tough with Tehran.”
The Bush administration and the Israelis have pressured Moscow for years not to fulfill the S-300 contract, so this is not the first time Russia has pocketed concessions only to come back begging for more. We should be pleased that S-300s will not be on their way to Iran any time soon, but should be wary of the price an administration desperate to claim results from a “reset” in relations with the Kremlin might be willing to pay