Less than two months ago, Iran's acquisition of the S-300 air defense system appeared to be a done deal. In late December, a senior intelligence official told the AP that Moscow was selling the S-300 to Tehran, although deliveries of the surface-to-air missiles--and support hardware--had not been detected. The intelligence assessment followed Russian press reports that made similar claims.
While those accounts were considered credible, they may have been premature. Reuters now says that Iran's defense minister made a pitch for the delivery of air defense systems during a meeting with his Russian counterpart on Tuesday. If that report is correct, then Tehran's purchase of the S-300 is anything but a fait accompli.
That also raises an interesting question, namely what happened to the air defense deal which seemed to be a virtual certainty just weeks ago? A couple of possibilities come to mind.
First of all, those earlier reports may have been wrong. If we had $100 for every report of an S-300 deal between Russia and Iran over the last eight or nine years, well...we'd have a nice chunk of change in our pockets. Last December wasn't the first time that sources in Moscow (or Tehran) claimed that a sale was in the offing.
More importantly, the December reports marked the first time that senior U.S. intelligence officials confirmed the deal. While our intelligence community has made more than its share of bad calls, the recent confirmation of the sale was based on more than Russian press reporting. Based on imagery, SIGINT, HUMINT--or a combination of those sources--our analysts became convinced that the S-300 was finally heading for Iran.
A second theory suggests that Moscow put the transfer on hold. That would also be something of a shocker; the deal is worth at least $800 million, with the potential for more sales in the future. Russian arms dealers--and their friends in the Kremlin--don't like to leave that much money on the table, even on a temporary basis.
Obviously, it would take a powerful incentive to get Russia to delay or cancel the sale. And what would that incentive be? How about major U.S. concessions on missile defense in Europe. Earlier this month, a senior Obama Administration official told Reuters that the U.S. might slow development of Europe-based missile defenses--if Russia agreed to help with Iran, and dissuade their nuclear ambitions.
If that's the strategy (and no one at the White House has denied the Reuters account), then it's not hard to imagine a similar request on the S-300. By cutting a deal with Moscow, the U.S. can keep a state-of-the-art SAM system out of Iran, a system that would pose a serious threat to American aircraft in the (remote) possibility that we decide to go after Tehran's nuclear facilities.
But at what price? Missile defense advocates fear that these overtures may ultimately result in the cancellation of the planned BMD shield in Eastern Europe. As defense writer John Doyle notes, that prospect has created dismay in the region, which has looked to U.S. for security guarantees, particularly after last year's conflict between Russia and Georgia.
For Moscow, the apparent "understanding" with Washington would represent the deal of the century. For a little pressure on Iran--and interruption of the S-300 deal, Russia achieves a major policy goal: getting the U.S. to defer missile defenses in Moscow's back yard.
Make no mistake--that's exactly what the Obama team is proposing. While Vice President Joe Biden said the U.S. would "pursue" BMD during a recent speech in Germany, that pledge came with the usual caveats--the missile defenses must be affordable and meet steep performance criteria. You don't need to be rocket scientist to understand what that means. By setting impossible test criteria, the new administration can assure the ultimate cancellation of key missile defense programs.
Meanwhile, Moscow will be free to pursue its own strategic modernization, without having to worry about advanced BMD systems that could (ultimately) protect against a Russian attack. Indeed, the Obama Administration has been talking about a new strategic arms treaty with Moscow that will sharply reduce the nuclear inventories of both sides. But there's been no suggestion about cuts in new systems like Russia's SS-27 ICBM, which is also being deployed on ballistic missile submarines.
Followed to its logical conclusion, the Obama policy would leave us with no missile defenses in Eastern Europe--and down-sized, aging nuclear forces--facing a resurgent Russia with newer and more capable land-based missiles. That doesn't mean that the strategic balance will tilt inexorably in Moscow's favor, but it does grant concessions that are simply jaw-dropping.
Put more succinctly: this is one "missile swap" that we don't need.