Fresh off his selection of David Petraeus to lead the war effort in Afghanistan (more on that in a separate post), President Obama moved on the next order of business, a meeting with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.
And quite predictably, the mainstream media was quick to assert that Mr. Obama is back on his game. This account from the AP's Ben Feller notes how much relations between the U.S. and Russia have improved, emphasizing the chummy relationship between the two leaders:
The president of the United States and the president of Russia enjoyed quite a summer's day on Thursday: Grab some burgers, joke about Twitter, take a walk in the park.
No summit, no sanctions, no weapons treaty. Yet they did strike a deal on chicken exports.
This is the new day, on intentional display, between President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. It's not all about nukes. Obama's first time hosting Medvedev at the White House will probably be remembered most for the extent to which they got along like a couple of buddies.
You want fries with that? Yes, they did. In fact, they shared some.
It was all a metaphor for two countries that were once at risk of Cold War annihilation, and just two years ago were back to cold shoulder animosity.
And for Obama, on an oppressively hot day, in the midst of a most difficult week, it amounted to a surprising chance to relax.
The buzz around the White House centered much more on the presidents' unexpected jaunt for cheeseburgers to Ray's Hell Burger in Virginia — Medvedev took jalapenos_ and less about the many substantive matters they discussed.
Given a seat in the White House briefing room, we'd be tempted to ask an elementary question: why was it necessary to bring Vladimir Putin's sock puppet to the White House to talk about chicken? The Perdue family must be thrilled, but somehow, a chicken export deal doesn't seem worthy of an Oval Office meeting, let alone a head-of-state jaunt to Ray's Hell Burger.
But then again, we're not members of the White House steno pool...err, press corps. And to be fair, we should note their were other topics on the agenda, including recent violence in Kyrgyzstan, and Russia's bid to join the World Trade Organization, which Mr. Obama supports.
Still, the matter of immediate concern wasn't trade, regional unrest, or even the recently-signed nuclear arms reduction treaty. In fact, the issue of greatest, short-term importance wasn't even on the agenda, but (apparently) it's been the topic of private talks between Washington and Moscow.
We refer to Russia's long-planned sale of the S-300 air defense system to Iran. According to Geostrategy-Direct.com (subscription required), transfer of the state-of-the-art system is now projected to move ahead, with no apparent objections from the White House.
Russia, in wake of its support for United Nations sanctions, was expected to deliver long-range air defense systems to Iran. A leading Russian analyst said the Kremlin would launch efforts to supply the S-300PMU1 air defense system to Teheran. The analyst said the United States has agreed not to block the S-300 and other Russian defensive exports to Iran.
"Clearly, there is realization that this contract will take place," Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Moscow-based Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, said.
On June 10, Pukhov said Russia's defense industry has been pressing the Kremlin to implement the S-300 and other military deals with Iran. He said S-300 manufacturer Almaz-Antey wanted to avoid a huge fine for late delivery of the system, which could reach 30 percent of the $1 billion contract, or $300 million.
"All this may negatively affect the financial stability of the leader of the Russian defense industry," Pukhov said. "It is hoped that the state finds a way to compensate for Almaz-Antey losses through subsidies or other funding."
We've written at length about the S-300 deal, most recently in March of this year. One of the most advanced anti-air (and anti-missile) systems in the world, the S-300 represents a game-changer in the Persian Gulf region, with the potential to deter an Israeli air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities.
Obviously, Mr. Pukhov's comments don't represent Kremlin confirmation that S-300 deliveries are imminent. Reports of the arms deal have been circulating for years, but the missiles, radars and support equipment have never materialized in Iran. Still, Iran desperately wants to conclude the transaction, and so do the Russians. Almaz-Antey is one of Russia's most important defense contractors, producing advanced air-to-air missiles (along with air defense systems); the Iran deal would be equal to (roughly) one-quarter of the firm's revenues in 2008 and open the doors for additional sales to Iran and other customers. Additionally, Russian leaders have never backed away from long-standing plans to eventually sell the air defense system to Iran.
With the S-300 in place, Tehran's nuclear future is all-but-assured. Moscow may argue that the U.S. has sold the Patriot to several nations in the Middle East, but there is a difference. With the exception of Israel, none of our customers are using the system to protect a nuclear weapons program. And, unlike Iran, Israel is no threat to share nuclear technology--or finished weapons--with terrorist organizations.
That's why the Russian air defense deal should have been at the top of today's discussion list. But from what we can tell, it never came up, during discussions at the White House, or at Ray's Hell Burger. It's another trademark of the Obama presidency; the commander-in-chief is perfectly comfortable with taking a key U.S. ally (or a senior military officer) to task, but he's far less confrontational when dealing with a "friend" like Russia, whose interests still run counter to our own.
ADDENDUM: Here's another head-scratcher vis-a-vis Iran. The Navy's leading think-tank, the Center for Naval Analyses has concluded that Washington and Tehran will reach some sort of "reconciliation" by 2012, resulting in a decrease naval operations in that area. There are multiple scenarios that could lead to that operational shift; a coup in Iran, a military confrontation with the Islamic Republic, or some sort of "negotiated" agreement. Given the current occupant of the White House, our money is on Option #3.