After long delays due to immense U.S. pressure, Iran will finally be equipped with an advanced "game-changing" Russian air defense system by the end of the year. Some military sources say it makes an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear sites "nearly impossible," raising the possibility of an Israeli strike before the system becomes operational.
I wrote in April that the S-300 system should be considered part of Iran's nuclear program and, therefore, part of any nuclear deal. The Daily Beast warned that it "could make U.S. attacks on Iran nearly impossible." The article quoted anonymous military sources including a senior Air Force commander who said it "essentially makes Iran attack-proof by Israel and almost any country" lacking fifth-generation aircraft.
Russia will ship four S-300 surface-to-air defense systems and the two countries are talking about a deal for advanced fighter jets. The original contract was signed in 2007 and was for five systems, but Russia cancelled the deal in 2010 due to international pressure.
In April, Russian President Putin announced he would deliver the S-300 to Iran by the end of the year because of the interim nuclear agreement. Russia quieted the outcry with a reassuring statement from the Deputy Prime Minister that he did not believe "that it is a matter of the near future."
Well, it turns out that the statement wasn't a reversal of any kind. It was a word trick because the definition of "near future" is up for interpretation. Russia will in fact deliver the system by the end of the year—and it is a newer version (S-300V4) than the original ones (S-300PMU) that caused the panic.
The S-300V4 has a longer range of 250 miles (400 kilometers). Sputnik News reports that "military specialists estimate that the new system is 1.5-2.3 times more effective in its anti-missile defense capabilities" than the previous version.
The Pentagon is responding softly with spokesperson Peter Cook saying, "We have long expressed our concerns over reports on this possible sale…but this is something we have been tracking and in general, we are confident in our capabilities, even if that system is sold."
Some sources express confidence that the U.S. and Israel have the necessary counter-measures to overcome the S-300 but when it comes down to it, that's only an assumption. And the issue isn't whether the U.S. and Israel can theoretically still attack Iran. All Iran needs to do is make the potential mission so risky and costly that it deters action.
There's no better time for Iran to reach that benchmark than now. Before now, Israel could strike Iran before the S-300 becomes active. By signing the nuclear deal, Iran maximizes the international pressure on Israel not to strike—but if Israel doesn't strike and the S-300 becomes operational, the opportunity may be lost.
Iran now has the best of both worlds: If Israel strikes before the S-300 goes live, then Israel gets the blame for torpedoing the deal and "provoking" Iran into pursuing nuclear weapons. If Israel doesn't strike, then Iran can set up the S-300 and be in a stronger position to develop nukes once it's done reaping the benefits of the deal.
It's a good time to be a theocratic mullah in Tehran.
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org’s national security analyst, a fellow with Clarion Project and an adjunct professor of homeland security. Mauro is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio. Read more, contact or arrange a speaking engagement.