A new article in Middle East Eye offers a fascinating “take” on Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that Russia would resume delivery to Iran of its $800-million S-300 anti-aircraft system. After intensive lobbying by Bibi Netanyahu, in 2009 Pres. Obama pressured Putin to delay shipment of the advanced weapons system. Putin agreed the following year. The delay meant that Israel would during that period have an opportunity to attack Iran without having to penetrate one of the more advanced anti-aircraft systems produced in the world.
According to a Daily Beast report:
“Many US defence officials from the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps agree that the Russian missile system effectively renders entire regions no-go zones for conventional jets … [and] only high-end stealth aircraft like the $2.2 billion B-2 Spirit – of which the Air Force has exactly 20 – and the high-performance F-22 Raptor [and] … F-35 joint strike fighter … [will be able] to operate inside those zones.”
However, the report goes on further to say that several military experts contend that “no warplane now operating can remain inside those well-defended areas for long”.
If Iran were to obtain the S-300 system, that would be “a complete game changer. … That thing is a beast and you don’t want to get near it,” a senior US Marine Corps aviator told The Daily Beast.
In the current climate, in which a nuclear deal with Iran appears likely, Putin rightly judged that the S-300 would no longer pose a drawback to any possible international developments regarding Iran. When the resumption of the sale was announced, Prime Minister Netanyahu railed against it. But curiously, Pres. Obama did not. In fact, the article quotes him as saying:
“I’m frankly surprised that [the ban on the S-300 delivery to Iran] held this long, given that they were not prohibited by [UN Security Council] sanctions from selling these defensive weapons,” remarked Obama.
He added, “This is actually a sale that was slated to happen in 2009, when I first met with then-Prime Minister [Vladimir] Putin. They actually stopped the sale, paused or suspended the sale, at our request.”
This reactions shows a few important things about Obama’s approach to Iran: first, that he doesn’t share Israel’s blanket opposition to every aspect of Iranian military power. Rather, Obama is concerned about one thing alone: Iran’s nuclear program. He is realistic enough to understand that the U.S. cannot police and restrain the entire Iranian military arsenal. So Obama seems to be saying: if Israel wants to do this, be my guest, but it’s not going to be U.S. policy.
The MEE author also raises another interesting basis for Obama’s response: he may be looking toward a future detente between the U.S. and Iran. Both the U.S. and Russia see Iran as a potential huge Middle East trade market. Iran has oil and 70-million citizens yearning for many of the products western nations produce. It could be a win-win for both sides.
Not to mention:
Iran and the US, now moving into a state of détente, each hope to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis and later align their interests in fighting Salafi extremists, resolving the Syrian crisis, and perhaps the unfolding crisis in Yemen.
If Obama steps out of the way of the S-300 transaction, he builds potential good will with critical forces within the Iranian political and military elite. Not to mention that if Russia completes the deal (which became mired in an international arbitration dispute brought by Iran after the suspension), it places Putin in an excellent position to reap benefits when the walls fall and sanctions are lifted.
But I set yet another reason for Obama’s stepping out of the way: Netanyahu’s growing alliance with the GOP far-right, the Congressional speech, and his screaming opposition to an Iran deal–all of these have been pokes in the eye to Obama. We’ve already seen one response to this: when Netanyahu let loose the dogs of racism just before the recent Israeli election and summarily rejected a two state solution, the U.S. refused to allow the prime minister to walk his statements back. We correctly said, No, the Bibi we know is the one who made these odious statements, not the one apologizing for them.
I doubt anyone believed this cold, hard response to Netanyahu was the final such sleight coming (despite statements from DC insiders that that Israel was gradually coming in from the cold). In fact, I believe Obama’s refusal to criticize the S-300 resumption is meant as yet another poke at Netanyahu.
When the Obama administration spoke of actions it might take to express displeasure at Netanyahu’s backtracking on a two-state solution, officials said we might refuse to veto Security Council resolutions embarrassing to Israel. But standing back when Russia delivers one of the most advanced weapons systems in its arsenal to Israel’s arch enemy sends a message as well: you made your bed, Bibi, now lie in it.
In the two years remaining in Obama’s last term we can clearly expect many more such face slaps. It could be an interesting time.
Though chances that Israel would’ve attacked Iran were slim before, they’re almost non-existent now. Iran will have a system that can knock out of the sky multiple targets. While Israel may’ve prepared for the eventuality that Iran would procure this system and built counter-measures, the S-300 is regarded as a highly effective weapon. It makes Israel’s chances of knocking out Iran’s nuclear facilities that much harder. This can’t sit well with Bibi. But he’ll just have to grin and bear it.
Similarly, the chances of the U.S. attacking Iran were even slimmer than those of Israel attacking. But agreeing to allow the deployment of S-300 means that Obama has, especially in light of an imminent nuclear deal, taken such an American attack completely off the table (though he hasn’t admitted it in so many words). The President sees the Iran of the future as, if not an ally, then at least a partner in specific political endeavors that could stabilize the region. Not to mention the possibility of resuming trade ties and of hosting a general cultural and artistic engagement between two great nations.