A Missile System Strains U.S.-Russia Relations

The deal to reduce nuclear warheads and work together to limit nuclear proliferation signed in Moscow this week by Presidents Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev carried all the pomp of a milestone. But the official communiqués ignored an elephant lingering at the summit: Russia has a deal, signed in 2007, with Tehran to supply a state-of-the-art S300 antimissile defense system that could make a possible strike (by the U.S. or Israel) on Iran's nuclear facilities much harder. Even more than a lucrative deal for Moscow, though, this is Russia's diplomatic ace in the hole: the $1 billion system is really a bargaining chip between the powers.

Though the Iranians insist that the deal is on track, Russia has held back on delivering key elements of the S300 system. One key reason for the delay is a full-court diplomatic press by Jerusalem and Washington. In the week before Obama's visit to Moscow, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to ask that the deal be stopped. Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak also buttonholed Gen. Nikolai Makarov, chief of the General Staff of the Russian Armed Forces, at the Paris Air Show late last month with the same request.

Russia has already been rewarded for its cooperation. In April, Russia's deputy defense minister, Vladimir Popovkin, confirmed that Russia had signed a deal to buy $50 million worth of Israeli-made pilotless drones to replace the Russian-made version that performed disastrously during last summer's war with Georgia. Until recently, Israel had supplied pilotless drones, night-vision and antiaircraft equipment, rockets, and various electronic systems to Tbilisi, and the Georgian military received advanced tactical training from retired Israeli generals (including one who commanded Israeli ground forces during the 2006 offensive against Hizbullah). Now, says independent Moscow-based military analyst Pavel Felgenhauer, there is "a clear understanding" between Moscow and Jerusalem that the Israeli government will discourage private Israeli contractors from helping Georgia modernize its military.

Iran's Revolutionary Guards stand to be the biggest losers if the S300 system doesn't come through, since there will be little they can do but watch the bombs fall if Western powers attack. Though Russia delivered a smaller Tor-M1 missile defense system to the Iranians last year, it's a localized weapon. The S300 system, according to Jane's Defence Weekly, is "one of the world's most effective all-altitude regional air defense systems, comparable in performance to the U.S. MIM-104 Patriot system." The latest version of the S300PMU2 Favorit has a range of up to 195 kilometers and can intercept aircraft and ballistic missiles at altitudes from 10 meters to 27 kilometers. Though it's hardly clear the S300 will pose a problem for the Israeli or U.S. air forces. The Israelis have trained in avoidance tactics on an S300 system bought by Greece and deployed on the island of Crete; the U.S. Air Force has its own S300 system, which is now deployed for training purposes in the United States. According to one senior Air Combat Command source in Washington, the U.S. Air Force has the S300 "covered."

Regardless of the system's effectiveness, delivery of the S300 will be a key bellwether of Russian relations with the West. Moscow has much less influence over Tehran than it likes to pretend when bargaining with the U.S., and the S300 is one of its few remaining chips. True, Putin visited Tehran in 2007, and last month Medvedev hosted President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for a series of regional security meetings. But at the same time, Russia has backed the last two rounds of U.S.-proposed sanctions in the United Nations' Security Council, much to the Iranians' chagrin. For years, Russia used construction of the Bushehr reactor by the Russian nuclear company Atomenergoprom as a key element of leverage, shutting down work on the plant for long periods. But now that Atomenergoprom has completed construction and is training the Iranian staff to run it, that leverage has gone. Though Russian staff will remain on-site at Bushehr, the Iranians can now run it on their own. And we know from International Atomic Energy Agency reports that the Iranians can produce their own fuel by illegally enriching their own uranium.

Russians may have less pull with Teheran than it claims, but it still sees Iran-U.S. enmity as a strategic goal, both because it increases their own diplomatic leverage and because it keeps oil prices high. Furthermore, Russia has been trying to make itself a rallying point for anti-U.S. regimes from Venezuela to Syria and Iran in an effort to restore its status as a world strategic player—a retread of the Cold War model of forging alliances with any Third World dictator who would take Russian money. So while Russia doesn't want Iran to get nukes and historically fears Iranian influence in Central Asia, Moscow has little interest in helping a rapprochement between Iran and the West. Meanwhile, the Kremlin is, cannily or cynically, depending on one's point of view, keeping the S300s on the table, neither committing to scrapping the deal nor delivering the equipment—and reserving the right to continue to tack between Jerusalem and Tehran as self-interest dictates.