- - Sunday, April 19, 2015

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Vladimir Putin’s decision to lift Russia’s embargo on the sale of surface-to-air missiles to Iran is a reminder that we have to walk and chew gum at the same time. While we engage in the political self-absorption that consumes us for two out of every four years, we can’t afford to ignore nations such as Russia and Iran, especially when they act in concert.

Mr. Putin announced last week that five squadrons of the Russian Antey 2500, an upgraded version of the air and missile defense S-300 system, will soon be delivered to Iran. The Antey 2500 is capable of launching two kinds of missiles — up to eight per battery — and features multiple radars and command-and-control equipment. Mounted on tracked vehicles, the system is highly mobile. It will be a significant upgrade to Iran’s already-capable air- and missile-defense systems.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Iranian air defense systems will be almost impenetrable where it’s deployed, except by stealth aircraft and cruise missiles. (It may be possible to overwhelm it with a large enough volley of cruise missiles.) America has many stealthy aircraft and other weapons, but the Israelis don’t. The upgraded S-300 will mean that the Iranians can effectively defend at least their five most important nuclear weapons sites.

The effects of Mr. Putin’s decision are immediate. First, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has said that their “military sites” will be off-limits to international inspectors. Deployment of five S-300 systems at as many nuclear development sites will enforce Ayatollah Khamenei’s diktat. Thus, the sale of the missile systems effectively precludes any effective inspections regime from being a part of the nuclear weapons deal being negotiated by President Obama.

Mr. Putin’s announcement is thus a direct interference in Mr. Obama’s negotiations. If the inspections regime set forth in the agreement doesn’t require intrusive and comprehensive inspections of all Iran’s nuclear weapons development facilities, the deal will be counterproductive.

Second, the sale of the S-300s forces Israel’s hand. The Jewish state must decide whether to attack Iran’s nuclear weapons sites before those systems are deployed. Without stealthy weapons, any Israeli attack will be made far more costly — and is much less likely to succeed — after the S-300s are in Iranian hands.

Third, the sale restores Russia as Iran’s primary supplier of military hardware and may give it an advantage in other trade as well. Russia is reportedly negotiating with Iran to import as much as 500,000 barrels of oil per day, in part or full payment for the missiles, which will cost approximately $800 million. Even though Russia may not be compensated in full by such a trade, Mr. Putin must be confident — for good reason — that his economy can absorb what would be a minor loss.

Mr. Putin’s desire to interfere in Mr. Obama’s negotiations with Iran is clear from his comments defending the sale of the S-300s. On his annual four-hour-long call-in show, he said he was selling the missile systems to the ayatollahs because they had shown “a great degree of flexibility and a desire to reach compromise” in the nuclear talks, and that the missiles would be no threat to Israel and “a deterrent factor” to Saudi-led attacks on the Shiite forces in Yemen.

Mr. Putin’s argument that the S-300s would be no threat to Israel is an unintended parody of Russia’s persistent and forceful opposition to U.S. ballistic missile defenses. Going back to the 1972 ABM treaty, Russia has regarded Western missile defenses as a threat to the credibility of their first-strike nuclear arsenal. Because of Mr. Putin’s vehement opposition in 2013 the United States canceled the fourth stage of a planned missile defense system for Europe. As recently as 2014, Russia demanded further legally binding limitations on European missile defenses based on the same rationale.

To say that the S-300s couldn’t be used to attack Israel is correct. But to imply, as Mr. Putin does, that the S-300s wouldn’t bar Israel’s ability to destroy Iran’s nuclear weapons program is absurd.

Russia, of course, is one of the “P5+1” nations negotiating with Iran as one of the veto-holding “permanent five” members of the U.N. Security Council. By rewarding Iran’s “flexibility” in those negotiations with missile sales, Mr. Putin has predetermined the outcome of the negotiations and ensured they can’t succeed. Iran is also assured that Russia will not support continued sanctions and may insist — just as Ayatollah Khamenei has — that all sanctions be lifted immediately after the deal is signed in June.

Mr. Putin’s calculations regarding Iran have stymied Mr. Obama’s maneuvers at every turn. Mr. Obama has no means to stop the missile sales to Iran, so the president’s options are limited. One of the limits was established at the beginning of the process. The agreement will not even address Iran’s ballistic missile development programs, which have already produced nuclear-capable missiles that can reach all of the Middle East and most of Europe. Iran’s — and Mr. Putin’s — objectives will have been achieved.

At some point, probably in July, Congress will get to see the P5+1 deal with Iran for a brief time. They have already agreed with Mr. Obama to turn the Constitution on its head and instead of requiring a two-thirds vote of the Senate to ratify it, they’ll need a two-thirds vote to disapprove it. Mr. Obama couldn’t have outmaneuvered them more thoroughly. Mr. Putin will remember Mr. Obama’s promise to his stand-in, Dimitri Medvedev, that he’d be more flexible after the 2012 election. And he will smile.

Jed Babbin was deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration and is co-author of “The Sunni Vanguard” (London Center for Public Policy, 2014).

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