Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Russia’s S-300 delivery to Iran - is it a game changer, as Iran steps up support for Hamas and Hezbollah?

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Russia's decision to transfer the advanced S-300 air-defence system to Iran could be a "game changer". The S-300 would significantly bolster Iran's military capability, as one of the most powerful air-defence systems in the world, which would make it much more difficult for Israel or the US to strike Iranian nuclear facilities if negotiations fail to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons. There is also concern that Iran could share this technology with terrorist groups it continues to support - including Hamas and the Lebanese Shi'ite group Hezbollah - both on Israel's borders and committed to its destruction.

Russia explained its decision to lift its ban on the sale of the S-300 in light of the nuclear framework agreement reached between the P5+1 and Iran. Russia's Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said: "At this stage, we believe the need for this kind of embargo, and a separate voluntary Russian embargo, has completely disappeared", and remarked that the missile system is "exclusively of a defensive nature" and that it "doesn't threaten the security of any governments in the region, including, of course, Israel."

Russia claims that defensive systems do not come under the UN arms embargo, and that it implemented the S-300 ban voluntarily, deciding in 2010 to cancel a 2007 contract with Iran worth US $800 million. Iran then filed a US $4 billion lawsuit against Russia at the International Arbitration Court in Geneva.

Israel disagrees with Russia's assessment that it does not affect the "security" of the region, particularly in light of the sectarian wars between Sunnis and Shi'ites imploding across the Middle East.

Israel has blamed the unpublished and unsigned P5+1 nuclear "framework" agreement with Iran for Russia's decision. The framework terms are disputed in the American and Iranian "fact-sheets", and it has been widely criticised for merely delaying rather than stopping Iran from gaining nuclear weapons (see here for more information).

Commenting on Russia's announcement, Israeli Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz said:

"This is the direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is receiving from the nuclear deal being made with it. This also proves that the economic momentum in Iran that will come in the wake of the lifting of the sanctions will be exploited for armaments and not used for the welfare of the Iranian people. Instead of demanding that Iran desist from the terrorist activity that it is carrying out in the Middle East and throughout the world, it is being allowed to arm itself with advanced weapons that will only increase its aggression."

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also conveyed his "grave concerns" about the deal to Russian President Vladamir Putin on April 14 and said it "will only encourage Iranian aggression in the region and further undermine the stability of the Middle East." Putin was reportedly unmoved.

Some analysts argue that once Iran has the S-300 it will make a credible military threat on Iran's nuclear sites extremely difficult if not impossible (see Daily Beast analysis), while other experts believe that Israel and especially the US, have the technology to override it. As Amos Harel explains in Haaretz:

"From Israel's perspective, this deal is a disturbing development. On Monday, it still wasn't clear whether Russia was planning on giving Iran the older version of the S-300 missiles or the latest, more effective version. Either way, it would constitute a real leap in Iran's ability to provide air defense to its nuclear installations. While an air attack on these nuclear sites no longer seems like a realistic option given the framework agreement, Israel isn't interested in having Iran add another layer to its defenses. Since Israel must ready itself for a scenario under which Iran violates the agreement and succeeds in developing nuclear weapons, this is an obstacle to be reckoned with.

Still, it is not an insurmountable obstacle. The Israel Air Force believes any defense can eventually be breached with the appropriate investment of thought and resources. Syria possesses relatively advanced surface-to-air missile systems, yet foreign media reports say Israel has breached its air defenses time after time. Nevertheless, the proliferation of advanced surface-to-air missile systems in the region will require the air force to make finding ways of dealing with them a very high priority."

Similarly, Israeli security analyst Ron Ben Yishai argues in Ynet:

"Both the Israeli and the American air forces, as well as the American fleet, have trained in Cyprus, Greece and other places where Russian technology is available, and thus it is safe to assume they are well-versed in the system's ins-and-outs. It is also safe to assume they have developed technological means to evade the system's defense mechanisms.

Generally, the S-300 is in use in many countries and is even manufactured in China. The lengthy time between sale and delivery of the system to Iran gave the West ample time to prepare for its deployment in the Iranian context.

Therefore we can assume that its delivery to Iran will not dramatically hinder Israel's - or any other state's - ability to launch a military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities, if only because contemporary deployment tactics were developed having taken the system into account."

Russia's announcement may also signal its interest in reengaging with the Middle East, or it may be simply using the deal to irritate the West following criticism of its actions in Ukraine. As Harel writes:

"Russia has been toying with this deal for nearly a decade, as part of the complex balance of power it maintains with the West. In the past, it submitted to U.S. and Israeli pressure and suspended its supply of the missiles. However, the deal would resurface from time to time as a bargaining chip when relations with the United States were at a nadir - as is the case now over the ongoing crisis in Ukraine..."

Russia has maintained good relations with Iran, but it appears to be strengthening its relationship further. Russia has begun supplying products to Iran including grain, equipment and construction materials in exchange for Iranian crude oil, in a barter deal that would supposedly not violate the existing UN sanctions. The Jerusalem Post reported:

"Sources told Reuters more than a year ago that a deal worth up to $20 billion was being discussed and would involve Russia buying up to 500,000 barrels of Iranian oil a day. Officials from the two countries have issued contradictory statements since then on whether a deal has been signed, but Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov said on Monday one was already being implemented. ‘I wanted to draw your attention to the rolling out of the oil for- goods deal, which is on a very significant scale,' Ryabkov told a briefing with members of the upper house of parliament on the talks with Iran. ‘In exchange for Iranian crude oil supplies, we are delivering certain products. This is not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime.'"

According to Foreign Policy, Russia has also made agreements with Iran regarding military training and offered to sell it other advanced anti-ballistic missile systems:

"Moscow and Tehran have reportedly been discussing the sale of the S-300s since January. On Jan. 20, Russia and Iran signed an agreement dealing with training between the two countries' militaries. The delivery of the missile systems was discussed at the high-level meeting.

In late February, Sergei Chemezov, chief executive of the Russian state defense firm Rostec, said Iran was considering Russia's offer to supply Antey-2500 anti-ballistic missile systems, a similar but more advanced system than the S-300. Iran has not made a decision on the offer, the Russian state news agency TASS reported in February."

Moreover, there are serious concerns that Iran could transfer such technology to terrorist groups Hezbollah and Hamas, which it continues to fund.

Israeli officials revealed on April 13 that Iran had stepped up its support for Hezbollah and Hamas over the past few weeks. The Times of Israel reported:

"According to a Channel 2 report, Israel has observed an increase in Iran weapons shipments to Hezbollah members - in Lebanon and on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. Iran had also sent weaponry to Hamas rulers in Gaza and was even attempting to arm Hamas members in the West Bank, the report said."

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah recently welcomed the nuclear framework with Iran and predicted conflict with Israel, saying in an interview with the Syrian television station al-Ikhbariya: "The nations in the region must prepare to make sacrifices in any future conflict with Israel." In a report last month, Israel's Home Front Command estimated that Hezbollah could fire up to 1,500 rockets per day at Israel in a full-scale conflict. Meanwhile, the Telegraph reported on April 5 that Iran has transferred tens of millions of dollars to Hamas' military wing to help rebuild the tunnels and restore its missile arsenals.

While many commentators are hailing Iran's alleged "moderation" in light of its agreement to the nuclear "framework", it should be remembered that Iran remains a major state sponsor of terrorism. Moreover, there are serious concerns that the sanctions relief Iran will experience in the aftermath of a deal on its nuclear program could enable it to spend billions more to support terrorist groups further destabilising the region and provoking conflict.

 

Sharyn Mittelman

 

 

 

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