Putin’s lifting of the Russian ban on transferring S-300 air defense missile systems to Iran raises important questions about Moscow’s expectations and even motivations concerning the achievement of a nuclear accord between Tehran and the P5 +1 (America, Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia).
In 2007, Moscow and Tehran signed a contract whereby Iran would buy these air defense missiles from Russia. Israel and the U.S. in particular objected to this sale for fear that Iranian possession of these missiles would enable Tehran to protect any nuclear weapons and delivery systems that it might be building against an Israeli or even an American attack. Whether rightly or wrongly, they feared that if Iranian leaders thought that Russian air defense missiles could enable them to protect a nuclear weapons program (which Tehran vehemently denied it had), then Tehran would be more likely to embark on one. Those in the West hoping to achieve a nuclear accord with Iran argued—just as the U.S. did when it was negotiating with Moscow in the initial strategic arms control negotiations in the early 1970’s—that Tehran’s foregoing defensive weapons that could protect a nuclear program would boost confidence in the West that Iran was serious about reaching a verifiable accord that would ensure it would not try to break out of such an agreement.
In September 2010, then President Medvedev canceled the sale of S-300s to Iran—even though Tehran had paid for them. He may have been motivated to do so by the desire to encourage U.S. Senate ratification of the New START accord signed in April 2010. He may also have seen denying Iran these weapons as a way to encourage Tehran to reach a nuclear accord with the P5 + 1. Tehran, not surprisingly, was furious, and has sought the reinstatement of the contract ever since.
Just recently, important progress has been made toward the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord. While formally an agreement between Iran and all the P5 + 1 governments, the bulk of the negotiations have taken place between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. A final agreement, though, has yet to be reached. Grave doubts about Iranian intentions have been expressed both by Obama’s Republican opponents and by Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. They fear that Tehran does not intend to abide by a nuclear agreement, but to use it to lull the West into complacency while it builds the bomb. Similarly, Iran’s Supreme Leader Khamenei and other Iranian conservatives have expressed fear that the agreement would demand too many concessions from Tehran while giving it too little in return.
Why, then, has Putin now decided to end the ban on the transfer of Russian S-300s to Iran? If a final agreement had already been reached, this move might have made sense as part of the incentive package to Iran for agreeing to rigorous inspections and other restrictions ensuring its compliance with the accord. But by lifting the ban when the achievement a final accord is still uncertain, Putin casts doubt not just on whether he thinks a final accord can be achieved, but also whether he actually wants it to be.
Why would Putin not want to see an Iranian nuclear accord achieved? With the serious tensions that have arisen between Russia and the West over Ukraine and European security as a whole, Moscow may not want to see a rapprochement between Iran on the one hand and America and the West that a nuclear accord would lead to. Even a reduction of the economic sanctions against Iran could lead to a swift rise in Iranian trade with the West as well as Western investment in Iran. Iran could not only export petroleum to the West, but could serve as a conduit for Caspian Basin oil and gas to reach the world market without having to go through Russia. Further, Tehran is not likely to forego any opportunity to earn money from the West out of deference to Russia.
Moscow, then, has reason to doubt whether the achievement of an Iranian nuclear accord would actually benefit Russia. Moscow may not be in a position to halt an agreement if Iran on the one hand and the other P5 + 1 governments on the other were willing to sign one, since they might simply ignore Moscow’s objections and go forward with an agreement anyway. Putin, though, may be positioning Moscow to benefit if such an agreement is not reached. And by lifting the ban on S-300 exports to Iran, he may be increasing the likelihood that an Iranian nuclear accord is not reached. This is because Iranian possession of S-300s will increase fears among those in the West who are skeptical anyway that Tehran intends to break out of a nuclear accord.
In making this move, Putin can be reasonably sure that Tehran will not suddenly forego receiving the S-300s after having demanded that Moscow deliver them for years now in order to reassure the West, much less Israel, about its intentions. And if Iran does receive Russian S-300s, opposition to a nuclear deal with Iran on the part of Congressional Republicans, Israel, France, and perhaps others may grow so strong that the Obama Administration may no longer be able to continue pursuing one.
Perhaps Western governments can either persuade Moscow not to ship the S-300s to Iran or persuade Tehran not to accept them in the interests of achieving a nuclear accord. Or failing both of these, perhaps the Obama Administration (along with France, Germany, and the UK in particular) can persuade Tehran to agree to measures offering reassurance about its nuclear intentions despite receiving Russian missiles.
But if indeed Putin is seeking to prevent the achievement of a nuclear accord between the P5 + 1 and Iran and the rapprochement between Tehran and the West that this would lead to, ending the Russian embargo on selling S-300s to Tehran may prove to be a highly effective means of doing so.