Back in 2010 Russia tried to sell Iran and Syria the very capable S-300 mobile surface-to-air missile but was forced in the end to scrap the deal due to immense Western and Israeli pressure, which included a visit by the Israeli PM to Moscow to dissuade President Putin from doing so. The reason for all the hype was the fact that the S-300 was rightfully viewed as a game-changer that could potentially alter the regional balance of power.
The Russians tried unsuccessfully to argue then that since the S-300 was essentially an advanced air-defence system, it was therefore by definition a defensive weapon and thus should be exempt from all the hoopla surrounding the sale of the S-300. What really worried the Americans and Israelis was the fact that the S-300 was so advanced that it essentially provided an invisible umbrella capable of protecting Iranian and Syrian nuclear sites from any aerial attack. And I do mean any aerial attack, including those originating from aircraft, cruise missiles, UAVs, air-to-surface missiles – the whole enchilada. The S-300 were that good.
So why am I mentioning the old S-300 story from 2010? Well, because Reuters and TASS are reporting that the Russian company that manufactures the S-300 (Almaz, which has merged with Antey) is now offering a newer version of the S-300, called the Antey-2500, to Iran. The Antey-2500 (also knows as the S-300VM) is even more capable than the old S-300, possessing improved guidance radar, an ability to engage faster targets and a greater number of targets.
The Israelis in particular are worried about the presence of either air-defence system for the simple reason that Israel prides itself on its ability to control the skies of its Middle Eastern neighbours. Israel has hegemony of the skies over Lebanon and Syria (as well as Jordan and Egypt, although it respects the territorial integrity of the latter two) and often violates their airspace when Israel deems it necessary – when striking targets deep in their territory like the 2007 strike on the Syrian nuclear reactor in Operation Orchard or more recent strikes on Hezbollah arms depots in and around Damascus airport. Israel would like to preserve the current status quo and any change thereto worries Israel because it restricts their ability to surreptitiously deal with any potential threats to the State of Israel.
It is extremely difficult to send in a team of commandos to destroy a well-guarded site deep in enemy territory and there are many more factors that could go wrong (capture of soldiers, failure of the mission, etc.). Also, there is a greater degree of plausible deniability with an airstrike. In fact, the 2007 airstrike in Syria has never been officially attributed to Israel although it seems clear that Israel was responsible. However, this uncertainty was also important for the Assad regime since he could save some face.
Regarding the possible delivery of the new Antey-2500 to Iran, while the timing of the offer is quite odd coming on the cusp of the P5+1 nuclear talks with Iran (of which Russia is a member), I believe that news of the potential missile sale will not lead to another international brouhaha for the following reasons: back in 2010, the US administration was serious about the option of an Iranian strike being on the table, today that is no longer the case; current US-Israeli relations are at a nadir; and relations between the West and Russia have been seriously downgraded due to the Ukraine crisis and there is little that the West can pressure Putin with these days that it hasn’t already done.
It is also possible that once the imminent P5+1 deal is signed, the Iranian insurance plan against an Israeli strike comes in the form of the new Russian missiles. After all, it would be nearly impossible to carry out an aerial attack on Iranian nuclear sites with the new missiles in place.
So what does this mean for Israel in 2015? Well, it will probably depend on the outcome of the upcoming elections. If Isaac Herzog is elected Prime Minister, it is hard to imagine any attack on Iran would be forthcoming, regardless of whether new missiles are delivered or not, especially so early in his new term. The situation were Benjamin Netanyahu to be re-elected PM is more complicated. PM Netanyahu has made the Iranian nuclear threat to Israel such a central tenet of his candidcy and term as PM that it is hard to imagine him doing nothing on the issue.
The fact that PM Netanyahu could successfully carry out such a strike doesn’t necessarily mean that he should carry it out. Despite the now infamous Iranian comments about wiping Israel off the map, few Israeli military leaders actually believe Iran would ever seriously consider doing so. Why? Well, quite simply, Israel has a better insurance policy in place: it’s called a second-strike capability. It is no great secret that Israel’s Dolphin-class submarines possess that ability and that a few of them are always at sea. Let’s also not forget that Pakistan and India are both nuclear powers as well as bitter enemies who have fought numerous wars yet self-preservation and cool heads have managed to keep everything under control.
Will it be different between Iran and Israel should Iran finally join the nuclear club? Probably not. Will there be moments of political and military confrontation and brinkmanship? Sure thing, but let’s not kid ourselves into believing that the moment that Iran attains nuclear weapons they would start bombing Tel Aviv or shipping them off to Hezbollah with arming instructions on the back of a cereal box. That will not happen. Will it lead to more tension in the Middle East? Certainly. Will it lead to a new arms race here? Probably, but hey, this ain’t Wisconsin.