For Israel, Iran Missile Deal Is an Obstacle - but Not Insurmountable

The Israel Air Force believes any defense can eventually be breached with the appropriate investment of thought and resources.

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
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Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow in this May 4, 2009 file photo.
Russian S-300 anti-missile rocket systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow in this May 4, 2009 file photo.Credit: Reuters
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

Russia’s announcement that it was lifting the ban on supplying the S-300 missile system to Iran demonstrates the major improvement in Tehran’s status less than two weeks after the framework deal on its nuclear program was finalized in Lausanne.

The final agreement is only meant to be signed in two-and-a-half months and international sanctions have not been lifted, but the Iranians are already starting to enjoy the fruits of these understandings. Russia’s interpretation is that although the restrictions against supplying weapons to Iran are still in effect, they do not apply in this instance because the surface-to-air missiles are defensive weapons.

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.

Former Israeli ambassador to Russia Zvi Magen described the announcement by Russian President Vladimir Putin as a dramatic decision that poses a challenge to the West. He stated that increased Russian activism in the Middle East is meant to compensate for Putin’s failure to place a wedge between Ukraine and the West, even as it helps Moscow reestablish close ties with Tehran.

For many years Russia was the primary mediator between Iran and the West, until the Iranians decided to negotiate a nuclear deal directly with the Americans. This new development is certainly not bringing any joy to U.S. President Barack Obama, who is already under attack domestically and abroad over the many holes in the framework deal – especially given the two sides’ differing interpretations of the understandings already reached in Switzerland.

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.

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