The Iranian nuclear threat has been put on the back burner both in the United States and Israel in recent weeks, but the latest news out of Syria has the potential to alter the discussion about the West’s leverage over Tehran. According to a report broadcast this morning on Fox News, diplomatic sources are saying that a Russian air defense system sold to Syria is now being transferred to Iran. The move can be interpreted as yet another sign that the Assad regime is faltering and transferring its assets out of the country. But the transaction is more probably merely a matter of Damascus paying for the constant flow of Iranian arms that has kept Assad’s forces from running out of guns and ammunition after nearly two years of constant fighting.
But no matter what it means for Syria, the arrival of the missiles in Iran will make a big difference for Western and Israeli military forces contemplating air strikes on the Islamist regime’s nuclear sites. Iran’s air defenses would be immeasurably strengthened were it able to deploy enough of the mobile phased radar array weapons. That would raise the potential costs and casualties of any U.S. strike on their nuclear facilities and might call into question the effectiveness of one made by the Israeli Air Force. An Iran with the S-300 system in its arsenal would be better able to defy international sanctions and more confident that it could deter any attack from the West. With President Obama still relying on failed diplomacy and sanctions to convince Iran to give up its nuclear ambitions, this boost to Iran’s defense capabilities could change the way he approaches the issue in his second term. A hardened Iranian target might tip the balance within the administration to those, like possible secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel, who will oppose an attack and favor a policy of containment that the president has previously rejected.
It should be remembered that that the Russians agreed to prohibit further sale of Russian weapons to Iran after the United Nations imposed sanctions on the country in 2010. The S-300s were specifically mentioned at the time as the most important element of that ban. The Russians made some noises last summer about deciding to give the missiles to Iran should Assad fall, but it appears that their faltering Syrian ally has already made that decision for him. With the rebels gaining strength, Assad is desperate to keep the Iranian resupply operation in place and is apparently ready to pay for it with some of his most precious assets either with or without the permission of his allies in Moscow.
Those contemplating an easy victory for any Israeli or American air attack in Iran have perhaps always been underestimating the challenges of a strike on such a vast target. In particular, since the Iranians have already moved most of the centrifuges enriching uranium for a bomb to the underground mountain site at Fordow, it is by no means clear that it will be possible for any air offensive to conclusively end the Iranian nuclear threat. But with mobile Russian missiles that are harder to take out than fixed batteries and which have the ability to track up to 100 targets while engaging 12, the Iranians could at the very least up the price either the U.S. or Israel would have to pay in any attack.
This is crucial to the already dim chances that either diplomacy or sanctions could persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program because it would mean the ayatollahs would be even less likely to be intimidated by Western ultimatums or threats. If the Islamist regime was already acting as if it could indefinitely defy President Obama’s warnings before this, they will be even less likely to do so once the Russian missiles are in place around their nuclear plants.
This places the argument about Hagel’s potential nomination into an even more important context. Those asserting that having a Pentagon chief who opposed a tough line on Iran is meaningless because he would have to follow the president’s policy line are ignoring the fact that a newly strengthened Iran will also stiffen Hagel’s resistance to Obama’s ideas. This makes it all the more imperative that whoever is leading America’s military is someone with a greater determination to end the Iranian nuclear threat than a potential appeaser such as Hagel.