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.