In what seems like a never-ending quest to find any chance it can get to stick a wrench in the spokes of Western interests, Russia has offered to sell Iran S-300 missile systems. Yes, again.
The original sale was revoked in 2010 due to international sanctions put on Iran in response to its continuing nuclear enrichment program.
The reinstatement of Russia's S-300 offering to Iran comes just after the P5+1 negotiating group reached an agreement with Iran on a tentative framework for a final nuclear deal aimed at keeping Iran from reaching the point of "breakout" capability, where it could theoretically assemble a nuclear device.
The agreed upon framework is seen as both promising and as a total sham depending on who you ask, although recent statements by Iran's Ayatollah may signal a disconnect between Iran and Washington on exactly what an actual nuclear deal will include.
The Ayatollah and some Iranian military leaders comments, many of which state that inspections of military facilities will not be allowed under any deal, could very well be aimed at domestic consumption as a way of keeping hardliners satisfied while the final details are worked out. A deadline for a final agreement is set for the end of June.
The fact that Russia immediately moved to begin arming and fortifying Iran's military, even though no actual nuclear agreement has been reached, is troubling.
The S-300 air defense system has been built in many varieties and vintages over the last 40 years. The S300PMU-1, which was originally offered to Iran as far back as 2007, is a well proven, capable, and modular air defense system that could provide the country with a border and area air defense reaching up to 75 miles and up to 100,000 feet from its shores.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov was quoted in state-funded RT as saying the following regarding the deal:
"There has been substantial progress in resolving the Iranian nuclear program... The political framework of the final deal agreed upon was highly praised by the international community...We believe that at this stage there is no longer need for this kind of embargo - from the Russian side, it was unilateral and voluntary... Meanwhile, a modern air defense system is now very relevant to Iran, especially taking into account the severe escalation of tensions in neighboring areas and especially the rapid development of military activity in Yemen in recent weeks...
He also noted that the S-300 air defense system is defensive in nature and "will not put at risk the security of any state in the region, including Israel."
That last statement is only partially true. The S-300PMU-1 features two surface-to-air missile options. The 9M96E1 and 9M96E2, the latter of which has a range of about 75 miles, and the former capable about half that range. When equipped with E2 missiles, the S-300PMU1 allows for the engagement of targets well outside a country's territorial boundaries and its rapid engagement capabilities could put multiple targets under threat in a single volley.
If you super-impose these capabilities over a map of Iran and its vicinity, with the S-300PMU1 stationed along Iran's coastline, that puts approximately half the width of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman at its widest points under threat of anti-aircraft attack. As a result of the tight confines of the critical waterways in the region, the S-300 system can work as a type of anti-access weapon as much as a border or inland area air defense.
Another capability of the S-300PMU1 that makes it fairly dangerous is that it's road mobile. This makes it illusive to target should hostilities break out and allows Iran to keep backup systems easily hidden from initial air strikes. During a conflict, it also presents a nasty "pop-up" threat to opposing aircraft, able to be rolled out and erected in about an hour. Once used, it can then be quickly packed up and moved to another area or hidden for future use.
Then there is the most obvious issue with Russia fortifying Iran's air defenses: adding yet another layer of air defense capability around key nuclear sites.
Currently these sites are protected by a hodgepodge of dated foreign and indigenously developed systems of questionable capability. The addition of an advanced version of the S-300 to this cocktail of Iran's air defense capabilities will make it much harder for attacking aircraft to survive over the super missile engagement zones that exist above Iran's key nuclear sites.
This makes going after these sites using air power even more problematic than it already is, especially for Israeli fighters that do not have the added benefit of low-observability (stealth). Instead, they have to rely on electronic warfare and cyber attacks in order to degrade an enemy's air defense system. This is something Iran and Russia are very aware of and as such, they will adapt any future anti-aircraft purchases to be specifically hardened against such countermeasures.
What also remains unclear is if Russia will be willing to sell Iran even more advanced anti-aircraft systems. Their S-400 "Triumph" air defense system is pretty much the most capable non-Western system ever derived, and it was just announced that China will be the system's first export customer.
The S-400 has a fairly robust anti-ballistic missile capability, featuring a whole range of missile and sensor options, and was also developed with anti-stealth capabilities, along with future growth potential. The S-400 is an advanced integrated air defense system (IADS) in a box, that can cover a full range of anti-aircraft needs. Its engagement range is over 200 miles, with a detection range of over 300 miles and it can integrate with passive technologies and long wavelength radars that are known to be able to detect, and potentially even engage, stealth aircraft under certain conditions.
If Iran were to be allowed to procure the S-400 system, or even the latest variant of the S-300, known as the S300VM (also known as the Antey 2500, seen on the left), it could greatly increase the risk posed to American aircrews should they ever be ordered to attack. Make no mistake, the US is the only air arm in the world capable of neutralizing Iran's nuclear program. Israel could delay it with a massive air campaign, but they couldn't neuter it by air power alone. The enrichment site buried under a mountain near Fordow cannot be destroyed using conventional "bunker busters" launched by tactical aircraft – it requires a weapon and delivery system that only America has in its arsenal.
Aside from nuclear weapons, only America's recently upgraded Massive Ordnance Penetrator and its B-2 Spirit launch platform have a chance at destroying the Fordow facility via conventional attack. That's especially true if a series of these highly accurate weapons are "strung" together during a number of attacks, each digging down deeper through or near the previous weapon's ground entry point. Israel alone could possibly collapse the entrances to the facility via air strikes, but only through a seemingly suicidal ground assault, nuclear attack or by some sort of exotic cyber attack could it destroy the facility with any certainty.
Russia is uncannily talented at knowing exactly how much it can get away with under a given set of circumstances. In this case, it knows full well that the Obama Administration will do whatever it can over the next two months to not rock the boat with its P5+1 partners so as to keep a final nuclear agreement within the realm of feasibility. As a result, Russia not only gets the defense sale it's been working on for the better part of a decade – one that Iran sued over when Russia pulled out of the deal in 2010, which it could use as its own economy is hit by sanctions – but it also gets to show the world, at least in its eyes, that Russia does what it wants when it wants. And that statement alone seems to be the overriding foreign policy directive in a post-Sochi Olympics Putin controlled Russia.
The problem is that if Iran is allowed to fortify its nuclear installations and its borders with high-end Russian anti-aircraft hardware, it will only make the "military option" more risky and thus less feasible if an agreement is not reached. Which, in the end, benefits a largely indifferent Russia and an Iran that clearly has nuclear ambitions beyond domestic energy production.
Photos via AP aside from B-2 Bomber (USAF) and Satellite image (ISIS).
Tyler Rogoway is a defense journalist and photographer who maintains the website Foxtrot Alpha for Jalopnik.com You can reach Tyler with story ideas or direct comments regarding this or any other defense topic via the email address Tyler@Jalopnik.com