Russian S-300 Missile Sale Worries Iran’s Neighbors

Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak on the sidelines of a summit in Astrakhan, September 29, 2014
Presidents Hassan Rouhani of Iran and Vladimir Putin of Russia speak on the sidelines of a summit in Astrakhan, September 29, 2014 (Presidency of Iran)

After world powers reached a preliminary agreement with Iran in April that is meant to prevent it from developing nuclear weapons, Russia quickly unblocked the delivery of sophisticated S-300 missile defense systems to the country.

The weapons system could reduce the scope of Israeli and possibly Saudi attacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. Both states have expressed discontent with the nuclear talks which they feel do not go far enough to stop Iran’s program.

Russia originally suspended the delivery of the S-300s in 2010 in support of an international effort to force Iran to the negotiating table, despite it having already paid $167 out of $800 million for the systems.

In January, a Russian military official was quoted saying Iran could possibly get the even more advanced S-400 air defense system, suggesting that the decision to supply the S-300s was made before significant progress was made in the nuclear talks in Lausanne, Switzerland three months later.

Russia’s decision to arm Iran is informed by at least two factors.

First is that it sees a China-Iran-Russia axis as a counterweight to the American-dominated NATO alliance. The need for such a counterweight has increased since the West imposed financial sanctions on Russia after it invaded and annexed the Crimean Peninsula for Ukraine last year.

The sanctions are the second reason for selling Iran the S-300s. They have conspired with low oil prices to push Russia’s economy into recession. Defense sales provide much-needed revenue. Iran is planning to spend up to $40 billion on modernizing its armed forces. Russia could find a lucrative new market in the Middle East. Russian defense minister Sergei Shoigu has already spoken hopefully of a “long-term and multifaceted” military relationship with the Islamic state.

The implications of the S-300 sale are profound. It raises the risk of an arms race in West Asia where Russia and the United States back opposing sides. Israeli, Saudi Arabia and the other Arab Gulf states would see the lifting of sanctions as well as further Russian arms sales to Iran as a reason for bolstering their own defenses.

Moreover, the sale is damaging to Israeli-Russian relations. It was reported last year that Israel had plans to sell unmanned aerial vehicles to Ukraine, the former Soviet satellite state Russia invaded last year. Israel stepped back from arming Ukraine at the time, possibly to dissuade Russia from supplying the S-300s to Iran. Now that Russia has gone ahead with the Iran deal, Israel may no longer feel restrained to provide weapons to the Ukrainians.

Why Turkey Still Considers Chinese Missile Defenses

An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California during an operational test, December 17, 2013
An unarmed LGM-30G Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missile is launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California during an operational test, December 17, 2013 (USAF/Yvonne Morales)

Despite not yet meeting all the conditions of its tender, Turkey may yet give a Chinese firm the contract to build a $3.4 billion missile defense system, raising concern among its NATO allies.

A Turkish official told the Reuters news agency on Tuesday, “The talks with China are continuing but an agreement has not yet been reached as the tender conditions have not been completely fulfilled.” The source did not elaborate on what those conditions were.

Turkey’s Western allies are troubled about the possible deal with the China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation (CPMIEC) which is under American sanctions for selling weapons to Iran, North Korea and Syria.

European countries and the United States worry that such a missile defense agreement could give China access to Western military technology — which could then be passed on to Iran and Russia.

In spite of the American missile shield being fielded in Europe, smaller states Turkey feel the need to develop missile defenses of their own in order to have complete control of them, rather than depending on the United States.

It would not be the first time China has agreed to help develop defense systems for Turkey. The country’s J-600T Yıldırım ballistic missile system was based on Chinese designs after negotiations for technology transfers from the United States failed. But there is a myriad of issues Turkey needs to consider before making its decision.

Turkey has shown a keen interest in joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a bloc that includes China, Russia and the former Soviet republics in Central Asia. The missile defense shield NATO is building in Europe is supposed to protect alliance members against ballistic missile threats from Iran — while Turkey is trying to improve its relations with that country, a SCO observer state.

Turkey might decide it needs an independent missile defense system to also counter threats from states it considers adversaries but other NATO members do not.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have worsened in recent years. While a military confrontation seems unlikely, Turkey has repeatedly raised concerns over missile defense cooperation between Israel and the United States. A Chinese, rather than Western, missile defense system might be more difficult for Israel to penetrate.

The deal with China would reportedly also allow “indigenous cooperation” — unlike offers from Western countries that have been reluctant to transfer technology to Turkey. This would help it eventually develop its own long range ballistic missile systems, too. Chinese missile defense technology could allow the Turks to reverse engineer this technology.

On the other hand, if Turkey strikes a deal with CPMIEC, its contractors would probably be subjected to sanctions. And, according to Mesut Hakkı Caşın, a Turkish security expert, the country may have “to buy new satellite systems and integrate it with their airborne warning and control system” in case NATO countries are unwilling to integrate their systems with the missiles defenses bought from China.

It could also put other weapons deals at risk. As recently as Tuesday, Turkey recommitted to buying two Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighters after putting off the purchase last year. It plans to acquire up to one hundred of the new fighter jets to replace its fleet of aging F-4 Phantoms and F-16s. If it deepens defense cooperation with China, however, the United States might think twice about selling it stealth aircraft that are supposed to rival China’s.

Even if the Turks buy the Chinese missile defense system, they would probably rely on NATO’s defense shield as well. This is because China shares good relations with Iran and also backs the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. Hence, the details of the missile defense system could be leaked to Iran and Syria, enabling both to develop countermeasures. This is all the more a threat since Syria has launched several missile strikes into Turkey since the civil war in that country began three years ago.

Turkish concerns over Israel sharing the same technology were also resolved earlier this year when NATO assured the government in Ankara that the radars hosted by Israel and Turkey would not the same.

Keeping the possibility of a missile defense deal with China open might be a way for Turkey to pressure Western countries into lowering the price of their own bids or to coerce the United States into coproducing missile defenses with Turkey. But this could prove a dangerous gamble if it only sows doubts about the country’s allegiances.

NATO Missile Shield Prompts Russia to Expand Defenses

While it calls for limitations on NATO’s missile defense shield in Europe and raises questions about the justification of such a system now that a nuclear deal with Iran seems within reach, Russia’s own missile defense systems capabilities have been strengthening.

The combination of the United States building missile defenses in Europe and Russia enhancing its defensive capabilities could, as Bill Gertz argued in The Washington Free Beacon last year, “upset strategic stability and complicate efforts to reduce strategic offensive arms.” Not only is the development of such systems a concern; some of the systems are for export purposes too. Hence, it would accelerate the missile defense arms race on a larger scale.

America’s refusal to provide information to Russia regarding the locations of its missile defense interceptors in Europe, the number of interceptors and their reaction speeds has prompted Russia to undertake a comprehensive missile defense program of its own. Read more “NATO Missile Shield Prompts Russia to Expand Defenses”

Defying Sanctions, Iran, North Korea Help Syria Build Missiles

According to a recent report in Jane’s Defence Weekly, Syria, despite being prohibited by sanctions for producing medium to long range missiles, is “accelerating its production of missiles and rockets effectively” at a pace similar to March 2011 — before the start of the uprising.

Iran and North Korea are reportedly helping Syria overcome the international sanctions which make it harder to ship weapons components to the country.

Cooperation in missile development between North Korea and Syria dates back to the 1980s. It is currently focused on improving Syria’s Scud-D missiles which are known to be fairly inaccurate but have a range of up to seven hundred kilometers — more than the distance between Damascus and Cairo.

Iran is also helping Syria develop the Khaibar-1 missiles which has a range of up to one hundred kilometers and has been used by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which supports the regime in Damascus, against Israel. Read more “Defying Sanctions, Iran, North Korea Help Syria Build Missiles”