By lifting a U.S.-brokered ban on selling S-300 antiaircraft missiles to Iran Monday, Russia opened a new chapter in its bid for power in the Middle East — and signaled the practical end of Western restrictions on trade with Iran.
If sold, experts in missile defense largely agree that the weapons would deter any realistic chance of an Israeli retaliatory strike against Iran in case that country cheats on a final nuclear agreement and tries to build a nuclear weapon. It would also preclude a U.S.-secured no-fly zone over Syria, whose president Bashar Assad enjoys Russian support. (RELATED: Syria’s Assad Still Denies Killing Syrians)
The move overshadows American vows that “all options remain on the table” as the June 30 deadline for a final nuclear deal with Iran approaches. By establishing a path for the eventual lifting of sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, the U.S. has inadvertently encouraged less reliable actors such as Russia to seek early access to the Iranian energy and defense market. (RELATED: 5 Ways The Iran Deal Could Go Sour, And One Sign Of Hope)
The announcement also exploits uncertainties on the timetable of sanctions relief. Iranian officials claim that the planned agreement would remove all nuclear-related sanctions as soon as it is signed. But the White House insists that the phase-out would be gradual, and reversible in case Iran violates the proposed terms of the deal.
In a phone call to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the weapon was “purely defensive,” according to the Associated Press. Russian authorities also confirmed that while a potential missile deal would take at least 6 months, an oil-for-goods swap was already underway, providing construction materials, grain and mechanical equipment, “not banned or limited under the current sanctions regime,” to Iran.
The weapons sale would make good on an $800 million deal that the two countries first struck in 2007, and which Russia suspended under American pressure in 2010. In response, Iran pressed Russia with a $4 billion lawsuit, which it is now expected to drop.
Russia has backed both Iran and Syria in recent episodes of geopolitical tension in the Middle East. Meanwhile, as Russia continues to fight for territory in neighboring Ukraine, American NATO allies warn of increasing Russian aggression in Western Europe — including planes near U.K. airspace this week. (RELATED: Russia Can’t Stop Its Submarines From Catching On Fire)
In light of the announcement, supporters of a bill that would require Congress to approve any final deal with Iran told Bloomberg News that the proposed sale reinforced the need for such a bill. Though it initially vowed to veto the bill, the White House now appears open to signing it.
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