Iran’s New Russian Air Defense System Could Give It A Dangerous Strategic Advantage

REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

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Russ Read Pentagon/Foreign Policy Reporter
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Speculation as to when Iran would receive its new Russian-made air defense system has been rampant since the finalization of the nuclear deal in Summer 2015, but it appears the Islamic Republic has received its first shipment of the long-awaited weapon. If the reports are accurate, it means that the Iranians just gained a significant strategic advantage.

The delivery of the first parts of the missile system is a long time coming. Iran and Russia first signed the contract for purchase of the system in 2007, but Russian President Vladimir Putin put a freeze on the agreement while issues regarding Iran’s nuclear program were ongoing. With the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or Iran nuclear deal), Iran was freed of several sanctions, in addition to Putin’s weapons freeze.

“We are acting in strict compliance with the contract. They pay, we sell. We have already started. It is a supply in full sets,” said Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin in an interview with Ekho Moskvy radio Monday. Rogozin did not give a specific number of missile systems, but he did say the entire delivery would be completed by the end of 2016.

The S-300 is a Cold War-era missile defense system first utilized by the Soviet Union in 1979. Though it is technically a generation old (Russia has deployed the newer S-400 for its own purposes in Syria), the system has been periodically updated and are still highly regarded. The S-300 has an operational range of about 93 miles and can shoot down both enemy aircraft and missiles. Its ability to track multiple targets concurrently makes it particularly dangerous for squadrons of enemy aircraft.

While the S-300 does not nullify the U.S. strategic advantage over Iran, it does help Iran harden its air space against regional rivals like Israel and Saudi Arabia. Though both the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and Saudi military field some of the most modern U.S.-made aircraft, neither country has the advanced stealth technology that some U.S. strike craft possess. Without stealth capability, Saudi and Israeli aircraft risk being hampered by the Iranian S-300s.

Israel has long relied on what is called a “qualitative military edge (QME)” in order to maintain its security despite being surrounded by regional adversaries. The philosophy behind QME is that by providing Israel, or other U.S. allies, superior conventional military forces, that country’s regional adversaries will be deterred from engaging in armed conflict against it. Put simply, maintaining QME is what keeps Israel and other countries in the Middle East from going to war with each other.

The Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khameini has long called for the destruction of Israel. In turn, Israel has threatened to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities should it feel the need to do so. By purchasing and deploying S-300s, Iran has not completely blunted Israel’s QME, rather reduced.

Saudi Arabia also has a certain qualitative edge over the decrepit Iranian air force. Iran’s military, and especially its air force, suffered after connections with the West severed in the wake of the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Having lost access to Western military aircraft, Iran has had to cobble together a hodgepodge of mostly old and poorly maintained pre-revolution U.S. fighters and Russian made models. To make up for what it lacks in aircraft, Iran instead developed a new strategy of attrition based on cheap and easy to produce missiles. The S-300 is, therefore, a natural progression in its strategy, allowing it to both harden air defenses and continue its asymmetric threat to the region.

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