The Other Ticking Clock in Iran

Forget about Iran's nukes for the moment. The real crisis is its drive for advanced surface-to-air missiles.


The recent revelations about Iran’s nuclear program — centering on an enrichment facility buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom — have almost certainly intensified the sense of urgency among policymakers in Jerusalem. Even though the news has triggered a new round of high-stakes diplomacy (including an unusual bilateral meeting between Americans and Iranians), you can bet that Israeli military planning for an attack on the Islamic Republic’s nuclear facilities has moved into overdrive. Yet there’s another ticking clock the Israelis are worried about that hasn’t been in the headlines quite so much.

For years now, Tehran has been working hard to acquire sophisticated Russian antiaircraft missiles that would make it far tougher for Israeli planes to stage a successful attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. One Israeli lawmaker, Zeev Elkin, even warned last week that delivering the missiles could even speed up the timing of an Israeli air raid. "I hope Moscow understands that the deliveries will at least speed up such events, if not trigger them," Elkin told the Russian daily Kommersant. Experts estimate that a working Iranian nuclear weapon is still probably at least a year away, depending on a host of contingencies. But the Russian missiles, which just might ensure that Iran’s nuclear installations can be protected from attack, could be delivered at any time. So it’s easy to understand why, right now, Israeli minds seem to be focused on the more urgent of these two ticking clocks.

The system in question is the S-300 — actually something of a catchall term because the name covers several systems of varying ages and levels of effectiveness. The S-300 is essentially the Russian equivalent of the American Patriot: quick-reaction missiles designed to defend large areas of airspace against incoming airplanes and ballistic missiles. Although the S-300 has never been tested under combat conditions, military experts have a high opinion of its capabilities — especially those of the more recent variants like the PMU-2 Favorit (known in the West as the SA-20B), which can track 100 targets while engaging up to 12. It can hit targets as far as 120 miles away. "It’s a high-technology weapon," said Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms shipments around the world. "It has an impact which is not restricted to just two or three square kilometers. It’s a major thing."

Russia apparently first offered the Iranians the chance to buy S-300s in 2005, but then pulled back on the deal due to diplomatic controversies surrounding Iran’s nuclear programs. In 2007, Tehran signed a contract to buy several S-300 batteries — or so at least it would seem. Confusion about the actual state of the deal has swirled ever since. Anatoly Isaikin, director of Russia’s state arms export company, confirmed in September of last year that the two countries were negotiating a sale. In April of this year Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari visited Moscow to push things along and declared, "There are no problems with this contract." Yet so far none of the system appears to have been delivered to the Iranians.

The Israelis don’t seem reassured. For months they’ve been lobbying Moscow to hold off on delivering the missiles. Israel’s Russian-speaking foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, visited the Kremlin in June, and the missile deal figured large in his discussions with Russian officials. President Shimon Peres turned up in Russia in August to drive home the point. In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also set off for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. First item on the agenda: S-300s. (Netanyahu at first told the press he was headed somewhere else, but the cover story soon fell through, igniting considerable controversy back at home.)

Why are the Israelis so worked up? Simple. Just consider the air raid — dubbed "Operation Orchard" — staged by Israel on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007. (U.S. and Israeli officials contend that the Syrian installation was built with help from the North Koreans.) The Syrian air defenses consisted largely of the same missiles the Iranians have now — Russian-made Tor M1s (known by NATO as SA-15s). But they didn’t leave a scratch on the attackers. The Israelis successfully befuddled the Syrian radars and didn’t lose a single plane; the Syrian target was completely wiped out. The raid has been described as a "dress rehearsal" for a possible attack on Iranian sites.

The whole affair might have worked out rather differently had the Syrians been equipped with S-300s — and the Israelis know it. The Russians boast that, in stark contrast to the Patriot, the S-300 actually hits warheads rather than missile bodies. (It is well remembered in the missile business that most Iraqi Scuds that were intercepted by Patriots during the first Gulf War made it to their targets anyway.) The Russians also claim that the powerful radars of their latest generation of air-defense missiles can even cope with stealth aircraft. "It’s long range; it’s high altitude; it’s fast," said John Pike, founder of defense industry Web site GlobalSecurity.org. "At minimum the S-300 would force the Israelis to take extensive countermeasures, like using aircraft with jammers, aircraft with anti-radiation missiles, drones with decoys — this whole three-ring circus that you would need to get past it."

Small wonder that many observers think Israel would go to considerable lengths to prevent a shipment of the high-tech missiles. Earlier this year an Israeli hand was immediately suspected in the peculiar case of the Arctic Sea, the cargo ship that was mysteriously hijacked in the Baltic Sea this summer and then disappeared from view for several weeks until the Russian Navy finally caught up with it off the coast of Cape Verde. Rumor had it that the ship, which had made a stop in the Russian port of Kaliningrad before setting out on its voyage, was carrying S-300 parts (perhaps illicitly obtained by organized criminals) to Iran. Perhaps the Mossad was behind the hijacking?

We’ll probably never know what really happened. The hijackers were taken into custody by the Russians and have since been held incommunicado. But the idea of Israeli involvement seems unlikely for many reasons (not least the sloppiness with which the hijacking was carried out). As Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute points out, you don’t really own the S-300 if you only have a few scavenged parts — the whole weapon comprises a big package, including truck-mounted launchers and bulky radar units. Plus, he notes, the equipment is essentially useless without the necessary technical support and multiyear maintenance contracts, which will only come with a legally delivered system.

Some of the most intriguing maneuverings surrounding Iran’s effort to beef up its air defenses are taking place in the public arena. Russian officials — all the way up to President Medvedev himself — have publicly stressed that Moscow is within its rights to sell S-300s to Tehran, arguing that the Iranians are entitled to any defensive systems they wish to own (and that this doesn’t violate the U.N. embargo on supplying Iran with nuclear-related technology). Yet the fact that the Kremlin feels compelled to make the case suggests that the lobbying is having some effect. And not only from the Israelis. Some experts think the Barack Obama administration’s cancellation of ballistic missile defense plans in Eastern Europe might have involved a countermove by Russia to back off from delivering S-300s to Tehran. Could that, perhaps, be connected with the recent news from Saudi Arabia? It turns out that the Saudis have been offering the Russians a better price for the sale of the S-300 to them instead of to the Iranians (whose nuclear aspirations are only slightly less disturbing to Riyadh than to Tel Aviv).

But the Russians have to be careful. The Chinese have apparently offered to sell the Iranians their own version of the S-300, a cheaper knockoff of the Russian original. Moscow doesn’t want to lose its present favored position as the cheap weapons supplier to Iran, one of the few big arms markets left where Russia is an undisputed leader. Weapons sales are big business for Moscow tycoons. (Just to make things even more interesting, the company that makes the S-300 is run by ex-KGB man Viktor Ivanov, a major ally of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.)

Still, it’s safe to assume that some skulduggery has already been taking place out of the public eye. The Israelis (and the Americans) must be keeping a close eye on every Russian cargo airplane that enters Iranian airspace, not to mention ships traveling between the two countries across the Caspian Sea. And given the tensions, it’s easy to imagine that Israeli special forces are already hunkered down in the desert outside Natanz and Arak, keeping a close eye on everything that’s happening in the surrounding countryside and getting ready to switch on their laser pointers when the time is ripe — as they apparently did in the run-up to the 2007 raid in Syria. This story is far from over.

 Twitter: @ccaryl