Follow the Rockets
Why Russia is the big winner in the Middle East arms race.
A look at the naughty bits of Russia's S-300 striptease over the past year is enough to give even the most ADD-riddled brain a bad case of déjà vu. In December 2008, the Iranians sent a delegation to Moscow and came back with an apparent agreement from the Russians to deliver the S-300s. "After [a] few years of talks with Russia ... now the S-300 system is being delivered to Iran," Email Kosari, deputy head of the Iranian Parliament's foreign affairs and national security committee, told IRNA, the official Iranian news agency. A Russian defense ministry official confirmed to the news agency Interfax that "[c]urrently the S-300s are being prepared for transfer to [Russia's state-run arms exporter] Rosoboronexport and then their shipment to the customer." The Russians waited a few weeks and then denied reports that the S-300 was en route to Iran anytime soon.
In February of 2009, Iran's then-defense minister, Mostafa Mohammed-Najjar, traveled to Moscow and obtained another public promise to deliver the S-300 system: Those reports were then scotched. In April, Iran's deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Safari, visited Moscow and announced, "There are no problems with this [S-300] contract." Iranian media declared that the country had begun receiving elements of the even more advanced system, the SA-20 Gargoyle. The Russians then announced that no more S-300 components would be delivered to Iran.
In late October, the Russians reversed themselves again and announced that they would absolutely, positively deliver S-300 missiles to Iran. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia then outbid Iran by offering to purchase $2 billion of new Russian weapons, including a more advanced version of the S-300—the S-400.
The first lesson of the rocket poker game, then, is that the Iranians and the Syrians are suckers—until they get the bomb.
The second lesson is that every rocket the Russians sell—or don't sell—gives them leverage to sell more rockets.
The third lesson is that the Israelis have reasons to trust Russia, at the same time as they worry about Russia shipping S-300 missiles to Iran and about the Russians building the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, as well as about the Russian scientist or scientists who has been helping the Iranians master the fine points of building a nuclear warhead.
The fourth lesson is that whoever runs Russia's foreign policy these days—let's call him Vladimir Putin—may not be the greatest guy on the planet, but he sure makes the people who run our country, Republicans and Democrats alike, seem like chumps. First, he invades tiny, democratic Georgia and humiliates its loud-mouthed president. Then he threatens to turn off the gas to Ukraine. Then he uses economic pressure to shut down the large U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan—a key link in the NATO supply chain to Afghanistan. When an idealistic, young U.S. president who bravely dreams of eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet accedes to Russian demands to scotch NATO's hard-won radar system in Eastern Europe, Putin pockets the bait—and then rubs his victory in the faces of the horrified Eastern Europeans by teaming up with the crazy president of Belarus and launching a "practice" invasion of Poland, complete with tactical nuclear weapons. Actions like these make Russia a powerful agent of destabilization that threatens U.S. power across Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, at the same time as it makes Russia the key to our fading hopes of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran. By this time next year, the Middle East may be at war or at peace—depending on where Russia sends its rockets.
Think about it: The sight of Vladimir Putin accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the peace-loving Russian people and their former KGB masters may seem a bit much, but if Russia stops the Iranian bomb by withholding the S-300, then it would be hard to think of a more deserving candidate. If Russia sends the S-300 to Iran, on the other hand, the Iranians will build their bomb—and may use it. Either way, there should be a prize for the world leader who is able to accumulate the most influence at the cheapest price.
David Samuels is a contributing editor at Harper's and a frequent contributor to the Atlantic and The New Yorker.
Photograph of Vladimir Putin by Alexey Druzhinin/AFP/Getty Images.