Don’t Believe the S-300 Hype

At some point I’m going to make a list of foreign policy non-story stories (in which “Fatah-Hamas Agreement Imminent” will feature prominently). For now, I’ll just direct your attention to the Russian national security adviser’s declaration that nothing is “restricting” delivery of S-300 air defense systems to Iran.

This is nothing more than Russia’s political line, unchanged and often-repeated ever since the contract for the sale was signed. “Unrestricted” in this case means that the S-300 system is not covered by any relevant international arms sales agreements because it is a defensive weapon. This does not suggest that delivery is imminent, since Russia does exercise self-imposed political restraints on such sales, related to assessments of regional balance and stability.

So, why the declaration now, in the run-up to UNSC sanctions negotiations and with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu days away from a scheduled Moscow visit? The answer lies in the fact that the S-300 serves simultaneously as carrot (for Iran) and stick (for the U.S. and Israel) for Russia’s regional policy. Brandishing the signed but yet-to-be-honored contract now puts pressure on Iran to walk back its brinksmanship, while also driving up the price of any bargain the U.S. and Israel are looking to make.

Another one along these lines that Moscow keeps handy is the Bushehr nuclear reactor that it has built (and delivered nuclear fuel for) but not yet brought online. The timeframe for that happening hasn’t changed much over the past few years either, and is routinely estimated at 6-12 months.

The day Russia pulls the trigger on either of these, it will signal either the finalization of a stable resolution to the problem of Iran’s nuclear program, or the beginning of an unstable prolongation of it. But that day is no closer in the aftermath of this declaration than it was before.

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