The expected deal between Iran and the U.S. has been widely condemned as “paving the road” for Tehran to get the bomb. And rightfully so. Talks that began years ago with the goal of preventing the mullahs from enriching uranium will conclude with an “agreement” that makes Iran a nuclear threshold state, never more than a year away from the bomb–but only for the first decade of the agreement. After that, as President Obama told NPR, breakout times “would have shrunk to almost zero.”
In other words, Tehran’s membership in the nuclear club is inevitable. At some point, the Iranian regime will find a convenient reason to scrap the pending agreement and quickly build a bomb. And that assumes that Iran will actually abide by a diplomatic agreement for at least a few years–something it has never done in the past.
It also presumes that Tehran does not have a covert development effort–a very real possibility–that could produce weapons while its leaders perpetuate the fiction of compliance. Lest we forget, a half-dozen previously undisclosed sites have been uncovered in Iran since 2000. Virtually all were revealed by Iranian opposition groups and not western intelligence agencies. Their ability to ensure Iranian compliance is suspect at best. The same can be said for the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
But history may ultimately judge that the final step in Tehran’s nuclear march wasn’t the diplomatic agreement; the move that ultimately sealed the deal came just a few days later, when Russia lifted its long-standing ban on selling the S-300 air defense system to the Iranians.
Actually, Vladimir Putin didn’t need much arm-twisting to renew the contract; Moscow has been chomping at the bit to provide the S-300 to Iran, and the system may be delivered very quickly. Iranian officials have stated they believe the advanced air defense system could be operational in their country by the end of this year–and possibly, even sooner. Tehran could arrange to have S-300 radars, missile launchers, C2 units and support equipment flown in from Russia and manned (initially) by Russian crews. That means Iran could have an initial S-300 capability in a matter of weeks, rather than a matter of months.
As we’ve written before, deployment of the S-300 in Iran represents a game-changer, particularly in terms of a potential Israeli air strike. The S-300 (or, if you prefer the NATO designation, SA-20) is one of the most advanced surface-to-air missile systems in the world, with excellent capabilities against both aircraft and ballistic missiles, with a maximum range between 120-250 NM, depending on which interceptor missile variant is employed. Think of the S-300 as an advanced version of the U.S. Patriot and you’ve got the right idea; it’s a state-of-the-art system that can provide overlapping coverage of Iranian nuclear facilities, from a variety of threats.
The S-300 is not invincible, but suppressing that type of system requires significant investments in resources and time. The U.S., for example, would employ salvos of cruise missiles to eliminate deployed SAM batteries and eliminate support infrastructure. Cyber attacks would be employed against the early warning and command-and-control networks that support the S-300, in an effort to reduce situational awareness and force individual batteries into autonomous or semi-autonomous operations. As the S-300 network becomes increasingly fragmented, stealth platforms like the F-22 would lead missions aimed at eliminating most of the remaining launchers and radars, providing support and cover for E/F-18 Growlers (providing jamming support) and F-16CJs in the Wild Weasel role.
At a minimum, this effort would take dozens of cruise missile strikes and scores of sorties over a period of several days. And that’s a luxury that Israel doesn’t have. Even with forward basing in places like Azerbaijan, or access through Saudi airspace, the Israeli Air Force would be looking at complex, long-range missions and they would be asset-limited by their small tanker fleet. Most estimates of an IAF first strike against Iranian nuclear targets put the number of tactical aircraft at somewhere between 24-36, roughly the maximum number that could be refueled by six or seven Israeli tankers.
That is not to say Israel is without options. With accurate intelligence, they could take out the missiles shortly after delivery–as they did in Syria during the fall of 2013. But getting to southern Syria is a much easier proposition than flying all the way to Iran and back. And, if the Russians opted for multiple deliveries (by air) to several different locations, the IAF’s targeting problems would be infinitely more complex.
This much is certain: Israel’s “window” for eliminating the S-300 threat (and bombing Iranian nuclear sites) is growing quite narrow. Russia and Iran won’t rest until the air defense system is operational, and Tehran always has the option of ratcheting up covert development efforts, in facilities unknown to both the U.S. and Israel. The Iranians know the IAF has only a limited ability to sustain a long-distance air campaign against targets in their country, and arrival of the S-300 will force the Israelis to rethink their options. Meanwhile, the world power capable of sustaining an air campaign against Iran (the United States) is firmly wedded to a “diplomatic solution” that effectively gives Tehran the bomb.
Put another way: Iran is no longer worried about a U.S. attack, and they view the advanced SAM system as an effective insurance policy against an Israeli strike. You might say Iran’s status as a nuclear power will be secured by those first FLAP LID emissions and battery deployments inside the Islamic Republic.
ADDENDUM: If you need further proof that Iran isn’t worried about American military action, consider President Obama’s comments about the S-300 deal. According to Channel 10 in Israel, Mr. Obama said he was surprised that Russia’s suspension of the missile sale “held this long,” since Moscow was not barred from selling those “defensive” weapons.
Translated, Obama is privately pleased that Russia is going ahead with the sale. He figures it will discourage an Israeli military strike, and force everyone to go along with the so-called framework, recently worked out in Switzerland. Meanwhile, Iran will remain on the cusp of getting a nuclear weapon, with a greatly reduced threat to its nuclear facilities, thanks to pending deployments of the S-300.