FPI Bulletin: The Risks of Growing Russia-Iran Ties

April 21, 2015

Moscow’s decision last week to lift its ban on the sale of S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Tehran serves to bolster Iran’s regional aggression and help it defend the sites it would use to build a nuclear weapon. The Kremlin’s move also reflects newly resurgent ties with Iran over the past year that have proven staggering in their scale: a military cooperation deal, an agreement to build two more nuclear reactors in Iran, and a $20 billion trade pact that evades Western sanctions. To counter this increasingly dangerous partnership, the United States should insist on a good nuclear deal with Iran that dismantles its nuclear infrastructure, and should make clear it opposes the aggression of both countries against their respective neighbors.
Moscow announced its sale of the S-300s only 11 days after the P5+1 and Tehran unveiled their so-called framework agreement to curtail the Iranian nuclear program. As Russian President Vladimir Putin put it, “With the progress of the Iranian nuclear track — and that is obviously positive — we do not see any reason to continue to keep the ban unilaterally.”
At the same time, the Kremlin argued that the S-300 “is purely defensive and will not pose [a] threat to Israel or any other country in the Middle East.” But the facts suggest otherwise. First, Russia itself has frequently deployed the system not for self-defense, but to threaten the airspace of its neighbors, including the Baltic states, Ukraine, and Georgia. As Will Cathcart wrote in the Daily Beast last week, “Putin views the S-300 system as a means for power projection, and that is exactly what he is selling to Iran.”
In this sense, the S-300 would not merely complicate any effort to prevent an Iranian nuclear breakout, as Putin implied. Rather, by making a military strike far more difficult, the system would also embolden Tehran to project its power with relative impunity.
Second, Iran could transfer the truck-mounted and highly mobile S-300 to Hezbollah or the Assad regime, which could shoot down Israeli planes from across the Lebanese or Syrian border. Alternatively, should Tehran transfer the system to its Houthi proxies in Yemen, it could shoot down Saudi fighter jets. Putin himself has alluded to such a possibility, noting that the S-300 could serve as “a deterrent factor in connection with the situation in Yemen.”
The lifting of the S-300 ban comes as part of a series of steps both Russia and Iran have taken to reinvigorate their relationship after years of tension.
The sanctions imposed on the Putin regime after its annexation of Crimea led Vladimir Putin to recognize that Russia, like Iran, could not dominate its neighbors without encountering American resistance. Thus, Putin has moved rapidly to strengthen a partnership that enhances the respective Russian and Iranian efforts to weaken U.S. influence.
In November 2014, for instance, Moscow and Tehran signed an agreement to build two new nuclear reactors at Bushehr, the site of the nuclear power plant constructed by Moscow between 1995 and 2010. “This is a turning point in relations between Russia and Iran,” Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akbar Salehi declared. Sergei Kiriyenko, the chief executive of the Russian state-owned energy giant Rosatom, called the effort “a big project expanding our cooperation for decades to come.”
In January 2015, the two countries signed a military cooperation agreement that Tehran described as a response to U.S. aggression. “Iran and Russia are able to confront the expansionist intervention and greed of the United States through cooperation, synergy and activating strategic potential capacities,” Iran’s defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, said. Russia’s defense minister, Sergei Shoigu, said Moscow is committed to “long-term and multilevel” cooperation.
And in recent days, Moscow and Tehran have reportedly begun implementing a $20 billion oil-for-goods agreement, reached last August, that would bypass Western sanctions by permitting Moscow, in exchange for grain, construction materials, and other goods, to buy up to 500,000 barrels of oil per day. The deal follows a December statement by Iran’s ambassador to Moscow that Tehran seeks to increase bilateral trade with Russia from $3-5 billion to $70 billion.
Reinvigorated Russia-Iran ties harbor important implications for U.S. policy. First, they suggest that Russia will frustrate the implementation of any agreement on Iran’s nuclear program by emboldening the regime with military assistance and threatening to veto any efforts at the U.N. Security Council to impose “snapback” sanctions. 
Second, they indicate that further U.S. concessions at the nuclear talks, as per the recent framework agreement, will only encourage Moscow and Tehran to strengthen their partnership, secure in the knowledge that they will face no meaningful consequences.
The United States can counter these challenges by rejecting any agreement with Tehran that allows it to become a threshold nuclear state, while making clear that the regime will face even more punishing sanctions if it refuses to reach a good deal. Likewise, the Obama administration should increase pressure on Moscow by increasing sanctions against Putin’s henchmen and arming Ukraine. Russia and Iran understand that their behavior is intended to undermine America’s global standing, and so should we.

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