The Chickens Come Home to Roost: the Russia-Iran Concessions

Sen. Jim DeMint, R-SC

Late last week, the media reported two instances of what are being called American “concessions” and “appeasement” to Russia over the Iran issue. The media has a reasonable case. Here’s what the Obama administration did:

  • Ended sanctions against four Russian arms dealers involved in weapons trade with Iran and Syria: Rosoboronexport (the state arms exporter), sanctioned in 2006 and 2008; and the Moscow Aviation Institute, the Mendeleev University of Chemical Technology of Russia, and the Tula Instrument Design Bureau, all sanctioned back in 1999.
  • Amended the current Security Council draft resolution sanctioning Iran to exclude a ban on ground-to-air defensive missile systems, i.e., the S-300 rockets sold but never delivered to Iran in 2005. In other words, the U.S. is not insisting, as a condition of the resolution, that Russia cancel the delivery of these weapons.

Explaining these decisions, State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said, “What we’ve seen is a shift in Russian attitudes toward military support for Iran, and emblematic of that is the restraint with respect to delivering S-300s. This was not a quid pro quo, but the fact that Russia has improved its performance with respect to Iran has given us the confidence to take these steps.” These moves by the administration come as a bipartisan effort mounts to block the ’123 agreement’ on U.S.-Russian civilian nuclear cooperation.

I can think of two ways to explain this diplomacy: (1) this was indeed a quid pro quo and the U.S. valued the solidarity of a U.N. resolution against Tehran above stopping the delivery of a few million dollars worth of antimissile rockets, or (2) the Obama administration is asking the Kremlin to prove that it can be trusted by offering it a chance to cancel the S-300 delivery without the appearance of U.S. pressure.

Judging by Mr. Crowley’s statement about “Russian restraint,” it would seem that the White House is indeed betting on Moscow deciding to ‘play ball’ and hold back its weaponry. This is rather surprising, given the Obama administration’s generally risk averse nature. It could also be that Obama is categorically opposed to an American first strike against Iran, and, even in the event of the S-300s’ delivery, is not particularly worried about obstacles to a conflict that he doesn’t foresee. Isolating Iran through a U.S.-led international coalition, the logic goes, would be more important.

With hawkish Democrats and Republicans already terrified that America’s missile defense ambitions are imperiled by the still-unratified New START treaty, the White House’s overtures to the Kremlin last week must have seemed like salt in their wounds.

Here are two reasons for all the irritation that the hawks themselves are reluctant to admit:

Neocons want American missile defense in order to curb Russian influence. The Bush administration’s position was always that Ballistic Missile Defense was never aimed at Russia, whose nuclear arsenal has always been too large to be contained by any fathomable BMD system. Moscow’s objections, however, (founded more on the establishment of American military bases and radar stations on Russia’s perimeter) usually provoked a response in Washington along the lines of ‘Well, if you’re so concerned about being contained, the U.S. probably ought to go ahead and contain you anyways, to protect Eastern Europe.’ Nations like Poland and the Czech Republic, on the other hand, were from the beginning openly interested in hosting BMD components in order to gain additional security promises from the United States. What’s emerged in the last month in the debate about New START is that some in the Republican Party also believe that BMD should target Russia.

Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint made headlines last week, arguing that missile defense in Europe should seek to “render [the Russian] threat useless.” When John Kerry explained to him that this would be a terrible, destabilizing idea, DeMint ran to the Heritage Foundation’s ‘The Foundry’ blog, where he published an unabashedly stupid article titled “Will START Treaty Weaken U.S. Missile Defense? Senator Kerry Seems to Hope So.” In his conclusion, he even cites Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (‘Star Wars’), proving that America’s obsession with antimissile fantasies continues, unabated and insanely idiotic as ever.

Years of denying the linkage between offensive and defensive weapons has at last come back to haunt American neocons and Russian hawks. The infamous loophole included in the current Iran sanctions U.N. draft resolution applies to defensive ground-to-air missiles. It’s exactly this type of weapons that supporters of American BMD have spent a decade arguing is unrelated to offensive threats. Now, in the international effort to contain Tehran’s aggression, neocons find themselves raving against a special exception for anti-missile, anti-aircraft defenses in the anti-Iran embargo.

The only thing that comes close to matching the embarrassing irony of this situation is the predicament of Russian foreign policy hawks. Mikhail Leont’ev, host of Channel One’s talk show Однако, published a histrionic op-ed last week, where he complained that the Kremlin is undermining Russia’s reputation as an arms dealer by contemplating reneging on its deal with the Iranians. “Even the Yeltsin regime didn’t allow itself such things,” he concluded, calling the Kremlin’s decision to join the resolution against Iran “a crime against the interests of the Russian Federation.” Constantine Kosachev, head of the Duma’s International Committee, issued a few triumphal statements about how the new round of sanctions “won’t interfere with our relations with Iran,” but he added (quite awkwardly, in light of the wider missile defense debate) that Russia was cooperating with Iran only in the sphere of “purely defensive” weapons. When the United States offered this line of reasoning for its dealings with the Poles and the Czechs, the Kremlin cried bloody murder and accused America of inventing an artificial divide between offense and defense. Leont’ev’s insistence that Russia is entitled to its sovereign military policy and his celebration of U.S.-Iranian security contracts is equally — and eerily – reminiscent of American justifications of its actions in Eastern Europe.

It will be interesting to see what effect the Iran situation has on missile defense in Europe. In the war of rhetoric, hawks on both sides came away from the last week looking rather silly. If Russia indeed refuses to deliver the S-300s on its own initiative, this could mean the Reset’s greatest success yet. If they go ahead and ship the weapons, Obama will likely suffer the wrath of Jim DeMint and company.

5 Comments

  1. Another issue of some importance that you may wish to comment on is that the US has moved a Patriot missile battery to Poland some 60km from Kaliningrad. This is far more useful to Poland from a military-deterrent perspective than GBMD. (This is in conjunction with a substantial military buildup in Romania).

    Viewing this in terms of realist geopolitics, then, it might be in Russia’s interests to sell the S-300 to Iran, so as to keep US attention deflected from northern Eurasia. Though on the other hand that too might be risky, since it could 1) alienate Israel from Russia and 2) encourage the US to strike some kind of grand bargain with Iran and shift its focus to Eastern Europe.

    • Why do you say that Patriot missiles are a better deterrent? My understanding is that all missile defense systems are basically a load of crap. Except for the Russian loonies who fear this is the beginning of Star Wars, Moscow’s real concern is American boots on the ground in the Russian periphery. Whether they’re carrying Patriot missiles or SM-3s, the present danger to Russian interests is the very presence of more American military personnel.

      I agree that Russia might deliver the S-300s (it’s already sold them) as retribution for America’s recent actions in Poland and Romania. So far, the backlash from the Kremlin has been muted, but that can always change. The Obama administration is often criticized for abandoning U.S. military ambitions in Eastern Europe, but — if that were really true — I think Russia would be far less likely to continue to engage Iran than it is today. My guess is that Moscow continues to deal with Tehran precisely to remind the U.S. that Russia is unhappy with America’s behavior on its western front, and is ready to play the spoiler, if that area’s power brokering is militarized.

      What seems completely impossible is any kind of bargain between Iran and the United States. Even if Russia invaded eastern Ukraine or captured Tbilisi, I find it hard to believe that America would disengage from the Middle East, just to go fight an apocalyptic war with the Russian Federation. Russian attacks on the Baltic states or Poland might provoke an American military response, but that scenario is too unrealistic to seriously consider.

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