An early test for Obama

Reports of an arms deal between Russia and Iran might prove to be an early test of Barack Obama's foreign affairs mettle.

Stratfor.com

There has been extensive discussion of how US President-elect Barack Obama might be tested early in his term by foreign powers, much as other presidents have been tested. If reports in the Russian media are correct, Obama’s first test is starting to take shape. According to RIA Novosti news agency, Russia is in the process of "implementing a contract” that would ultimately deliver the S-300 strategic air defense system to Iran.

These rumors concerning the S-300 have been on-again, off-again for years, but RIA Novosti reported that, "Moscow has earlier met its obligations on supplying Tor-M1 systems to Iran and is currently implementing a contract to deliver S-300 systems.” The Russian news agency also quoted Alexander Fomin, deputy head of the federal agency in charge of Russia’s military exports, as saying that, "Russia’s military and technical cooperation with Iran has a positive impact on stability in this region.” Fomin added, "We have developed, are developing and will continue to develop this cooperation further. The region’s security to a large extent depends on this.” The report follows other reports that an Israeli military delegation traveled to Moscow in recent days to try to dissuade Russia from delivering the weapons.

The importance of the S-300 is that it would increase the difficulty of air attacks on Iran. The first stage of any attack is the suppression of enemy air defenses (SEAD). Except for in the case of a sudden attack on a single target, SEAD is a precursor of any sustained air campaign, and given the relatively large number of Iranian nuclear sites, taking out its facilities would involve such an extended campaign. Having to suppress a series of S-300PMU batteries would extend substantially the number of sorties and the time frame required for this phase of the attack.

This would affect both Israeli and American calculations. Given the size of Israel’s air force and the distances involved, the additional attrition and time involved in the SEAD phase might well extend the campaign beyond what Israel is capable of. It is not clear whether the S-300 would take a conventional Israeli option off the table, but it would certainly make things more difficult should Israel decide to carry out the attack. The United States would have greater ability to make such a move, but Washington’s recent agreement with Baghdad stipulates that Iraq cannot be used as a base for attacks against neighboring countries. And the Turks do not want the Americans to attack Iran from their soil. Put simply, the introduction of the S-300 would push the difficulty of a non-nuclear attack to the limit for Israel and complicate life for the United States.

Of course, this is what the Russians mean to do. We do not know what happened during the conversations US Senator Richard Lugar and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger held in Moscow this weekend, but afterward, the Russians clearly decided to turn up the heat. Russia has shifted its position from not wanting to increase tensions through the sale of the S-300 to seeing the sale as stabilizing the region – which it would do at the expense of potentially reducing US and Israeli options.

Moscow does not want the Iranians to have nuclear weapons, but the Russian view is that the Iranians are rather far away from having them. But the more important issue for Russia is forcing the Americans to recognize Moscow’s sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union by withdrawing their support for Ukraine, Georgia and other countries in the region. For the United States, the Iranian issue has been a priority. And the Russians have just made it clear that if the Americans do not give them what they want, they will complicate US policy on Iran as much as they can.

Obama takes office in about a month. It is not clear what point the Russians have reached in actually transferring S-300s, but in a month’s time, they could be either on the verge of transferring or already in the process. That means Obama will be forced very quickly to respond to Russia’s action. His options include forcing some sort of confrontation with the Russians; doing nothing, and thus accepting Russia’s intrusion into a core American interest; moving rapidly to deal with Iran; or, and we doubt this intensely, moving to strike Iran before the S-300s become operational.

It may be that American defense analysts will conclude that the S-300 does not significantly affect the balance of power in the region. But the S-300 does affect the psychological balance. Iran will feel that it is far less isolated than the Americans want it to feel, and that change alone will have a significant effect. Whether viewed militarily or politically, Russia’s action matters.

This is not the Cuban Missile Crisis, but it is a significant challenge to American interests on Russia’s part. If Obama does nothing, he will be seen as weak; if he gives the Russians what they want, he will be seen as an appeaser. And if he moves toward a major crisis or even military action, he will be seen as overly aggressive. With this move, Russia’s aim was to push Obama into a corner and say, in Russian, "Welcome to the big league.”

Stratfor provides intelligence services for individuals, global corporations, and divisions of the US and foreign governments around the world.

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