Something went wrong with Russia’s air defence systems on September 6, 2007. Israeli fighter jets penetrated Syrian airspace and destroyed a secret installation, in all likelihood a nuclear reactor. Syria was protected by a Russian-made air defence system, the Pantsir, and Israel’s ability to penetrate Syrian airspace and destroy such a sensitive facility meant that Tehran took notice: reports suggested that 14 of the 50 systems delivered to Damascus were earmarked for shipment to Iran. Thus, a few months later, Iran reportedly sealed a deal with Russia to purchase the S-300PMU-2/SA-10E Favorit, the surface-to-air missile system that puts in danger anything but the stealthiest of aircraft. Iran’s strategy to assert its supremacy in the region is built on three separate pillars: a mighty land force capable of absorbing any attack and launching deadly attacks on its own; a strategic ballistic missile arsenal capable of attacking targets as far as Europe and the Indian Ocean; and a nuclear capability. All three have one weakness: they are exposed to air attacks. Russia’s air defence systems sales address that deficiency and improve Iran’s ability to repel an air attack against its nuclear installations . But the sale does not preclude an attack, as the 1955 precedent with the Soviet Union selling weapons to Egypt indicates. At the time, Egypt’s acquisition of Soviet weaponry not only induced France to sell similar gear to Israel to keep the balance, but encouraged Israel to launch the 1956 Sinai campaign before the weaponry could become operational. Russia’s aggressive arms sales in the region today can have the same effect. Israel or the US may now feel compelled to take out Iran’s nuclear sites before the S-300 becomes fully operational and makes Iran’s nuclear capability invulnerable .
Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is director of the Transatlantic Institute