Blocked! WikiLeaks Shows How Iran’s Air Defense Deal Died [Updated]
For two years, U.S. diplomats and Israeli leaders steadily implored Russia not to sell Iran a powerful anti-aircraft missile that both feared could turn air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities into a fiasco. Stopping the sale of the S-300 missile, an issue obscure to all but obsessive observers of the region, became a secret test for American diplomacy at the highest levels.
“For better or for worse,” John Beyrle, the U.S. ambassador to Russia cabled back to Washington in February 2009, “the delivery of S-300’s have become a barometer of our bilateral relations.”
It turned out to be a positive indicator. In September, Russian officials announced the cancellation of a years-old agreement to sell Iran a potentially game-changing air defense system. The Iranians have been crying foul ever since, vowing to take Russia to court over the end of an arms transfer worth an estimated $800 million. But it’s hardly a mere financial issue. The S-300 can shoot down enemy aircraft from up to 200 kilometers away, making it a system that “scares every Western air force,” in the words of defense analyst Dan Goure.
No wonder the U.S. and Israel worked aggressively to stop the sale — an effort whose scale is detailed in the diplomatic cables released on Sunday by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks. Almost as soon as the Obama administration came into office, diplomats in the Mideast were ordered to turn regional fears of Iran into pressure on Russia not to follow through on the missile sale.
“Washington would like these governments to immediately and directly raise this issue with their Russian counterparts,” reads a February 2009 instruction from Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton to ambassadors in Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Gulf states. Playing on their political and military relationships with Moscow, Mideastern leaders could argue “such a transfer could significantly enhance Iran’s air defense capability; increase regional instability; and reward Iran at a time when Iran is undermining security with its nuclear pursuits and support for terrorism.” If possible, the U.S. should get Mideast leaders to argue that “they cannot have a close political-military relationship with Russia, while Russia strengthens the hand of Iran.”
Regional allies appeared to need little convincing. The chief of staff of the United Arab Emirates’ military requested Patriot missile batteries from the U.S. that month, since he feared that the S-300 sale would cause Israel to bomb Iran, touching off a wide-ranging Iranian response against Gulf states like the UAE perceived to “help Israel.” He added, “I don’t trust the Russians, I’ve never trusted the Russians or the Iranians.” In October, Bahrain’s crown prince asked a senior U.S. Air Force officer about the S-300 transfer. Observing the turmoil in Iranian politics following the fraud-riddled presidential election, he warned, “We are still a ways away from knowing whether force is necessary.”
In Moscow, the S-300s became a constant source of intrigue between U.S. diplomats and their Russian counterparts — as did Russia’s view of Iran’s existing missile capabilities. During a December 2009 security meeting in Moscow, senior Russian defense officials played down Iran’s ability to develop a ballistic missile with a 2,000-mile range. Iran “lacks appropriate structural materials for long-range systems,” they said, proffering a similarly laid-back view of North Korea’s missile threat. (U.S. intelligence now believes that North Korea transferred 19 ballistic missiles to Iran with a 2,000-mile range.) While the U.S. delegation opted to emphasize its points of agreement with the Russians on both countries’ threats, the Russians saw Iranian missiles as a “challenge” but “no threat.”
From the U.S. perspective, Russia’s military and security services were pressing President Dmitry Medvedev to deliver the S-300 to Iran, but “as much for financial reasons as for political or foreign policy considerations,” Beyrle assessed in February 2009. Russian sensitivities couldn’t allow the U.S. to actively tell Moscow not to sell Iran the missiles. But that didn’t mean that the Russians couldn’t be swayed. That April, the U.S. cheered when Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told senators visiting Moscow that the S-300 deal was on the shelf “for the moment” while Russia tested its new relationship with Washington.
In December 2009, Beyrle reported “increasing frustration with Iran” in Moscow. Senior Iranian officials were increasingly vocal with the Russians in demanding the missiles, reminding that they “already paid a considerable amount towards delivery of the system and they expected fulfillment of the contract.” Yet a Russian foreign ministry representative punted, saying the decision would be “made at the Presidential level” — and suggesting nothing was final.
That opening helped the Israeli government work different angles to stop the deal. In December 2009, Moscow began talking with Israel about a possible quid pro quo. According to a top Israeli official, the Russians wanted Israeli unmanned planes, recognizing “development gaps” in their own drones, and floated a possible Israeli-Russian drone sale “in exchange for canceling the S-300 sale to Tehran.”
Then, in February 2010, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived in Moscow with a different bargaining chip: potential resumed Israeli arms deals with Georgia, which has close military ties to Israel — including selling them surveillance drones — and with which Russia fought a 2008 war. Both he and Medvedev denied that they were actually talking about a quid pro quo. But an Israeli diplomat in Moscow told U.S. officials Netanyahu “believes that Russia has taken ‘all aspects of regional stability’ into account when taking decisions on the S-300s” and had personal “trust in Medvedev” on the sale.
In September, Russia and Israel announced a $100 million deal to send 36 spy drones to Moscow. That same month, Russia canceled the S-300 deal, citing new United Nations Security Council sanctions on Iran — sanctions that Russia voted to impose in June 2010, after intense U.S. courting. Israel hasn’t sold Georgia any new drones.
To be sure, there’s no WikiLeaked cable yet released claiming U.S. and Israeli pressure stopped the S-300 sale. Maybe one will emerge when WikiLeaks releases more documents. More likely, the U.S. and Israeli efforts helped Russia decide on its own that its relationship with a global superpower and a regional giant were more important than an irritant like the S-300. Still, the documents indicate that both countries put a full-court-press on Russia over the powerful anti-aircraft missile, and reaped a big diplomatic victory.
Update 12:27 p.m.: Corrected the S-300’s range.
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