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Iran’s new air-defence system is a threat to the regional balance of power

May 4, 2016 at 10:15 am

Last month, at the annual National Army Day parade in Tehran, the Islamic Republic of Iran claimed that parts of a recently-purchased Russian S-300 air-defence missile system were part of the display. With a NATO reporting name of “SA-10 Grumble”, it is a long-range, surface-to-air missile system that, despite being a generation old, is still regarded as one of the most sophisticated of its kind in the field.

It is believed that these parts arrived in Iran in early April, when Foreign Minister Spokesman Jaber Ansari announced the receipt of the first shipment of S-300 components. This was the first phase of a 2007 contract between Russia and Iran. “We had already announced that, despite several changes in delivery date, the deal is heading towards implementation,” Ansari stated. “Today, I can announce that the first of this equipment has arrived in Iran, and delivery of other parts will continue.”

A day after Ansari’s announcement, Russian Deputy Prime Minister Smitry Rogozin confirmed that Russia is honouring its contractual obligations towards Iran. In an interview with the Ekho Moskvy radio station, he said: “We are acting in strict compliance with the contract. They pay; we sell. We have already started. It is a supply in full sets.”

The Iranian acquisition of the Russian S-300 system has triggered international concern, as it threatens the current balance of military power in the Middle East. It reinforces the aerial defence capabilities of Iran and reduces the qualitative military edge of its regional adversaries, including the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the State of Israel, who have historically used their superior military capabilities as deterrents to direct conflict with the Shia theocracy.

In November and October 2015, and again in March this year, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a branch of the armed forces of Iran, conducted a series of missile tests that called into question Iranian commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is commonly referred to as the Iranian nuclear deal, which was reached in Vienna on 14 July 2015 between Iran, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC) – the US, France, Britain, China and Russia — plus Germany, and the European Union (EU).

Under the JCPOA, Iran was required to reduce its stockpile of enriched uranium by about 98 per cent, and to remove two-thirds of its centrifuges — leaving a total of 5,060— and the core of its heavy water reactor at Arak. In exchange, all nuclear-related sanctions imposed on Iran by the EU, the UN and the US were lifted.

According to the first assessment of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was published on 26 February, Iran has so far honoured these terms. It could be argued, however, that the series of missile tests conducted by the IRGC violate UN Security Council resolution 2231, which was adopted in July 2015 and bans Iran from engaging in ballistic missile activity designed to deliver nuclear weapons.

Iran’s display of military muscle following the signing of the JCPOA generated a scenario characterised by uncertainty and mistrust, with some calling on the international community to reinstate full sanctions if Iran continues to contribute to the destabilisation of the Middle East.

For example, on the first anniversary of the announcement of the framework agreement for the JCPOA, the Wall Street Journal published an Op-Ed by Yousef Al-Otaiba, the UAE Ambassador in Washington, in which he said: “If the carrots of engagement aren’t working, we must not be afraid to bring back the sticks. Recent half measures against Iran’s violations of the ballistic-missile ban are not enough. If the aggression continues, the US and the global community should make clear that Iran will face the full range of sanctions and other steps still available under UN resolutions and in the nuclear deal itself.”

International scepticism about Iran’s future commitment to its JCPOA obligations increased following its apparent acquisition of the Russian air-defence system, which can be used to protect Iranian nuclear facilities from pre-emptive strikes. Should the Shia theocracy violate the terms of the JCPOA, the international community will face significant difficulties to disable S-300-protected nuclear facilities in Iran; the system creates a no-fly zone for F-16s and F/A-18s, while B-2s and F-22s are only capable of operating in S-300-guarded areas for a limited amount of time.

Furthermore, should Iran decide to deploy S-300 air-defence systems on Syrian or Lebanese soil, Israel will face a serious military threat on its own doorstep in the shape of Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia armed with the system and supporting the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad.

As of yet, the Russian foreign ministry has not officially approved the contract between Russia and Iran. So far, what is known is that, in early April, Zamir Kabulov, a department chief at the ministry, told Interfax news agency that Russia would begin the delivery of S-300 components: “I don’t know if this will happen today, but they [S-300 components] will be loaded [for shipment to Iran].”

Amid all of this, the Gulf States and their regional allies, as well as Israel, have proceeded to forge an undeclared Saudi-led anti-Iran alliance based on regional cooperation for mutual benefit.

With control over the Strait of Mandeb, which connects the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia recently also secured the Strait of Tiran, which connects the Gulf of Aqaba to the north of the Red Sea. On 8 April, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Bin Abdulaziz announced an agreement with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi under which Egypt will transfer to the Saudis control of the islands of Tiran and Sanafir, which are both located in the Strait of Tiran. This waterway is of geostrategic importance to the countries around the Gulf of Aqaba, including Israel, which is an unofficial ally of Saudi Arabia against their common rival, Iran.

The objective of the kingdom was to gain control over the whole Red Sea maritime route to guarantee its capability to diversify its export and trade routes should Iran close the Straits of Hormuz in the Arabian Gulf. Following the announcement of the agreement, which will also seek to connect Arab states in the Middle East to the Arab states in North Africa with the construction of a bridge across the strait, Saudi Arabian and Egyptian representatives signed 17 investment deals and memorandums of understanding that will help Egypt’s economic growth, which holds the key to stability in the country.

This move is an example of how Saudi Arabia is facing the Iranian threat. It is following a strategy that seeks regional cooperation for mutual benefit. Similar moves can be expected in the near future.

To guarantee the construction of a stable order in the Middle East, the international community must help the regional hegemonies reach a modus vivendi instead of deranging the current balance of military power. International leniency towards Iran will not contribute to the stabilisation of the region; a firm global stance against breaches of international law, on the other hand, will.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.