Russia needs a Middle East crisis: Will delivering S-300s to Iran help?

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision on lifting the ban on delivering to Iran the S-300 surface-to-air missiles took many experts by surprise, but U.S. President Barack Obama noted with perfect indifference that for him the only surprise was “that it held this long.” In fact, Putin’s timing was impeccable, since nobody could blame him for acting as a spoiler for the deal reached in Lausanne on April 2, but his move is certain to impact on the final agreement that is to be reached by the end of June. As Robert Einhorn reminds us, “the success is far from guaranteed.” Moscow demonstrated the same skill in exploiting time to its advantage last November, when it signed a contract with Tehran to build two nuclear reactors  (with an option for six more) just two weeks before the deadline in the P5+1 talks. An emboldened Iran then opted to blow through that deadline and indeed was able to negotiate a better deal four months later.

Certainly, Putin’s executive order doesn’t mean that the 40 launchers are loaded to be shipped; in fact, the missiles sold back in 2007, are not in production any more. Russian authorities insist that there is no need to draft a new contract, only to account for inflation and production costs for a more advanced modification S-300VM. Iran may be eager to deploy the air defense system, but Iranian cash is in short supply and a chance for bargaining is not to be missed. Moscow is probably ready to give a nice discount. Much more than profits is at stake for the Kremlin—it seeks to undermine the sanctions regime, which would implicitly weaken the Western commitment to sustain sanctions against Russia.

Putin was rather elliptic explaining his decision, and the proposition that these “purely defensive weapons systems” might become a “factor of deterrence” in the context of the conflict in Yemen is highly dubious. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Putin to express (one can guess—in no uncertain terms) his disapproval of the rush to arm the nuclearizing Iran. He got nowhere, despite the fact that he is one of the few Western leaders who is still on speaking terms with the “captor of Crimea.” Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud also called Putin and allegedly expressed appreciation of Russia’s efforts at normalization of the situation in Yemen, even if these efforts have been strictly at cross-purposes with the Saudi-led intervention. 

So what lies behind the decision to resurrect the S-300 sale? Ever since the spectacular success of the initiative on eliminating the Syrian chemical arsenal in 2013, Putin has been looking for an opportunity to assert a central role for Russia in the Middle East. Russia wants this role to deal with what is, for Russia, a very grave and urgent problem that originates in the Middle East: low oil prices. Iran’s gradual rehabilitation as a major producer threatens to push it even lower than its current below-worst-nightmare plateau. The only chance for Moscow to escape from this trap is a disruptive crisis that could curtail the flow of oil from the Gulf. The “principled” anti-interventionist stance on the Yemen conflict and the eagerness to boost Iran’s air defense capabilities are twists in the strategic maneuvering aimed at facilitating such a crisis. Indeed, the failure of the Saudi-led intervention may make the House of Saud extremely nervous about further Persian intrigues and intentions, while the perception of invulnerability against limited air strikes might embolden Iran to experiment with further power projection.    

The S-300 coup is not likely to give Putin much joy, however. For once, he knows perfectly well that there is one major power determined to prevent any oil shocks, and Russia cannot afford to offend its interests. China has expressed understanding of Putin’s decision to “unfreeze” the missile deal, but he knows that a step further involves a risk of causing displeasure. The Kremlin sees the need in and the benefits of playing a spoiler role, but it cannot afford to be caught at it. The situation on the ground in the various overlapping Middle Eastern conflicts is shifting all the time. Moscow risks committing a major blunder, both because its ambitions are far higher than the resources available for their execution, and because the expertise on Middle East in the narrow circle of Putin’s courtiers is non-existent.