Would a new Russian missile system make Israeli airstrikes on Iran impossible?

Israeli responses to the news that Russia would lift a voluntary ban on the sale of weapons to Iran and provide state-of-the-art air defense systems to the Islamic Republic have ranged from concern to seeming panic.

Some experts fear that the S-300 missiles could take away Israel’s (or even the United States’) ability to easily strike nuclear targets in Iran, while Israeli officials expressed their concern that the missiles could make their way to Hezbollah, the militant Shi’ite faction that controls Southern Lebanon, on Israel’s northern border.

Others pondered what Russian President Vladimir Putin hopes to get from the announcement.

Speaking on Israel Army Radio, Zvi Magen, a former ambassador to both Ukraine and Russia, rhetorically asked “why is Russia in such a hurry?” before concluding that several things are taking place at once:

“There’s an interim deal, and Russia is worries Iran will turn [the] West and so, for several months already, they are trying to pivot the Iranians towards them, instead,” Magen said.

Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow, May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin
Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile systems move along a central street during a rehearsal for a military parade in Moscow, May 4, 2009. REUTERS/Alexander Natruskin

But even more than that, Magen said, the announcement was part of Russian posturing vis-à-vis the United States. “This is an extension of the Ukrainian crisis… Also, with Abu Mazen [the commonly used nickname of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] in Moscow the same day the Iranian thing comes up, I think we are seeing the expression of Russian desires to return to the Middle East, a more assertive, aggressive, far-reaching Russia than we’ve been seeing.”

That was the rational part of Israel talking.

Official Israel went right ahead and laid the blame for Moscow’s decision squarely on the steps of the White House. In a call to Putin, Prime Minister Netanyahu decried that “the sale of advanced weapons to Iran is the result of the dangerous agreement that is emerging between Iran and the [six world] powers. After this arms deal [for the S-300 missiles,] is there anyone who can seriously claim that the [framework] agreement with Iran will increase the security in the Middle East?”

Intelligence Affairs Minster Yuval Steinitz said that while “Iran shirks clause after clause in the framework agreement, the international community begins to ease up on it. This is a direct result of the legitimacy that Iran is obtaining from the deal being woven with it, and it is proof that the economic momentum in Iran that will come after the lifting of the sanctions will be exploited for arming and not for the welfare of the Iranian people.”

In case anyone didn’t get the message, Israeli media blared with headlines such as “The sale of the missiles is Obama’s failure” — attributed to Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, who, in fact, stopped just short of mentioning the American president by name.

This might raise an eyebrow among Washington Kremlinologists who are fretting over the unraveling ties between Putin and Obama.

Meanwhile, if one man seemed amused by the contretemps, it was Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who took advantage of a tour of the Iberian Peninsula to archly prick the Israeli prime minster.

In Madrid, Zarif said “If he believes that our nuclear program is an existential threat then he should heave a sigh of relief that everyone is watching this program.”

The next day, in Lisbon, Zarif, who for many years was close to being persona non grata in European capitals, defended Russia’s action as “fully legal” and “irrelevant to the nuclear negotiations.”

Late Wednesday, Netanyahu, who was speaking at a ceremony marking Israel’s Holocaust Day, declared that “As the Nazis aspired to crush civilization and impose the rule of the superior race by exterminating the Jewish people, so Iran strives to conquer the region and reach even farther.”

With so much posturing, and so little concern for the facts at hand, it is difficult for Israelis to know whether, in fact, the Russian announcement posed a new threat to their well-being.

Confusing matters even further, Netanyahu’s government, once again through the voice of Steinitz, pronounced itself “happy” with the compromise deal achieved between the warring states of the Obama administration and U.S. Congress regarding the very same interim agreement on Iran. Steinitz went so far as to take credit for the deal: “This is an achievement for Israeli policy,” he said, once again on radio, as if he himself had negotiated on behalf of congressional Republicans.

This leaves Israelis, who elected a new government a month ago and have yet to hear of which parties and ministers it will be composed, exactly where they were before they went to vote: being yelled at about Iran, fearful of international neglect, and still too broke to even think of getting a mortgage.

Noga Tarnopolsky has two decades of experience covering international politics. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post and El País, among others.

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