Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Research Fellow in Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation
Azerbaijan is watching with concern as Russia is planning will deploy modern S-300 long range anti-aircraft missiles in Iran. A high level Russian source who requested anonymity told TREND that in March 2009, Russia will complete the missile battery assembly, and by June 2009 next year they will become fully operational, as Iranian teams finish training provided by their Russian instructors,
According to multiple US and Israeli sources, Iran is likely to produce a nuclear bomb possibly as soon as 2009-2010, and, given the blood curdling rhetoric of its president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, may use it against Israel.
The deployment of the anti-aircraft shield next door to Azerabaijan effectively limits the window in which Israel or the U.S. can conduct an effective aerial campaign aimed at destroying, delaying or crippling the Iranian nuclear program. Such campaign causes many policy makers in Baku many sleepless nights and days of worry.
The Islamic Republic will use the long range anti-aircraft system, in addition to the point-defense TOR M-1 short range Russian made system, to protect its nuclear infrastructure, including suspected nuclear weapons facilities, from a potential US or Israeli preventive strike.
The S-300 system, which has a radius of over 90 miles and effective altitudes of about 90,000 feet, is capable of tracking up to 100 targets simultaneously. It is considered one of the best in the world and is amazingly versatile. It is capable of shooting down aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads. The S-300 complements the Tor-M1 air defense missile system, also supplied by Russia. In 2007 Russia delivered 29 Tor-M1s to Iran worth $700-900 million. According to a forthcoming publication in Moscow, some Russian officials have paid kickbacks to their Iranian customers via banks in Armenia and Cyprus to gain these lucrative contracts.
Israel has been very effective in electronic warfare (EW) against Soviet- and Russian-built technologies, including anti-aircraft batteries. In 1982, Israeli Air Force F-16s smashed the Syrian anti-aircraft missiles in the Bekaa Valley and within Syria, allowing Israel full air superiority over Syria and Lebanon. As a result, Syria lost over 80 planes, one third of its air force, in two days, while Israel lost one obsolete ground support A-4 Skyhawk to ground fire.
In 1981, Israeli F-15s and F-16s flew undetected over Jordan and Saudi Arabia on their mission to destroy Saddam Hussein's Osirak reactor.
More recently, Israeli Air Force surprised the Syrians when they destroyed an alleged nuclear facility in the North East of the country in September 2007, apparently flying undetected to and from the mission.
However, the mission over Iran, if and when decided upon, is very different than operations over neighboring Syria.
First, if Israel waits till next March, there may be a new boss at the White House, a boss who emphasizes diplomacy over military operations. Even if the Bush Administration allows Israel the over-flight of Iraqi air space and aerial refueling, a putative Obama Administration might not, opting for an "aggressive diplomacy" approach instead.
Second, Israel, military experts say, does not have long range bomber capacity, such as the Cold War era US B-1 heavy supersonic bomber, or the B-2 stealth bomber. Israel, a Russian source estimates, can hit 20 targets simultaneously, while the Iranian nuclear program may have as many as 100. Many of the Iranian targets are fortified, and will require bunker busters.
If Israel chooses to engage in a bombing campaign, it may decide to conduct several waves of air raids, to make sure that targets are destroyed. As Iranian retaliation is all but certain, it may target not only the nuclear program, but also its means of delivery, including Shahab 3 intermediate range ballistic missiles, which are capable of hitting Israel. Many in the Middle East will publicly denounce Israel, while quietly thanking Jerusalem for doing a job that needed to be done, as they did after Osirak was destroyed.
And Israel may have a way to prevent a retaliation by the Iranian oil terminal at Kharg Island "hostage". A former US military source with targeting experience says that Kharg Island ships 80 percent of Iran's oil. Its loss to Israeli bombing would leave Teheran with no revenue for a long time to come. If Iran launches rockets against Tel Aviv, Israel may bomb not only Teheran, but destroy Kharg Island as well.
Operational challenges abound. Israel's EW planes, needed to suppress anti-aircraft batteries, are slow and unarmed, and could become a target for Iranian anti-aircraft missiles or even fighter sorties. But the most important question analysts are asking is whether the current Israeli leadership has the knowledge and the gumption to pull it off. After all, the results of the 2006 mini-war against Hezbollah were disastrous for Israel, and the Israeli Defense Forces have exposed numerous flaws in its preparedness, supply chain, and command, control, communications and intelligence.
Moreover, the recent prisoner exchange between Israel and Hezbollah demonstrated a lack of strategic vision and understanding previously unprecedented for the Jewish state: exchanging live terrorists for dead bodies sent a signal that Israel is weak and can be kicked. It was a sign that the current Israeli leadership is strategically blind, deaf, and dumb. It is not with the current leadership that Israel should go to war with the emerging regional superpower, Iran.
Nevertheless, the temptation to preemptively defang Teheran may prove irresistible in view of the Iranian leadership professed hatred and intransigence. As noted by Professor Stephen Blank of the U.S. Army War College,
"When one is dealing with a national leadership which is motivated by the ethnic and religious hatred ,one needs to remember that such a leadership becomes obsessed and loses its ability to calculate things. They may risk war rather than seek accommodation. This was not only the case with Nazi Germany, but also with the antebellum American South of the 1840s and 1850s, where racial hatred of the slave owners cause them to lose sight of what was at stake.
Blank goes on to conclude that the Iranian leadership believes that Russia and China will provide them with protection, of which the S-300 is an important component, and that the sanctions are not effective.
As this analysis demonstrates, under the circumstances, the Israel-only preventive bombing campaign - without the U.S. -- may be too risky to pull off. If U.S. sits this crisis out, Israel may settle for deterring Iran by taking its cities and main oil facilities hostage. This was known during the Cold War as Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) brought to you courtesy of Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and President Ahmadinejad. Going MAD would make the Middle East - and Iranian neighbors to the North -- even more at risk than they already are, and would make life of inhabitants of the region ever more difficult and tragic.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of Trend