Russia's S-300 Sale to Iran: 3 Things You Need to Know

The Buzz

It’s been widely reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to sell the Russian-made S-300 missile system to Iran. This sale has been planned for years, but it was put on hold in 2010 when the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1929. Although this resolution did not specifically prohibit the sale of missile systems like the S-300, it did call for all states to “exercise vigilance and restraint” in supplying weapons to Iran. Since then, Russia has refrained from selling these weapons. Now Russia has changed its mind.

The S-300 is a mobile surface-to-air missile defense system that couples powerful radars with high-speed, long-range missiles. It is capable of shooting down aircraft over a large area (depending on the variant, the lethal engagement zone could be larger than the state of New Jersey…with the detection/tracking zone much larger than that). In NATO, we refer to this missile system as the SA-10. We have studied it and trained to counter it for years. While we are not scared of it, we respect the S-300 for what it is: a very mobile, accurate, and lethal missile system.

Russia’s decision to sell the S-300 to Iran is a big deal for three reasons:

1. It represents a fundamental shift in military power for the region:

For over a decade, the United States and its allies have been able to take freedom of action in the Middle Eastern skies for granted. Friendly forces could count on air support and freedom of maneuver. Adversaries could assume they were vulnerable to observation and attack from the air, limiting their options and convincing some of them that they could not achieve their objectives through military force (often called deterrence by denial). This was especially true of Iran, whose air defenses have suffered greatly due to sanctions. The arrival of the S-300 changes this.

(Recommended: Russia's Missile Moves Explained: The S-300 Challenge)

The S-300 is not a wall in the sky. If we have to, we can attack and defeat it. Doing so, however, requires an effort that is much larger, much riskier, and much more costly. Recently, we have seen a debate on the scale of a potential attack on Iranian nuclear facilities, with some arguing that it would be relatively limited and others taking an opposing view. With the S-300 in place, there is no debate. Overcoming this type of system will require a large deployment of air, sea, and land assets, including our most capable—and expensive—airplanes and missiles. Our people and equipment will be at greater risk, and accomplishing the mission will be more difficult and time consuming.

(Recommended: 5 Russian Weapons of War America Should Fear

2.  It represents a major acceleration in the proliferation of A2/AD systems:

In 2003, Andrew Krepinevich, Barry Watts, and Robert Work warned against the proliferation of threats like the S-300 in a study published by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Analysis that coined the phrase “Anti-Access/Area-Denial,” or A2/AD. They argued that states such as Iran and North Korea would acquire capable systems like the S-300, forcing the United States to alter its approach to projecting military power. That day appears to be here. This is why many officials, including Work—who is now the Deputy Secretary of Defense—have called for the development of new technological approaches to “offset” advanced weapons systems like the S-300. Some have argued that this effort is aimed directly at China, but the proliferation of the S-300 demonstrates how A2/AD environments are spreading.

3.  It represents the return to an age of geopolitical competition:

We may not want to go back to the days when every world development had to be viewed in light of a political competition with another great power. It is increasingly clear, however, that Russia sees the world through this lens. Western sanctions—implemented in response to Russian intervention in Ukraine—have imposed significant costs on the Russian economy and ratcheted up the tension between Russia and the West. It now appears that tension has spilled over into the Iranian situation. With the upcoming sale of the S-300 to Iran, Russia has found a way to increase our costs dramatically should we deem it necessary to intervene there.

(Recommended: 5 NATO Weapons of War Russia Should Fear)

One final observation: 

The training required to prepare against an S-300 threat is exactly the type that has been so damaged by the sequester cuts of 2013 and the budget caps of 2014/2015. Recently, Secretary of the Air Force Deborah James stated that half of Air Force combat units are not trained to the level necessary for the “high-end fight.” In light of proliferation developments such as this Russian deal with Iran, that is not a reassuring statistic.

Colonel Clint Hinote, U.S. Air Force, is a military fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He holds a PhD in military strategy, and he recently returned from Korea, where he commanded the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base.  The conclusions and opinions expressed are his own and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. government.

This piece first appeared in the CFR Blog Defense in Depth here

Image: Creative Commons 3.0

TopicsS-300 RegionsEurope

America's Greatest Foreign Policy Challenge Today: China

The Buzz

 'Who lost China?' is perhaps the most dreaded question of modern American foreign policy. It reveals the historical dilemma that haunts Washington today: The rise of China will inevitably challenge America's longstanding presence in Asia; it doesn't matter whether American interests actively help or hinder China's rise, this outcome seems inexorable.

As Hugh White warns, elite opinion in Washington appears to be swinging back to a harder-edged conclusion that abetting China's economic expansion has brought America a problem of its own making. A parallel bout of angst is troubling former Kremlinologists: why have the West's relations with Russia become so terrible? Did Western policies help or harm? Could it have been otherwise?

These questions of course reflect an ancient anxiety over the two great powers. China and Russia are mighty, independent sovereigns with un-Western worldviews, and they always have been. As Andrew Browne recently wrote, it is "bogus" to imagine that China (or Russia) were ever "America's to lose."

That may sound nihilistic, but he's right.

A constructivist view would emphazise the importance of personalities. The leaders of great powers do make a difference to the course of events.

Almost a decade ago Edward Lucas foresaw that "the men who rule Russia" were never going to accommodate with a liberal West. "Once a Chekhist, always a Chekhist" goes the saying about the congenitally suspicious ex-KGBsiloviki (hard-men). Ironically, Vladimir Putin once looked like an accidental appointment, a bland "compromise" apparatchik with a safe pair of hands to succeed the tottering Boris Yeltsin. Looking at China today, it is hard not also to wonder if it would be different if, say, Li Keqiang's tuanpai faction in 2012 had been powerful enough to hoist him to the top job, instead of settling on the more 'neutral' candidate, Xi Jinping?

Probably not, thinks Jonathan Holslag, who has become a reluctant realist of the 'offensive' variety:

...whatever Chinese leaders claimed in terms of their grand strategy for peace in Asia, these policies can only work if China effectively builds a new empire... [and] that makes China almost pre-programmed to crush the existing liberal order as soon as it has the means to do so.

His melancholy new book, echoing John Mearsheimer and Aaron Friedberg, concludes that "Asia is in for another tragedy of great power politics, but it is not China's tragedy alone." With that last clause he emphasizes that China is not specifically to blame; it is simply pursuing rational ends, to which others naturally will react. Even if China were democratic rather than authoritarian, it might make little difference. The realist tragedy is that "we know how the story ends, we do not like it, but we are seldom able to change it."

So rather than describing history by the whims of powerful leaders, or through ideological conflict, the realist view is a structural one.

Barring truly unexpected events, great powers typically act consistently to maximize their security, and therefore their power. In fact, the central argument of Holslag's book is this: "for all the policy changes, China's interests have changed remarkably little." He marvels at the adeptness of Chinese diplomacy, by turns threatening and pleading, magnifying small concessions while patiently hardening its own valued claims, "gaining power without too much resistance." He documents more than six decades of Chinese action conducted, sometimes brutally but usually delicately, around its consistent central aim to make the world safe for the newly restored Sinosphere.

Holslag splendidly describes China's ideal political, military and economic order in Asia, and it does not make easy reading for China's neighbors: they are either subsumed into China's project or marginalized from it. China's industries lead the world, its globe-spanning middle classes speed on bullet-trains through a verdant homeland of country estates. It controls all the Western Pacific, and from the Himalayas it looks down upon south and central Asia "having urbanized without industries... slithering from one political crisis to the next." Holslag is especially scathing about the weak reform performance of India, a nation that was China's equal not long ago. In his China-dream scenario "Russia's fate is obvious" too: as a resource colony. Japan retires into irrelevance.

But of course these countries get a vote. It's possible things might not work out so beautifully for China. As Edward Luttwak has argued, others will – indeed must, by "logic of strategy" – react by balancing. Holslag foresees a bipolar Asia as a real possibility, with the Sinosphere surrounded by a rimland of littoral states in loose alliance.

If so, the organizing architect will be Washington. Perhaps the Americans are slowly awakening to this prospect, forced to completely modify their self-image as Asia's unique protector, and forced to recalibrate their relationships and ambitions in the region. This would mark a seminal change in US foreign policy. By contrast, Chinese eyes have been on their prize without blinking. Their objectives have been constant all along.

This piece first appeared in the Lowy Interpreter here

Image: U.S. Navy Flickr

TopicsDefense RegionsAsia

The Story of the 21st Century: China's Challenge to Pax Americana

The Buzz

The United States has sought to maintain its strategic and economic supremacy in the Asia-Pacific, but traditional diplomatic tools and displays of military strength are having less of a deterrent effect on China's expansion in the region. China is accelerating its challenge to Pax Americana, the post-World War II international order shaped by the United States, and is pushing the boundaries of its security presence in the region by contesting the sovereignty of several ASEAN member states through territorial claims and provocative behavior. China is also reshaping the economic architecture of the Asia-Pacific to bolster Chinese influence through creation of new financial mechanisms such as the Silk Road Fund and the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). China is no longer taking a back seat to Pax Americana, and the United States should seize opportunities that maintain its influence in the Asia-Pacific.

US security interests in the South China Sea are challenged by Chinese encroachment. The sovereignty of several ASEAN states, including Vietnam and the Philippines, has been threatened by China's illegal fishing and energy exploration in their exclusive economic zones, and the broader maritime region has been destabilized by China's "nine-dash line" claim to nearly the entire South China Sea. The most recent threat comes from land reclamation efforts in the Spratly Islands, where, in the last year alone, China has built six islands where none previously existed to expand military power-projection capabilities and to support, with military assets, its fishing fleet and oil and natural-gas exploration.

The United States finds itself diplomatically conflicted when the sovereignty of an ASEAN state is threatened by China. The targeted country should stand up for itself, but it may not have the capacity or political will to act. However, if it does respond and is overly aggressive in doing so, it may elevate tensions to a point where US intervention may be required. The military and diplomatic costs of a US maritime intervention must be calibrated against the cost of an unanswered provocation that may embolden China and damage regional perceptions of US leadership. The United States has supported ASEAN's issuance of unified statements aimed at China that express "serious concerns over on-going developments in the South China Sea," but these statements have done little to alter Chinese actions thus far, and further thought by US policy makers is needed. 

China's aggressive actions have led ASEAN countries to seek protection by strengthening military ties with one another and with regional powers such as the United States and Japan. The Philippines and Vietnam have committed to strengthening military training and handling of maritime violations in the face of disputes with China in the South China Sea. The Philippines reengaged the US militarily by signing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Agreement. Vietnam struck a deal with Japan to receive six patrol boats in the wake of China's deployment of an oil rig in the Paracel Islands, which are also claimed by Vietnam. Just last month. Indonesia and Japan agreed to establish a Maritime Forum under which Japan will bolster Indonesia's maritime safety capacity through efforts including financial assistance and port infrastructure development. This flurry of bilateral engagement reflects a shared concern among Pacific nations over the threat China poses to maritime security and a newfound willingness to work together to maintain peace and stability in the region.

The territorial disputes that encourage bilateral ties among some ASEAN nations can also be a source of division within ASEAN institutions, particularly for nations without claims in the South China Sea. The ASEAN Regional Forum and East Asia Summit are important multilateral venues for discussing security and political issues in Asia but are criticized for their lack of action. The United States has long grappled with how best to leverage ASEAN institutions to further its security goals, but there may be a new opportunity to capitalize on a joint maritime peacekeeping force proposed by the newly appointed ASEAN Chair. The force would unite ASEAN nations to address territorial disputes and could offer advantages over existing fora by more narrowly focusing on the maritime domain and by being operational and not merely aspirational. The commander of the US 7th Fleet has already pledged support should ASEAN organize and lead such an effort.

China recognizes that its provocations can be counterproductive and has balanced its approach and increased the attractiveness of its security concepts to ASEAN nations by packaging them with funds from the newly launched AIIB. The bank is China's attempt to change the way regional infrastructure is financed, and it challenges Western-influenced international financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the World Bank. The AIIB's initial capital base of $100 billion is two-thirds as large as the ADB's, and its membership already includes 10 ASEAN members as well as the United Kingdom, France, Germany, and Italy. The United States and Japan are absent. China has also announced a $40 billion endowment for regional infrastructure development called the Silk Road Fund that competes with the US-backed Millennium Challenge Corporation, which is financed at much lower levels (President Obama's FY16 budget request included $1.25 billion for the corporation). By influencing the financial and development infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific, China can maintain leverage over ASEAN states in need of such resources, even as its maritime provocations continue.

China seeks to dominate long-term strategic and economic trends in the Asia-Pacific, but the United States can challenge this and maintain a strong presence in the region with a strategy that clearly articulates the national interests it is willing to fight for and the consequences of violating those interests. Peace and stability, respect for international law, freedom of navigation, and unimpeded lawful commerce are the US national interests in the South China Sea. China has undermined some, if not all, of these core interests, yet the US response has been muted for fear of getting pulled into skirmishes between China and its neighbors. The United States has often stated that it takes no position on "competing territorial claims over land features ... in the South China Sea," but in the long term interests of the United States, it may be prudent to strengthen support and defense of its Asia-Pacific allies that do take a position.

A more assertive strategy to defend America's allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific can be executed with manageable consequences. China and Japan both claim the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, and President Obama recommitted to Japan's security a year ago by stating that Article 5 of the US-Japanese treaty of alliance "covers all territories under Japan's administration, including the Senkaku Islands." The meaning was clear: the United States will defend Japan, and although China rejected the statement there was no immediate repercussion beyond that criticism. There may be long-term repercussions, as China may use President Obama's commitment to Japan, and potentially to other allies in the region, to legitimize its military expansion and land reclamation efforts, but China's territorial appetite predates the president's recent comments-China's claims will continue until its national interests are no longer served, either because of consequences imposed by the US and China's neighbors, or because China achieves its goals.

Administration officials believe that a US presence provides stability and contributes to a security environment that avoids escalation and conflict in the South China Sea, but China's provocations have escalated unchallenged and without consequence, suggesting that modified US action is needed. Perhaps new security treaties with US partners in the region will deter China and help protect their sovereignty. The defense cooperation agreement signed by the United States and the Philippines last year allows US military assets to rotate through Filipino facilities to respond to natural disasters and to other unspecified emergencies, and taking this relationship a step further might be worth exploring. Vietnam's relations with the United States have warmed in recent years due in large part to China's provocations, and while deeper cooperation will take time, the United States should exploit this moment to strengthen ties with Vietnam and other partners in the region.

This type of alliance-building appears reminiscent of the Cold War era that pitted the United States and the Soviet Union against one another. There is little appetite for a return to this bipolarity, but China is no longer rising peacefully or complacently. The United States must recognize the new Asia-Pacific reality, defend its national interests, and protect the sovereignty of its allies and partners in the region. Otherwise, a Sino-centric system may replace Pax Americana and what it represents.

Eric Weiner ( is an Analyst with Banyan Analytics. This article was originally posted on the website of Banyan Analytics and CSIS PACNET Newsletter here.

TopicsChina RegionsAsia

Yemen and the American Impulse to Take Sides

Paul Pillar

A strong Manichean streak runs through American perceptions of the outside world.  That streak involves a habit of seeing all conflict and instability in binomial terms, a presumption that one of the perceived two sides is good and the other bad, and an urge to weigh in on the presumptively good side. The influence that these tendencies have had on U.S. policy has varied over time. The influence was readily apparent, for example, during the George W. Bush administration's days of “you're either with us or with the terrorists.” The Obama administration has tried to move in a less Manichean and more realist direction, especially in conducting diplomacy with Iran and in so doing opening a door to a more fruitful all-azimuths diplomacy in the Middle East generally. But the current administration still operates in a political environment in which the old perceptual habits set limits on what the administration can do, or perhaps push it into doing things it might not otherwise have done.

There have been ample demonstrations throughout the Middle East of how inaccurate and inapplicable the Manichean perspective is. There is Iraq, where the United States and the Iranian bête noire are on the same side in countering the so-called Islamic State or ISIS. There is the even more complicated deadly brawl in Syria, where the people who from the viewpoint of the West are the closest thing to good guys are opposing the same regime that also is opposed by ISIS and the local al-Qaeda affiliate.

At least as clear a lesson both in the fallacies of the Manichean perspective and the mistake of the United States taking sides in such conflicts is found in the current strife in Yemen. But the lesson does not seem to have been learned, as reflected in U.S. support for the Saudi military intervention in Yemen. Three major features of the conflict in Yemen are pertinent to that lesson.

One is that the conflict is at least as complicated and multidimensional as any others in the Middle East. It is impossible to draw a line that would put everyone worth supporting on one side and everyone worth opposing on the other, or even to come close to doing that. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—often considered the most capable Al-Qaeda affiliate today—is completely at odds with, and a confirmed enemy of, the Houthi forces who are the principal target of the U.S.-backed Saudi intervention. One of the most significant allies of the Houthis is Ali Abdullah Saleh, who for three decades was America's guy as ruler of Yemen.

Second, this war is, as Adam Baron has put it, “by and large, an internal Yemeni political conflict” that “remains deeply rooted in local Yemeni issues.” This fact has been obscured by those who, intent on depicting Iran as a dangerous wide-ranging regional renegade, portray the Houthi rebellion as part of some Iranian expansionist plan. It is nothing of the sort. The Houthis have been driven for years by grievances involving the distribution of resources and power within Yemen, and their more recent gains have mostly reflected the sympathy for those grievances among other Yemeni elements who have been similarly displeased and disadvantaged by the most recent Yemeni regimes.

Third, the motivations of outside actors intervening in this conflict are not ones that the United States ought to associate itself with. One set of motivations is sectarian. There is no advantage at all, and lots of disadvantage, for the United States to be seen identifying with one side or another in sectarian disputes within the Muslim world. Another set of motivations, rooted in decades of Saudi-Yemeni strife dating back to when the expansion of the Saudi kingdom first led to seizure of traditionally Yemeni provinces and to lingering border disputes, involves a Saudi desire to exercise dominance over the Arabian Peninsula and in particular this part of it. Graham Fuller observes, “Riyadh has always loathed Yemeni feistiness, independence, its revolutionary politics, and even its experiments with democracy.” The Saudis publicly play up the Iranian angle, but what they really don't like about the Houthis is that they haven't been able to buy off the Houthis as effectively as they have many other Yemeni elements. The Saudi objective of maintaining this kind of overlordship over its neighbors is also not an interest that the United States shares.

And yet the urge to take sides and intervene persists, as reflected in recent remarks about the Yemeni case by John McCain. The urge pays insufficient heed either to what is in U.S. interests or to what is effective. McCain asserted that the Saudis did not seek advance coordination with the United States concerning their intervention “because they believe we are siding with Iran.” Actually, according to a senior officer at U.S. Central Command, “The reason the Saudis didn’t inform us of their plans is because they knew we would have told them exactly what we think — that it was a bad idea.”

We know that the Obama administration is feeling the need these days to appear supportive of the Gulf Arabs because of angst related to the impending nuclear agreement with Iran. And if catering to that angst is one of the prices that has to be paid to get the agreement and, through it, to get closer to liberating U.S. diplomacy in the Middle East from rigid side-taking in the future, then this policy may turn out to be on balance worthwhile. But the Yemeni conflict itself still ought to serve as a lesson in the multiple reasons the United States would be better off to resist its side-taking urge.            

TopicsYemen Saudi Arabia Iran RegionsMiddle East

Does Obama Care What Iran Wants in Iraq?

The Buzz

Marina Shalabi and Ian Duff, two researchers at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, have done some interesting spadework on the history of how the U.S. Director of National Intelligence’s annual Worldwide Threat Assessment represents Iran and its proxies. While assessments from 2013 and earlier “[call] out Iran’s hegemonic goals” and explicitly identify Iran as a sponsor of terrorism, the last two “shifted away from Tehran's efforts to expand its regional hegemony and toward describing Iran as a protector of oppressed Shiites that seeks to reduce sectarian violence.” Shalabi and Duff offer a number of examples of this shift—consider this quote from the 2013 report:

In its efforts to spread influence abroad and undermine the United States and our allies, Iran is trying to exploit the fighting and unrest in the Arab world...Iran's efforts to secure regional hegemony, however, have achieved limited results, and the fall of the Asad regime in Syria would be a major strategic loss for Tehran.

Contrast that with this, from 2014:

Tehran, which strives for a stable Shia-led, pro-Iran government in Baghdad, is concerned about the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Tehran is probably struggling to find the balance between protecting Shia equities in Iraq and avoiding overt actions that would precipitate greater anti-Shia violence.

The current assessments aren’t particularly sanguine about the impact of Iran’s efforts—consider this, also from 2014:

We assess that Iran's perceived responsibility to protect and empower Shia communities will increasingly trump its desire to avoid sectarian violence. Hence, Iran's actions will likely do more to fuel rather than dampen increasing sectarianism.

The current reports have an important strength: they offer a subtler and more detailed account of what Iranian leaders intend to do in the short and medium term. That’s useful for American decisionmakers. What’s really missing is a long-term account of Iranian goals, their consequences for U.S. interests in the region, and a grand strategic U.S. policy approach that takes all that into account. The latter point is outside the responsibility of the Director of National Intelligence, but the broader Obama administration must answer on all three. Where does Iran see itself in ten years? In twenty, in thirty? Does it want to be a kind of regional empire, and if so, what does that entail? Are its neighbors strong enough to prevent that? Are we? If Iranian influence grows, will some of its current rivals be forced to take a more accommodating position toward Tehran, or will they rise up in confrontation? How does all this interlock with the danger of nuclear proliferation? Can Iran be a partner in stability? Is it an implacable foe? Answers to bigger questions like these need to be the main drivers of our approach to the region, even though near-term crises like the Islamic State group and the collapse of the Iraqi army will necessarily dominate day-to-day policy.

A nearsighted approach can keep the administration from getting nailed in press conferences, but it won’t necessarily lead to the best long-term outcomes. These are momentous days in Iraq—the changes happening at the ground levels of the Iraqi regime will likely reshape its approach for a very long time, with implications for America’s role in the region. We don’t have much evidence that long-term dynamics are impacting the administration’s thinking. They might not be in Tehran, either, which can certainly be read as acting as much from desperation as from aspiration. But the consequence of this mutual muddling through has so far been an increase in Iran’s influence over what’s left of Iraq, and it’s not clear that Team Obama has a vision of what sustained impact this may have on U.S. interests.

John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.

TopicsIranIntelligence RegionsIranIraq