Much is being written this week about an impending “deal” the P5+1 is reportedly about to make with Iran: a deal with a so-called “sunset clause” that would restrict Iran’s enrichment activities for a while, but ultimately accept an unrestricted, industrial-scale uranium enrichment program.
I urge you not to get bogged down in the terms of the deal. There is a limited sense in which they matter, but it’s very limited. The deal is unenforceable; that’s the controlling condition of the whole drama. The deal also ignores the actual weaponization aspect of the nuclear weapons program, which would be a fatal flaw in an enforceable deal, and serves to compound the error in an unenforceable one.
What matters, at any rate, is not so much why Obama wants to make the deal, as why Iran is willing to make it. Iran has no intention of adhering to the inconvenient elements of any deal, and has no honest purpose in making one. She’s going to pursue the same course with or without a deal, as she has all along, so her reason for making this one should be our overriding consideration.
If Iran makes this deal, it will be mainly because the illusion of a deal is meant to buy her time against the only opponent in a position to do something about Iran’s nuclear weapons program. That opponent, of course, is Israel.
The calculation is that if the Western powers believe they have a deal with Iran, Israel will be stymied and blocked in, deterred from any attempt to attack Iran’s nuclear infrastructure. In the interest of keeping their deal in force – and maintaining what our Western leaders are now pleased to think of as “peace” or “stability” in the Middle East – the Western nations could actively thwart Israel.
So Iran hopes. The mullahs want to use a deal with the self-deceived Western powers as their flying wedge to the nuclear finish line. And in fact, the semblance the deal offers of expanding Iran’s timeline to a bomb, from its current worst case of 4-6 weeks back to a year, would allow Iran to fly inside the wedge at a pace of her choosing. That latter point is a very important one. Inside the flying wedge, Iran can control how fast she has to get to the finish line. She can wait and choose the most opportune moment, rather than having to worry about outmaneuvering Israel.
The real “center ring”
The terms of the impending deal are also overshadowed in importance by another development that has just cropped up – and not coincidentally. Russia Today, principal news outlet of the state-run RIA media company, has just reported that Moscow is offering Iran an upgraded mobile air defense system, the Antey-2500.
Russia and Iran have been playing footsie for a decade with the purchase of the S-300 air defense system. Iran was originally to buy the older S-300PMU2, which would itself have represented a significant improvement over Iran’s existing capabilities. Russia cancelled that sale in 2010, prompting a lawsuit by Iran, but is now offering an improved, substantially more modern version of the S-300, the S-300VM, or Antey-2500.
The main thing to know about this sale is that once Iran operationalizes the system, it will become impossible for Israel to mount an effective air attack campaign against Iran.
It would be difficult enough for the United States to do it – and the U.S. couldn’t just do it “out of hide” today; i.e., with the assets we keep combat ready. Although there’s more than one way to neutralize an air defense system, the fact that we literally can’t wage a conventional air campaign, with the combat-ready forces we have, against an Iran defended robustly by the Antey-2500 means there are severe limits on how much even U.S. forces could get done.
This self-imposed incapacity on the part of the United States is ultimately why no deal with Iran is enforceable. We have the power to change this condition, but under Obama’s leadership, it’s clear we’re not going to.
Therefore, the sudden Russian offer of the Antey-2500 should properly be viewed in the context of the only opponent of Iran’s nuclear program that does need deterring: Israel.
Now, if I know Russia, Putin is playing this card right now as a means of keeping both Iran and Israel on a string. I don’t think the Russians are in a big hurry to set this particular dynamic in motion. The impending deployment of the Antey-2500 will force Israel’s hand. It’s a go/no-go factor that has to be preempted. The only alternative is accepting the loss of the window for mounting a full-force conventional attack on Iran’s nuclear installations.
I don’t assess that Putin wants to provoke that crisis point right now. I think he wants to be able to provoke it, and thus hold a hammer over the situation.
The least important factor in this whole mix is the set of terms in the “deal” with Iran. The real action centers on what Israel will be compelled to do, and when. Crazy mullahs fomenting coups and guerrilla wars around the region; sneaky outside powers making chess moves; an overall context of chaos and crisis; desperate intact nations (Jordan, Israel, Egypt) seeing their security perimeter collapse and trying to time where they make their stand – if your head hurts and everything looks bleak, congratulations: this is life in the post-American world.