As Scott points out below, Russia has lifted its ban on the delivery of S-300 missiles to Iran. The groundwork has thus been laid for the sale of a powerful air-defense system to Tehran.
In the wake of this development, a reporter asked Marie Harf if the sale would have any effect on the ongoing Iran nuclear talks. Harf predicted it would not.
As discussed below, Harf’s view is subject to serious dispute. What’s indisputable is that the sale could have an enormous effect on the bigger question of whether Iran will obtain nuclear weapons — and isn’t this what the “nuclear talks” are supposed to be about?
An effective air-defense system would probably preclude a successful Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capacity. It would also vastly complicate an attempt by the U.S. to employ a military option. Thus, the Russian sale is a huge step forward for Iran in its quest to become a nuclear power.
Appearing on Fox News, Charles Krauthammer blamed the Obama administration for Russia’s decision to sell the missiles to Iran. By claiming prematurely that the framework for a deal exists, Krauthammer argued, Obama removed the constraint on such a sale by Moscow.
Krauthammer is right. And now, Iran can negotiate from a position of increased strength, knowing that if it walks away from negotiations, future military action against it is less likely.
That’s why Harf strikes a false note when she claims that negotiations won’t be affected by Russia’s sale.
To me, the interesting question is whether, at this juncture, President Obama sees the Russian sale as a bad thing. I doubt that he does.
Obama views the Iran deal as legacy-making. He understands, however, that an Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear capacity would upset his legacy. So would a U.S. attack under his successor. And Obama understands that he has less than full control over the first contingency and no control over the second.
As discussed above, the Russian sale makes a future attack on Iran — whether by Israel, the U.S. (once Obama is gone), or both — less likely. Thus, I suspect that Obama welcomes the sale. In any event, I doubt he’s concerned about it.
It’s true that Obama opposed the sale in 2010. But that was when he was still seeking leverage with which to bring Iran to the negotiating table so he could make his legacy. Five years later, Obama is ready to sign a deal, and now wants to protect his handiwork from Israel and from Republicans — whom he considers his real enemies.