Analyze this

The Obama administration’s multifarious accommodations of the Islamic Republic of Iran are an evil that we will be living with for some time to come. Omri Ceren writes with his usual footnotes to explicate the administration’s nonresponse to revelations regarding the regime’s installation of the Russian anti-aircraft system to protect the supposedly pacified nuclear facility at Fordow (emphasis in original). This is an important issue and I thought some readers would find Omri’s backgrounder of interest:

On Sunday Iran state TV showed that the Iranians have deployed their S-300 anti-aircraft system around Fordow, the underground military bunker they converted into a nuclear facility and are allowed to keep operating under the nuclear deal.

There are at least three U.S. laws mandating sanctions in response to the S-300 system. But on Monday the White House suggested that the administration would not impose those sanctions because – in their interpretation – the laws only prohibit transferring offensive weapons to Iran, and the S-300s are defensive. Here’s the exchange at the Monday press briefing between White House spokesperson Earnest and Yahoo reporter Olivier Knox [a]:

KNOX: My understanding is that there are several U.S. laws that at least strongly suggest that that deployment is not legal. What is the administration’s position on that?

EARNEST: Why don’t I go and confirm this, but my understanding is that it does — it’s not — it obviously is something that we are deeply concerned about. But much of the legal architecture that’s in place is directly — both at the U.N. and in the United States, frankly — related to Iran’s offensive military capabilities. And the system that they have purchased from the Russians, while we find it objectionable, is defensive in nature.

Knox is right and Earnest is wrong. The U.S. laws mandating sanctions for the S-300s do not distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons.

— The Iran Sanctions Act imposes “mandatory sanctions” for transfers that help Iran “acquire or develop destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons” [b]. It does not distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons.

— The Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act imposes “mandatory sanctions” for transfers that help Iran “acquire destabilizing numbers and types of advanced conventional weapons.” [c]. It does not distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons. For example it explicitly bans transferring non-offensive systems such as “advanced command, control, and communications systems.” The command post for the Iranian S-300 system – almost certainly a 54K6E and probably a next-generation 54K6E2 – is generations ahead of what the Iranians ever had.

— The Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) imposes sanctions for transferring weapons listed in a range of international agreements or anything that helps Iran with “nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, or of ballistic or cruise missile systems” [d]. Not only does it not distinguish between offensive and defensive weapons. For example one of the agreements it incorporates – the Wassenaar Arrangement – explicitly applies to shoulder-mounted anti-aircraft weapons [e]. The S-300 system is one of the most advanced anti-aircraft systems in the world and threatens to deny any future U.S. president a military option against Iranian nuclear infrastructure [f]. The Iran deal legalized unlimited Iranian uranium enrichment in just over a decade.

There is a separate question about whether the S-300 system is even defensive: the Russians have been using the system in offensive contexts for years [g] and a recent FDD report concluded “the S-300 would allow Iran offensive capacities beyond its airspace” [h]. If the S-300 system is offensive then arguably even U.N. sanctions should be imposed. But U.S. sanctions do not hinge on that question.

After the Monday exchange with Knox, the administration gave a statement saying “we have not yet made any determination as to whether” U.S. laws apply [i].