The recent revelations about Iran's nuclear program -- centering on an enrichment facility buried in a mountain near the holy city of Qom -- have almost certainly intensified the sense of urgency among policymakers in Jerusalem. Even though the news has triggered a new round of high-stakes diplomacy (including an unusual bilateral meeting between Americans and Iranians), you can bet that Israeli military planning for an attack on the Islamic Republic's nuclear facilities has moved into overdrive. Yet there's another ticking clock the Israelis are worried about that hasn't been in the headlines quite so much.
For years now, Tehran has been working hard to acquire sophisticated Russian antiaircraft missiles that would make it far tougher for Israeli planes to stage a successful attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. One Israeli lawmaker, Zeev Elkin, even warned last week that delivering the missiles could even speed up the timing of an Israeli air raid. "I hope Moscow understands that the deliveries will at least speed up such events, if not trigger them," Elkin told the Russian daily Kommersant. Experts estimate that a working Iranian nuclear weapon is still probably at least a year away, depending on a host of contingencies. But the Russian missiles, which just might ensure that Iran's nuclear installations can be protected from attack, could be delivered at any time. So it's easy to understand why, right now, Israeli minds seem to be focused on the more urgent of these two ticking clocks.
The system in question is the S-300 -- actually something of a catchall term because the name covers several systems of varying ages and levels of effectiveness. The S-300 is essentially the Russian equivalent of the American Patriot: quick-reaction missiles designed to defend large areas of airspace against incoming airplanes and ballistic missiles. Although the S-300 has never been tested under combat conditions, military experts have a high opinion of its capabilities -- especially those of the more recent variants like the PMU-2 Favorit (known in the West as the SA-20B), which can track 100 targets while engaging up to 12. It can hit targets as far as 120 miles away. "It's a high-technology weapon," said Siemon Wezeman of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks arms shipments around the world. "It has an impact which is not restricted to just two or three square kilometers. It's a major thing."
Russia apparently first offered the Iranians the chance to buy S-300s in 2005, but then pulled back on the deal due to diplomatic controversies surrounding Iran's nuclear programs. In 2007, Tehran signed a contract to buy several S-300 batteries -- or so at least it would seem. Confusion about the actual state of the deal has swirled ever since. Anatoly Isaikin, director of Russia's state arms export company, confirmed in September of last year that the two countries were negotiating a sale. In April of this year Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Mehdi Safari visited Moscow to push things along and declared, "There are no problems with this contract." Yet so far none of the system appears to have been delivered to the Iranians.
The Israelis don't seem reassured. For months they've been lobbying Moscow to hold off on delivering the missiles. Israel's Russian-speaking foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, visited the Kremlin in June, and the missile deal figured large in his discussions with Russian officials. President Shimon Peres turned up in Russia in August to drive home the point. In September, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also set off for talks with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. First item on the agenda: S-300s. (Netanyahu at first told the press he was headed somewhere else, but the cover story soon fell through, igniting considerable controversy back at home.)
Why are the Israelis so worked up? Simple. Just consider the air raid -- dubbed "Operation Orchard" -- staged by Israel on a suspected nuclear facility in Syria in September 2007. (U.S. and Israeli officials contend that the Syrian installation was built with help from the North Koreans.) The Syrian air defenses consisted largely of the same missiles the Iranians have now -- Russian-made Tor M1s (known by NATO as SA-15s). But they didn't leave a scratch on the attackers. The Israelis successfully befuddled the Syrian radars and didn't lose a single plane; the Syrian target was completely wiped out. The raid has been described as a "dress rehearsal" for a possible attack on Iranian sites.