Russian President Dmitry Medvedev’s reported promise to Israeli President Shimon Peres that Moscow will reconsider the sale of powerful S-300 air-defense missiles to Iran could determine whether Israel – and the United States for that matter – launches pre-emptive strikes against Tehran’s nuclear facilities.
“President Medvedev promised to review this issue once again after I explained that it would have an impact on the balance of forces in our region,” Peres said Wednesday following his meeting with the Russian leader in Moscow on Tuesday.
Israel has been threatening to attack Iran’s controversial nuclear program for many months because the Jewish state considers Tehran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons to be an existential threat.
Any Israeli offensive would undoubtedly involve air and missile strikes. At present, the Israeli air force’s prospects of penetrating Iran’s air defenses, including Russian-supplied M-1 Tor close-range surface-to-air missiles, are reasonably good.
But the Israelis’ capabilities would be immeasurably reduced if Tehran got its hands on an advanced air-defense weapon like the S-300.
Russia says it has not delivered any the missiles to Iran yet, but it may yet do so to up the ante in its growing confrontation with the United States.
Medvedev’s pledge may be little more than a tactic to force the Israelis to stop providing arms and intelligence to Georgia, Azerbaijan and other former Soviet republics that are defying Moscow.
U.S.-based security consultancy Strategic Forecasting noted in July: “The Americans realize that if they arm Russia’s adversary, Moscow will respond by arming U.S. adversaries – particularly Iran.
“Russia has deals in place under which it would deliver strategic air-defense systems and other arms to Iran and complete Iran’s nuclear facility at Bushehr – all things it has notably declined to do for years now.
“Moscow has been holding onto this card to ensure that the United States does not fulfill its own commitments to Georgia.”
So the Israelis believe that their window of opportunity to attack Iran under optimum conditions may be limited and that it should go after the Islamic republic’s nuclear centers before any Russian S-300s are delivered despite pressure from Washington not to act unilaterally and risk triggering a regional war with possibly calamitous consequences.
At the very least, the Iranians would be expected to retaliate against an Israeli attack by firing salvoes of Shehab-3 intermediate-range ballistic missiles with conventional high-explosive warheads at the Jewish state.
Israel does not have the power to knock out enough of the heavily guarded and widely nuclear facilities, most of them buried deep underground, to permanently cripple Iran’s nuclear program.
But with the Israelis claiming Iran has accelerated its missile production and that Tehran could fashion a nuclear warhead within a year, Israeli strategists appear to be inclined to strike while they can to set back Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
“With the rise of Binyamin Netanyahu to power in Israel and his appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as his foreign minister, Israel has been behaving in provocative ways that betray a burning desire to strike Iran as soon as possible,” Egypt’s Al Ahram weekly said in July.
The Israelis have conducted several long-range airstrikes over the years, but never simultaneously against such a plethora of targets spread across a country 900 miles away.
The Israeli air force simply does not have the capability of targeting all of Iran’s nuclear targets in a single raid.
Any attack on Iran would be immensely more complicated than the landmark long-range airstrike that knocked out Saddam Hussein’s French-built Osirak reactor near Baghdad – far closer to Israel than Iran – in June 1981.
Analyst Reuven Pedatzur wrote in Israeli daily Haaretz in May that the 1981 strike, ordered by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, marked the start of “the Begin Doctrine Â… which holds that Israel will not let any hostile country in the region acquire nuclear weapons.”
But Pedatzur acknowledged: “The problem is that what could be accomplished in Iraq more than two decades ago is no longer possible today under the present circumstances in Iran.”
The S-300V system (NATO codename SA-12 Giant) can engage multiple targets simultaneously and shoot down aircraft and missiles at a range of around 100 miles.
The system is so sophisticated and tamper-proof that air force planners calculate that 20 percent to 30 percent of the aircraft deployed would be lost.
According to the Israeli media, a minimum of 90 aircraft would be required to attack three key nuclear sites – all 25 of the U.S.-built F-15I strike jets in the air force’s inventory and at least 65 of its 135 F-16s, about one-quarter of the air force’s strength.
Israel, which has the most advanced ballistic missile programs in the Middle East, also possesses an arsenal of road-mobile Jericho 1, 2 and 3 missiles capable of hitting Iranian targets.
The three-stage Jericho 3 is believed to be able to carry a multi-megaton nuclear warhead, or a conventional warhead of 1,000-1,200 kilograms.
However, Pedatzur noted, “It is doubtful the Jerichos’ accuracy can be relied on, and that all of them will hit those critical spots with precision.”