Tensions between Russia and the West are hitting a new peak. And in this face-off, Moscow has an extraordinary piece of leverage: a super-sophisticated, bomber-killing missile that it once threatened to sell to Iran.
Last week, Reuters first reported Russia was preparing an oil-for-goods deal with Iran worth up to $20 billion. An unnamed Iranian official told the news service that the barter would include Russian weapons. And that was before further signs of Russia's shadow invasion of Ukraine emerged Monday, when crowds spontaneously appeared in three major eastern cities to welcome the troops amassed over the border. The Daily Beast reported that associates of Viktor Yanukovych, the deposed and Kremlin-friendly Ukrainian president, were meeting with pro-Russian activists. One keen-eyed photographer captured a man wearing a Russian Airborne forces tee-shirt at one of the protests.
The trade between Moscow and Tehran would alleviate the economic pressure on Iran that the White House has said helped bring the Islamic Republic to the bargaining table. It may even sink the talks President Obama is hoping will persuade Iran to defang its nuclear program.
"I could see as part of this deal [between Tehran and Moscow] that they would agree to transfer advanced missiles to Iran," said Mark Dubowitz, the executive director of the hawkish Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and an expert in the Iran sanctions. "If [Russian president Vladimir] Putin became angry enough over the West's financial punishment of Russia, he could put in play the S-300 deal."
McFaul declined to comment on whether he suspected Russia would actually provide Iran with the air defense system. Dubowitz, however, says he is concerned Moscow could renege on its promise not to sell Iran the S-300.