Council on Foreign Relations:
It’s been widely reported that Russian President Vladimir Putin has decided to sell the Russian-made S-300 missile system to Iran. This sale has been planned for years, but it was put on hold in 2010 when the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 1929. Although this resolution did not specifically prohibit the sale of missile systems like the S-300, it did call for all states to “exercise vigilance and restraint” in supplying weapons to Iran. Since then, Russia has refrained from selling these weapons. Now Russia has changed its mind.
The S-300 is a mobile surface-to-air missile defense system that couples powerful radars with high-speed, long-range missiles. It is capable of shooting down aircraft over a large area (depending on the variant, the lethal engagement zone could be larger than the state of New Jersey…with the detection/tracking zone much larger than that). In NATO, we refer to this missile system as the SA-10. We have studied it and trained to counter it for years. While we are not scared of it, we respect the S-300 for what it is: a very mobile, accurate, and lethal missile system.
Russia’s decision to sell the S-300 to Iran is a big deal for three reasons:
1. It represents a fundamental shift in military power for the region. For over a decade, the United States and its allies have been able to take freedom of action in the Middle Eastern skies for granted. Friendly forces could count on air support and freedom of maneuver. Adversaries could assume they were vulnerable to observation and attack from the air, limiting their options and convincing some of them that they could not achieve their objectives through military force (often called deterrence by denial). This was especially true of Iran, whose air defenses have suffered greatly due to sanctions. The arrival of the S-300 changes this…