Proxy arms race: Russia delivers Iran S-300s, US provides Israel F-35s

Israeli F-35s may well be ordered into Iranian skies contesting air supremacy with Russian-made defences, hardly a comforting scenario for region.

A US chief test pilot of the F-35 Lightning II speaks with an Israeli officer ahead of an F-35 Lightning II cockpit demonstration in the Israeli city of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, last April.


2016/09/18 Issue: 73 Page: 12


The Arab Weekly
John C.K. Daly



Despite intense Western pressure, Russia has shipped a consignment of S-300 surface-to-air missile defence batteries to Iran.

Russia and Iran signed an $800 million contract in 2007 for the systems but Moscow refused to provide the anti-aircraft defence batteries under the pretext that the agreement was covered by the fourth round of the UN Security Council sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme.

Last year, Russian President Vladimir Putin lifted the S-300 delivery ban after international negotiators agreed to remove economic sanctions against Tehran in exchange for its pledge to ensure that all its nuclear research would be for peaceful purposes.

That agreement undercut Israel’s opposition to Iran’s civilian nuclear programme, which the Israeli government has frequently hinted could be subjected to attack if it believed it led to Iran developing nuclear weapons. S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries could greatly complicate an Israeli air attack on Iran, which is why Tehran has spent nearly a decade trying to acquire them.

Russia has delivered half the contracted S-300 air defence systems to Iran. The head of Russia’s Rostec Corpora­tion, Sergei Chemezov said deliveries were to be completed by the end of the year.

Seeing those shipments as degrading Israel’s military capabilities, Washington has fast-tracked supplying F-35 advanced stealth jet fighters to Israel along with an aid package estimated to be worth $38 billion.

The Israeli F-35s have under­gone operational testing and the first planes are to arrive in Israel in December. They are specifi­cally intended to nullify Iran’s S-300s and preserve Israel’s qualitative air superiority edge in Middle East skies.

The Israeli Air Force will be the first outside the United States with an operational stealth squadron. Israel’s air superiority will not come cheaply; F-35s can cost more than $100 million apiece, with Israel intending to procure a total of 100 of the aircraft.

Heightening the Israeli government’s concerns about Russian armament shipments, the Israel Defence Forces is concerned that S-300s could be deployed from Iran to Syria or Lebanon.

Russia is weighing the finan­cial and diplomatic benefits of increased arms sales to Iran against the risk of upsetting other countries, including the United States, Saudi Arabia and Israel, the latter two viewing Iran as an existential threat.

Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries, increasingly alarmed by Russia providing advanced weaponry to Iran, are also receiving additional US assis­tance. Last November the United States approved a $1.29 billion deal to replenish the Saudi Air Force after it had depleted much of its arsenal in bombing in Yemen. On August 9th, the US State Department approved a possible sale worth $1.15 billion of more than 130 Abrams battle tanks, 20 armoured recovery vehicles and other equipment to Saudi Arabia.

In a clear sign of how Riyadh views regional instability, Saudi armament imports have soared 275% since 2011, a figure that will doubtless rise if Russia continues providing Iran with advanced weaponry.

In a sign that the two advanced weaponry systems may yet clash, Iran announced the deployment of its S-300 missile batteries around its underground uranium enrichment nuclear site at Fordow. As Israel has repeatedly vowed to take military action if necessary to prevent Iran from achieving a nuclear weapons capability, Israeli F-35s may well be ordered into Iranian skies contesting air supremacy with those Russian-made defences, hardly a comforting scenario for the region.

Beyond considerations of shovelling large amounts of advanced weaponry into a volatile region, an issue still unaddressed by the international community is the military imbalance between Israel and other Middle Eastern countries, a situation that the US government is apparently determined to maintain. Since 2011, armament imports by Middle Eastern countries increased 61% overall.


John C.K. Daly is a Washington-based specialist on Russian and post-Soviet affairs.


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