Follow the Rockets

Why Russia is the big winner in the Middle East arms race.

Vladimir Putin 

Every week in the Middle East is more or less the same. On Monday, Iranians and Israelis spit fire at each other. On Tuesday, the leaders of the United States and Europe announce that the Iranians have agreed to stop enriching uranium. On Wednesday, Hamas and Fatah fail to reach agreement on a unity government that neither party wants, while the Israelis proclaim their willingness to discuss a peace agreement with a Palestinian government that doesn’t exist. On Thursday, the Iranians suggest that they might be interested in the West’s latest offer—but only if they can keep their centrifuges spinning. On Friday, Muslims go to mosques. On Saturday, Jews go to synagogues or the beach. On Sunday, politicians in Washington, D.C., go on morning talk shows and speak with measured optimism about diplomatic endeavors that may as well be targeted at the moon.

Beneath the daily headlines from Tel Aviv and Tehran is an alternate universe of secure rooms where poker-faced men in army uniforms and open-necked shirts shape the future of the Middle East. Those whom I have interviewed or otherwise hung out with are similar enough from country to country. Middle-aged, they smoke cigarettes, drink tea, and talk softly, with slightly abstracted expressions that suggest they are solving giant Rubik’s Cube puzzles in their heads. Every few minutes, they nod at aides or answer calls on supposedly secure phones. In front of them are black binders containing professional assessments of the strengths and intentions of the other players in what might properly be thought of as the world’s deadliest floating poker game.

Rockets—small rockets, big rockets, ballistic missiles that launch satellites into space, surface-to-air missile systems—are the chips in today’s version of a zero-sum game in which every player poses a threat to every other player. The weekly rocket news from the Middle East is essential reading for anyone who wants to keep track of the capacities and intentions of the major players: Who has which rockets, where the rockets are located, and who is planning to deliver new rockets where. The news that Hamas recently obtained Iranian-made Silkworm rockets, for example, suggests that Iran is arming its proxies to strike back against Israel in the event of the sudden vaporization of its nuclear facilities. A recent joint U.S.-Israeli operation that tracked and seized a ship carrying containers of Iranian rockets and other weapons intended for Hezbollah shows the scope and complexity of Iranian resupply operations.

The age of the rocket arrived in the Middle East during the first Gulf War, when U.S. cruise missiles took out the command and control centers of Saddam Hussein’s army, while Saddam retaliated by launching SCUD missiles at Tel Aviv and at U.S. Army bases in Kuwait. For the United States, the first Gulf War was the beginning of a two-decade-long love affair with rockets and other precision-guided munitions that has continued through the second Gulf War, attempts to kill Osama Bin Laden, and the drone wars over Pakistan and Afghanistan. For Israel, the advent of the rocket age was a boon to its sophisticated military-industrial complex and a reminder of the country’s extraordinary vulnerability to a single missile topped with a nonconventional payload.

Rockets and the associated radar and command-and-control systems became the currency of power in the Middle East because they allowed rich and poor alike to strike at their enemies without the need for massed tank formations or fighter-bombers. For the decrepit conventional armies of Syria and Iran, which lacked a great-power arms supplier, rockets were a great equalizer that could allow them to project deadly force on the cheap. Tipped with chemical or even nuclear weapons, rockets offered the possibility of offsetting billions of dollars of advanced U.S. military hardware at a relatively small cost. For Hezbollah and Hamas, rockets offered the chance to continue to strike at Israel once Israeli troops had retreated across internationally recognized borders.

While able to produce its own ballistic missiles, as well as lesser missiles for its clients, Iran remains unable to produce sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles—the kind that can knock attacking Western fighters out of the sky. Unable to buy missiles off the shelf from the United States, Iran and Syria must do business with the Middle East’s other historic supplier of military hardware: Russia.

The elegant and brutal way that the Russians have leveraged their position as the arms supplier of last resort to Iran and Syria is an excellent setup for a season of a show like The Wire set in the global arms business—a black comedy that would fill a big hole in HBO’s current lineup and help educate Roger Cohen about the way the world works. The standard Russian negotiating tactic is as follows: Russia signs two contracts for the delivery of a weapons system to Iran or Syria. The first contract is for a basic version of the system in question—a standard-issue modern fighter plane, tank, or surface-to-air missile. The second is for a more technologically advanced system that frightens Western military experts—like the S-300 missile, an advanced surface-to-air system that is capable of stopping modern warplanes from attacking Iran’s nuclear installations. The United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia protest. After a few weeks or months of suspense, Russia finally bends to the pleas of its Western-oriented commercial and diplomatic partners and agrees to postpone delivery of the more threatening system—for a while.

That’s the setup. What happens next is the really fun—and profitable—part of the scenario: the shakedown. The Russians apologize to the Iranians or the Syrians and promise that they will deliver the more advanced systems that were promised—soon, soon, once the heat from the hypocritical Western powers and their Jewish masters dies down. The Russians then demand that the United States, Israel, and the Gulf States make good on Russia’s losses on the semifictional contracts for scary weapons—which the Russians could always decide to deliver next month if the West and its allies don’t pay up. Washington accommodates Russia’s designs on Eastern Europe. Israel provides midlevel drone technology that the Russians are unable to develop on their own. The Gulf States buy billions of dollars’ worth of Russian weapons that might otherwise go to Iran.

The Iranians play their part in the game by stamping their feet and threatening to punish the Russians for playing devious games of footsie with their enemies. Then they send high-level delegations to Moscow in order to fix the exact date on which the S-300 missiles or MIG-31e fighter planes that they ordered a year ago, or three years ago, will arrive. In the meantime, the Russians have other goodies to offer. Announcements about a delivery date are made to the press and confirmed by high-level Russian sources. Then the game starts all over again. (Read how rocket diplomacy helped forge a three-way alliance involving Israel, Russia, and India.)

A look at the naughty bits of Russia’s S-300 striptease over the past year is enough to give even the most ADD-riddled brain a bad case of déjà vu. In December 2008, the Iranians sent a delegation to Moscow and came back with an apparent agreement from the Russians to deliver the S-300s. “After [a] few years of talks with Russia … now the S-300 system is being delivered to Iran,” Email Kosari, deputy head of the Iranian Parliament’s foreign affairs and national security committee, told IRNA, the official Iranian news agency. A Russian defense ministry official confirmed to the news agency Interfax that “[c]urrently the S-300s are being prepared for transfer to [Russia’s state-run arms exporter] Rosoboronexport and then their shipment to the customer.” The Russians waited a few weeks and then denied reports that the S-300 was en route to Iran anytime soon.

In February of 2009, Iran’s then-defense minister, Mostafa Mohammed-Najjar, traveled to Moscow and obtained another public promise to deliver the S-300 system: Those reports were then scotched. In April, Iran’s deputy foreign minister, Mehdi Safari, visited Moscow and announced, “There are no problems with this [S-300] contract.” Iranian media declared that the country had begun receiving elements of the even more advanced system, the SA-20 Gargoyle. The Russians then announced that no more S-300 components would be delivered to Iran.

In late October, the Russians reversed themselves again and announced that they would absolutely, positively deliver S-300 missiles to Iran. According to the Financial Times, Saudi Arabia then outbid Iran by offering to purchase $2 billion of new Russian weapons, including a more advanced version of the S-300—the S-400.

The first lesson of the rocket poker game, then, is that the Iranians and the Syrians are suckers—until they get the bomb.

The second lesson is that every rocket the Russians sell—or don’t sell—gives them leverage to sell more rockets.

The third lesson is that the Israelis have reasons to trust Russia, at the same time as they worry about Russia shipping S-300 missiles to Iran and about the Russians building the Iranian nuclear reactor at Bushehr, as well as about the Russian scientist or scientists who has been helping the Iranians master the fine points of building a nuclear warhead.

The fourth lesson is that whoever runs Russia’s foreign policy these days—let’s call him Vladimir Putin—may not be the greatest guy on the planet, but he sure makes the people who run our country, Republicans and Democrats alike, seem like chumps. First, he invades tiny, democratic Georgia and humiliates its loud-mouthed president. Then he threatens to turn off the gas to Ukraine. Then he uses economic pressure to shut down the large U.S. military base in Kyrgyzstan—a key link in the NATO supply chain to Afghanistan. When an idealistic, young U.S. president who bravely dreams of eliminating nuclear weapons from the planet accedes to Russian demands to scotch NATO’s hard-won radar system in Eastern Europe, Putin pockets the bait—and then rubs his victory in the faces of the horrified Eastern Europeans by teaming up with the crazy president of Belarus and launching a “practice” invasion of Poland, complete with tactical nuclear weapons. Actions like these make Russia a powerful agent of destabilization that threatens U.S. power across Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, at the same time as it makes Russia the key to our fading hopes of resolving the nuclear standoff with Iran. By this time next year, the Middle East may be at war or at peace—depending on where Russia sends its rockets.

Think about it: The sight of Vladimir Putin accepting the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the peace-loving Russian people and their former KGB masters may seem a bit much, but if Russia stops the Iranian bomb by withholding the S-300, then it would be hard to think of a more deserving candidate. If Russia sends the S-300 to Iran, on the other hand, the Iranians will build their bomb—and may use it. Either way, there should be a prize for the world leader who is able to accumulate the most influence at the cheapest price.