Boeing team’s Iran visit shows smart thinking

The rumour that at Israel’s behest a couple of months ago Russian President Vladimir Putin had ordered a freeze on the transfer of S-300 air defense missile system to Iran under a 2007 arms deal has turned to be just that — a rumor.

 Iran’s Minister of Road and Urban Development Abbas Akhondi announced on Thursday that talks with airplane manufacturer Boeing will soon begin on purchase of aircraft from the US company

Iran’s Minister of Road and Urban Development Abbas Akhondi recently announced that talks will soon begin with Boeing on purchase of aircraft

The Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin confirmed in Moscow on Monday the reports from Tehran in the weekend that the first batch of the S-300 has arrived in Iran.

The S-300 is one of the most advanced medium-range anti-aircraft missile systems in the world with the capability to intercept multiple aircraft at high to low altitude 90 miles away. An air attack on Iran will henceforth become a prohibitively expensive adventure.

In addition to the S-300, Iran also plans to license production of the Russian T-90 tank and has expressed interest in front-line Russian fighters like the SU-30, a twin-engine, two-seater multi-role fighter capable of operating on all-weather air-to-air and air-to-surface deep interdiction missions.

To be sure, the moment of truth has come, finally, eight months after the conclusion of the Iran nuclear deal. Moscow is positioning itself for the long haul as the number one supplier of weapons to Iran. The geopolitical implications are far-reaching.

The critics of the nuclear deal in the US and among the US’ regional allies are certain to cry foul that all this is happening because of the removal of UN sanctions against Iran.

There is criticism that the Obama administration is “waffling” – to borrow from a Washington Post editorial last Thursday – in the face of Iran’s recent tests of ballistic missiles.

The editorial doubted whether the Obama administration isn’t deliberately playing down Iran’s violations of the nuclear deal to avoid any conflict “out of fear that the regime (in Tehran) might walk away from a centerpiece of President Obama’s legacy”.

But such criticism overlooks that the nuclear deal does not prohibit Iran from any of the above activities in the military field. Even with regard to the missile tests, the letter addressed to the UN Security Council a week ago by the US, Britain, France and Germany limited itself to pointing out that Iran’s missile tests are “inconsistent with” the UNSC resolution, rather than constitute a violation that demanded enforcement action.

The core issue here is something else. The discourses are taking place in a vacuum whereas Iran’s activities are happening in a regional milieu. Iran has a genuine need to modernize its armed forces. Its military capabilities suffered immensely because of the 8-year war with Iraq in the eighties and the sanctions regime that followed which effectively denied it access to modern weapons.

Iran’s neighbours in the Persian Gulf surged ahead purchasing tens of billions of dollars worth arms from the West – be it the latest fighter jets from Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Predator drones, Apache attack helicopters, Patriot air-defense systems, and stockpiles of the latest missiles, bombs, and other weapons.

Take the case of Saudi Arabia. It figures as the world’s number one arms importer in 2014. Between 2011 and 2015, Saudi arms imports rose by 275% compared with the previous five years. The arms purchases by Middle Eastern states as a whole increased by 61% over the same period.

The Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies assessed last year that the “Arab Gulf states have … an overwhelming advantage over Iran in both military spending and access to modern arms.”

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimated that in 2014, Saudi government spent more than 25% of its total budget expenditure on beefing up its military assets — more than $80 billion. Again, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) spent nearly $23 billion. Comparatively, Iran’s military spending was about $15 billion.

The Gulf Cooperation Council states of Bahrain, Oman, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE outspend Iran on arms by a factor of about eight. Suffice it to say, Saudi Arabia’s military outspends Iran’s 5-to-1, the UAE’s by 50%. Doesn’t Iran have the right to defend itself?

Ironically, the US is the main arms vendor in the Persian Gulf region.  That is to say, the contradictions in the US’ regional policies have surfaced. Through the past three-decade period, Washington raised the Iran bogey to justify massive arms exports to the Persian Gulf region, while knowing fully well that Iran’s armed forces depended on weapon systems that bordered on obsolete and that the balance of conventional capabilities in the region was heavily opposed to the Iranians.

Today’s exaggerated tales of Iran’s military ascendancy will only come to hurt the US’ vital interests. They give a false picture of the regional balance of power, which in turn will only stymie rational analysis and, in political terms, complicate the normalization process with Iran.

Who stands to lose here? The US cannot stop Iran from sourcing advanced weaponry from Russia; nor can it prevent Russia from transferring such weaponry to Iran. Besides, Iran has developed its own industrial base to make substantive advancements to military weapons program.

A parallel can be drawn with the historical blunder on the part of the US in adopting an ostrich-like attitude toward non-aligned India, which too, like Iran, treasured its ‘strategic autonomy’, but, like the Iranian elites, always viewed the West, especially the US, as the preferred partner. But Washington took decades to comprehend that its continued embargo on transfer of technology to Indian entities in the defence field only hurt the American business interests and had hardly any impact on the Indian policies.

The case with Iran seems to be a replay. The good thing is that the Obama administration realizes the need to move on. The decision to allow a delegation from Boeing to visit Tehran last week and hold talks testifies to it.

Of course, Washington scrambled only when it transpired that Boeing has already been beaten to the punch by Airbus, which recently secured a deal to sell 118 aircraft to Iran for about $25 billion. Nonetheless, the eagerness with which Tehran hosted the Boeing team conveys a big message.

A re-imposition of sanctions against Iran by the United Nations Security Council is going to be impossible. Not only the two veto-holding powers from the ‘East’, but also the European Union would object, because they have an entirely different agenda towards Iran.

The Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Iran this week, accompanied by a 250-member business delegation. The EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini is due to begin an official visit to Iran this weekend, accompanied by seven European Commissioners, aimed at a comprehensive upgrade of relations with new perspectives in sight following the removal of sanctions.

Ambassador MK Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001). He writes the “Indian Punchline” blog and has written regularly for Asia Times since 2001.

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