Deal or No Deal: Why Russia Cancelled Arms Shipments to Iran

On September 22nd, Russia announced it was terminating its agreed upon sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. The Kremlin’s decision to spurn Iran and quietly cancel their defense contract was a very big deal and the latest in a series of events that marks a dramatic shift in Russian foreign policy. If doubt remains, just listen to outraged Iranian President Ahmadinejad who voiced his indignation, claiming Russia has “sold out to Satan” (i.e. the United States).

Back in the U.S., the olive branch was greeted with a sigh-of-relief from the Obama administration, which first reached out – with only meager success - to restore the rocky relationship with Russia two years ago. At the time, it was no secret that bilateral relations had fallen to a post-Communist low. Putin and Bush were at odds over a number of subjects, including American support for Georgia, what Bush saw as Russia's violations of democratic principles, and the U.S. proposal to build a European missile shield. A change in course was a top priority for the Obama administration, with Hilary Clinton's presenting a ‘reset button’ to the Russian Foreign Minister merely a year after she took over at the State Department.

While it was the White House’s gift, it seems that lately Russia has been the country to take the symbolism to heart. The thawing of relations is in large part because of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev. While the U.S. and Russia have struck a more positive tone of late, Washington was waiting for a significant game-changing move to show that the thaw was deeper than just talk and trivialities. President Medvedev’s decision not to go through with the sale of the missiles - one that was sharply debated within the government - was just what they were hoping for.

In all rocky relationships there are times when a show of affection is needed. Sometimes it’s a bouquet of flowers or a surprise romantic dinner out; other times, it’s a decision to cancel the sale of S-300 surface-to-air missiles to Iran. Such displays can be altruistic or obscure an ulterior motive. Presently, the reasoning behind Russia’s recent decision remains unclear, but for now, America should be appreciative.

Going forward however, the question remains: What does it all mean for Russia and the U.S.? Lately, Russia had come under significant pressure from both the U.S. and Israel not to go ahead with the sale as such missiles, when placed in Iran’s hands, would complicate any future military actions taken against its potential nuclear program. The decision by the Kremlin suggests that Russia realizes its growing power and is seeking more say in world affairs.

One area where Russia may begin to flex its muscles is the Middle East. By distancing themselves from Iran, Russia has no doubt engendered affection from Israel. In return, Israel may very well offer Russia a seat at the table to help establish a Palestinian/Israeli truce. While an immense challenge, Russia seems eager for such an opportunity. Were Russia ever able to help broker peace, its profile and world influence would skyrocket.            

Ultimately, America must live with the realization that Russia’s actions are not altruistic. For now, such self-serving reasoning by Russia hopefully means a continued shift towards agreement with the West. If that is indeed the case, the decision was the perfect touch and Russia is a partner the U.S. will be happy to live with. The question remains, will this new honeymoon last?

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons