The executive order issued by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which lifts the ban on the export of weapons systems to Iran, has been met with sharp condemnation by Israel, and admonishment from the United States. While Moscow has yet to make a final decision on if/when it will begin supplying the S-300 air defense missiles to Iran – Tehran purchased the system under a 2007 contract left unfulfilled by Russia as a result of the UN-imposed arms embargo – it is clear that the possibility alone signals a significant shift in the geopolitics of the region.
On the one hand, Iranian air defenses would be significantly upgraded with an advanced weapons system such as S-300 which, though not exactly new, is still very much capable of defending the country’s airspace from any potential attack, be it Israeli or US. On the other hand, the possible delivery of the S-300s is a symbolic step towards integrating Iran into a broader non-NATO security architecture taking shape under the leadership of Russia and China.
While BRICS has come to be the watchword of multi-polarity, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) has emerged as a military-security-intelligence alliance, on top of being an economic and political forum for Sino-Russian relations. The possibility of Iran joining this alliance both through participation in SCO summits, and in practice through military and non-military contracts as well as other forms of cooperation, signals a watershed both for Iran, and the non-western world. Where, just a few years ago, the US and its allies could dictate the terms of relations between Iran and other states, today it simply cannot, nuclear deal or no nuclear deal. The S-300s are only the tip of the iceberg.
What This Means for Iran and the Region
First and foremost, Iran is going to have the opportunity to exist, at least to some extent, on an equal footing on the international stage. Though it is still unclear the specifics of the finalized agreement, including the odious sanctions regime and the extent to which it will actually be lifted, what is certain is that Iran will have much more leeway to pursue economic cooperation with potential partners internationally.