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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Wrong Weapons

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Iran is the Cuba of the Middle East. Long ostracized and under sanctions, both are ripe for change. We will probably see breakthroughs with Cuba and Iran in U.S. President Barack Obama's first term. Cuba will be easier, but Iran is more important to U.S. goals in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

With few exceptions, the world agrees that it is not desirable for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. One of those few exceptions is, of course, Iran itself.

But maybe once again we're worrying about the wrong weapons. Of more immediate significance are the S-300s that Iran has been trying to buy from Russia for the last two years. The S-300s are advanced and accurate surface-to-air missiles that operate from mobile launchers and can simultaneously track up to 100 targets while engaging 12 at a range of up to 200 kilometers and a height of up to 27 kilometers. They defend against aircraft, cruise missiles and ballistic missiles and could therefore hamper or cripple an Israeli airstrike like those the Jewish state made against nuclear facilities in Iraq and Syria. Though important Iranian nuclear facilities may be scattered around the country and underground, those on the surface will have to be protected too. The Israelis feel threatened by the impending sale of the S-300s, and word that it had finally gone through could speed up any Israeli pre-emptive strike plans.

But the Russians don't seem to be in any hurry to close this nearly $1 billion sale. Why not? Russia may not want to alienate Israel and Turkey, with whom bilateral trade is much higher than with Iran. Some argue that the delays indicate discord within the Russian government or between Iran and Russia. Others contend that Russia has been waiting to use the S-300s as a bargaining chip in dealing with the new U.S. administration. If so, that should be clear soon enough.

But something else is involved. Just as ambiguity about its nuclear intentions and achievements serves Iran's purposes, so does an ambivalent attitude toward Iran serve Russia's. Moscow does not want Iran's pariah status to end. An Iran that deals openly with Europe and the United States can be the key to a significant, long-term weakening of Russia.

If Western Europe wants to reduce its dependence on Russian gas and oil, Iran is the best alternative route in from the Caspian Sea and Central Asia as well as being a significant gas source itself. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself has said that a Western pipeline like the proposed Nabucco is unthinkable without Iranian gas.

Iran's eastern border is with Pakistan and Afghanistan, the two countries that American foreign policy will be bound up with for years to come. Because the Russians effectively bribed the Kyrgyz government to close the only U.S. airbase in Central Asia, the United States is now forced to ship material across Russia. For Moscow, this is a source of income, prestige and, ultimately, power over the American war effort. Once again, Iran is, at least physically, a better alternative route. Moscow may finally allow the sale of the S-300s to go through if a deal for rapprochement between Iran and the West seemed imminent. That would spoil the deal. And then Iran's acquisition of an advanced missile system would suggest other analogies with Cuba.

Richard Lourie is the author of "The Autobiography of Joseph Stalin" and "Sakharov: A Biography."