Obama's Latest Test on Iran

Impenetrable?

Source: RIA Novosti via Getty Images

One of the perverse effects of the Iran nuclear deal, which President Barack Obama hailed last year as a historic step toward peace, is that it could make the region more dangerous. That will certainly be the case if the U.S. does nothing to stop Iran's purchase of a sophisticated Russian surface-to-air missile system.

The deal for the S-300, which can track and fire at aircraft or missiles more than 100 miles away, was brokered in 2007, but it didn't come to fruition until recently. Iranian officials say they have already received the first missiles from Moscow, with further equipment due this summer.

Iranian officials also say the Russian deal lies outside the scope of both the nuclear deal and relevant United Nations sanctions. And it's true that the S-300 sale agreement was reached before 2010, when the UN passed a resolution banning such transfers.

That shouldn’t prevent the U.S. from trying to stop the sale at the UN Security Council. And even if Russia vetoed that attempt -- as it almost certainly would -- the U.S. still has the authority to sanction Iran unilaterally.

In truth, the Russian system is very much connected to Iran's mothballed-for-now nuclear program: It could make any future ballistic-missile sites impervious to attack by any of Iran's regional Arab rivals, and even make a U.S. or Israeli strike difficult.

More worrisome, according to Iranian and Russian news sources, it may be the opening move in a series of Russia-Iran sales and cooperation agreements. These could include the next-generation S-400 antimissile system, jet fighters, and opening a production facility in Iran to build Russia's main battle tank, the T-90. If any of these deals are completed before 2021, they would violate the terms of the nuclear pact.

All this explains why Congress has been asking the administration how it plans to react to the S-300 deal. The White House has been conspicuously silent.

The administration needs to explain to Congress what it intends to do about this sale before it is a fait accompli. Even a failed attempt to stop it at the Security Council would send Iran a message about U.S. resolve. U.S. sanctions against Russian or Iranian entities involved in the sale would do more than send a message. Additionally, the U.S. could increase Israeli capabilities to wipe out long-range Iranian missiles.

But before any of this can happen, Obama needs to tell Congress and the public whether he intends to act on the sale at all. The U.S. already backed down once when faced with Iranian intransigence, imposing only token sanctions after Iran tested ballistic missiles last year in violation of a UN measure passed after the nuclear deal was reached. This clearly emboldened the mullahs.

Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry put their reputations on the line for the Iran atomic-weapons pact, so their determination to protect it is understandable. But if that means looking the other way at Iran's efforts to destabilize the the Middle East, is the nuclear deal really worth having?

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View’s editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.