What is really behind Putin’s unprecedented hop to Tehran?

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Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert arrived in Moscow Thursday on an abrupt blitz-visit. In reality, however, what exactly was the highlight of Olmert’s intercourse with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin? Was it Israel’s growing concern over Iran’s nuclear ambitions, or something else? Of interest is that no more than a day passed from announcing the trip of Israel’s prime minister to Moscow and the actual meeting of Olmert and Putin, which is by far not the common practice in interstate relations. Was it not by strange coincidence that the two leaders shook hands just in two days after Russia’s president visited Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Iran’s spiritual leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, both arch-enemies of Israel.

For 25 years the Islamic Republic leadership in Tehran has done all it could to host such a visit with no success. Both Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin politely turned down Iranian invitations. Putin himself had pursued a similar policy until last Tuesday. During the summit of the so-called Shanghai Group, Putin ignored President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s call for a tête-à-tête. Then why the sudden change of mind, which is rather exclusive in the Kremlin’s policy?

Russian and Iranian presidents Vladimir Putin and  Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, during their recent meeting in Tehran.Indeed, the big question is why has Putin decided to visit Tehran at this time?

The answer could be simple, but at the same time very complicated: Unofficial news leaking out of Tehran’s inner circles indicate that the military brass there are very dismayed at how ineffective their newly purchased Russian air defense systems were during Israels mysterious September 6th air strike on an alleged Syrian weapons development facility near the Iraqi border. According to reports, Syria took delivery last August of 10 batteries of sophisticated Russian Pantsyr-S1E air defense missile system and fire control systems with advanced radar. Same reports indicated that some of these systems were already operational by September. Unconfirmed reports even indicated that Iran has sent some of the newly acquired Tor M1 9M330 Air Defense Systems to Syria. This would make the mystery even more painful to Moscow. As for the alleged target, which was, or was not attacked, its nature seems totally insignificant in face of the turmoil that Israel’s raid created over Russia’s precious air defenses – the repercussions of which could by far be more catastrophic for Moscow’s ambitious arms sales outlook.

RAFAEL and Elta Systems are cooperating in an effort to develop a highly sophisticated 'escort jamming' system, protecting strike fighter aircraft from detection and interception by modern, guided air defenses. Image: RAFAEL

Having returned without a single loss must clearly demonstrate to both Damascus and Tehran that the failure of the expensive new Russian anti-air system leaves them highly vulnerable to attack. Russian defense firms claim that Pantsyr creates an uninterrupted engagement zone of 18 to 20 km in range and of up to 10 km in altitude. Immunity to jamming is promised via multimode, multi-spectral radar and electro-optical control system. But apparently the Israelis were able to blind these systems electronically by some highly sophisticated ECM equipment. Syria isn’t saying anything, nor are the Israelis, but Iranian officers are complaining openly that they have been “fooled” by the Russians.

Pantsyr-S1E air defense missile system


And the Russians were indeed reacting fast. A report coming out of Moscow, on September 27, indicated that Russia is sending top specialists to upgrade the electronics of their air defense systems. Even that will not have satisfied the Iranian and Syrian clients and only a personal intervention of Moscow’s top man- no less than Vladimir Putin himself – was urgently required to pacify the suspicious military. Having lost their confidence in the Russian weapons and this, not for the first time as past performance demonstrated dramatically, it would need all of Moscow’s persuasive powers to avert a disaster. The Russians would like to present their systems as on par with US made weapons systems, but the Israeli incursion into Syria’s defended airspace, with no Israeli jets downed demonstrated once again that Russian-made weapon systems, barring a few exceptions, are still not up to par with the West.

The reason for Moscow’s concern is understandable. In April 2006 Putin declared Russia’s arms sales surpassing 6 billion US$, some 25% above planned. Multi-year contracts in-hand were already 18 bio. 80% of all sales were to China and India, but Syria and Iran are becoming major clients for Russian arms sales, with already scores of Russian experts in Syria upgrading tanks, missiles and air defenses. A billion dollar arms deal with Tehran was signed only recently for the supply of SA-10 and Tor-M1 systems. Now Iranian officials are questioning this expensive deal, following Israel’s mysterious air incursion into Syria. Putin’s visit to Tehran must have placed this issue on top of his agenda, trying to reassure his clients in Asia that Moscow would quickly redress any shortcomings with new and more sophisticated solutions. Whether his efforts were successful remains to be seen.

The visit of Israel’s Premier to Moscow had actually been agreed on October 10, during the telephone conversation between the two leaders. But the information was a top secret, as Moscow avoided advertising the mini-summit not to cloud Putin’s visit to Tehran. President Vladimir Putin bent over backward to welcome Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to Moscow on Wednesday but cleverly denied him, what Olmert really wanted to discuss: Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Putin had every reason to do so. His forced tête-à-tête with the Tehran leaders must have cost him quite a lot of concessions in the way of Iran’s nuclear ambitions, details of which the Russian leader certainly would not be willing to share with his Israeli visitor.

In fact Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Wednesday, before his Moscow visit, that Israel will not allow a situation in which Iran gains access to unconventional weapons and warned Iranians to “be afraid.”

“I will not address sensitive issues, if we will do this or do that, but the Iranians should be afraid,” Olmert told reporters following his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov in Moscow. While Olmert did not elaborate, his former security advisor and Mossad chief Ephraim Halevi was more direct. Reassuring his listeners that Israel would not be destroyed, Halevi said “We cannot say that the Iranian threat is an existential threat on the State of Israel. I believe that the State of Israel cannot be eliminated. It cannot be destroyed because of things you know and because of things you can imagine.”

Meanwhile in Washington, President Bush joined Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak for an unplanned meeting in the office of US National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley that same Thursday, Oct. 18, while Olmert was in Moscow. The three-way meeting was expanded to an hour and pointedly centered on the Iranian nuclear issue as a rejoinder to the Olmert trip to Moscow and to indicate the President’s disapproval, if not real anger on Olmert’s unprecedented move.

A senior US source disclosed that the US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, while still in Jerusalem at the end of her last Middle East shuttle, voiced stern disapproval of Olmert’s planned trip to Moscow when they met last Wednesday. She advised him not to interfere in US-Russian interchanges on Iran. This even led US officials to say ( unofficially of course) ” if Olmert wants to go his own way on Iran and work with Putin, he need not come to us for help”.

In Israel itself, senior politicians also took a dim view of Olmert’s Thursday’s rush to the Kremlin. The move was regarded as not befitting the dignity of an Israeli leader. Olmert went without thorough preparation, with only a small entourage, and without the media accompanying him.

While Israel’s interest in the issue of the Iranian military nuclear program is understandable, what was not clear was the sudden sense of urgency. If Olmert’s intent was to hear from Putin, a widely known as a very shrewd and seasoned operator, what he discussed in Tehran, then it would have been wise, if not indispensable towards achieving reliable results, to prepare the visit by an in-depth intelligence briefing. But even the best intelligence service would need time to receive worthwhile information from such high level talks, held mostly in confined secrecy environment, making leaks extremely difficult. Moreover, it would have been virtually impossible to receive such a briefing within only two days, which elapsed since Putin’s Tehran visit and Olmert’s trip to Moscow.

It is true, analysts agree, that President Bush said Wednesday in a White House press conference that an Iranian nuclear bomb may lead to a third world war. However, with all due respect, such hasty trip does not serve the Israeli interest. In fact, Prime Minister Olmert’s trip to Moscow Thursday, despite the polite welcome he received in the Kremlin, was likely destined to be in vain from the start. Israel would have been better off, without it.