Blossoming Iran-Russia Axis Becomes a Big Problem

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After nearly two years of the Biden administration’s failed diplomacy, the revival of the Iran nuclear deal—aka the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action—is all but dead, likely making Tehran thrilled with its burgeoning friendship with Moscow.

Why? 

Well, it turns out that Russia can do many things to support Iran in a post-nuclear deal world—and Tehran likely is expecting that, considering what it already has done for Moscow in its unjust war on Kyiv.

As we are aware, Iran has provided several hundred—likely more—combat drones to Russia for its military campaign in Ukraine. The Iranian drones have had a sizable impact on the war, attacking military and civilian targets, destroying critical infrastructure, and killing innocents.

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The Russian attacks on this critical infrastructure, using Iranian drones and other Russian weapons systems, seemingly are designed to terrorize the Ukrainian people as the bitter cold of Central Europe’s winter descends upon the region.

Iran also is expected to provide short-range ballistic missiles to Russia for use in its air war against Ukraine, increasing the potential explosive payload of strikes using a combat drone.  

So what sort of things can Russia do for Iran?

As written about here previously, Moscow can do a lot for Tehran, including boosting international arms sales, providing hard currency revenue, engaging in energy collaboration, rendering support in international organizations such as the U.N. Security Council, and so on.

But perhaps the most worrisome possibility is Russia’s potential support to Iran’s nuclear (weapons) program. While it’s not clear how far Moscow would go in assisting Tehran in furthering its nuclear ambitions, the prospect is deeply troubling.

For instance, at a minimum, Russia could provide Iran with its most advanced air defense systems such as the S-400, which would help defend Tehran’s nuclear sites and other high-value targets from air or missile attack.

Russia already has provided Iran with the highly capable S-300 surface-to-air missile system. Moscow also could transfer electronic warfare systems to Tehran to complicate any air attack on Iran. 

Russia could argue that these arms sales are in line with Iran’s right to self-defense against what-Moscow-might-call the “unjust animosity and belligerence” of the United States and Israel; how Iran uses these air defense weapons, Moscow would likely claim, is up to the regime.

Admittedly, considering the state of the war, increasing (likely Ukrainian) attacks into Russian-held and Russian territory, the growing drawdown of Russian weapons stocks, and limited weapons production capability, the delivery of Russian air defenses to Iran might take some time.    

More troubling is the notion that Russia might help Iran with building the bomb.

Now, there are downsides to Moscow in aiding and abetting the destabilizing development of an Iranian nuclear weapon, including undermining Russia’s security interests in the Middle East and its effect on the future course of global nuclear proliferation.

But, starting in the mid-1990s, Moscow did build and subsequently fuel Tehran’s first nuclear reactor at Bushehr despite strong concerns about the radical Islamist regime and a nuclear Iran.

Of course, today, according to some estimates, Iran could possibly test—even deploy—a rudimentary nuclear weapon. By many accounts, it has enough enriched uranium for at least one nuke. The possible good news is that Iran may not be able fashion this fissile material into a modern weapon.

That is, while Tehran possibly could build a large, World War II-style nuclear weapon, it may not be able to miniaturize such a device to successfully mount atop a ballistic missile and survive the temperatures, forces, and vibrations of flight—and then go boom.

There is no doubt that Russia knows how to do that.

Outside assistance in bridging the gaps in scientific, technical, and military knowledge in Iran’s nuclear and missile programs—whether from Russia or even North Korea—could be a game-changer for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.           

This means that—although it’s by no means certain due to Russian self-interests in limiting nuclear proliferation and geopolitical instability—keeping Iran from getting the bomb and building nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, especially long-range missiles, is potentially becoming much more complicated.

The question is: President Biden, are you paying attention, and if so, what are you doing about it?

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