Iran’s Growing Air Defense Capability

Iran recently conducted a significant military air defense drill showcasing its newly updated air defense systems. This has been a significant military arms-related event among several in recent years, along with Iran’s attempt to ship ballistic missiles to Venezuela. This drill included the use of surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), radars, launchers, and command-and-control technology, according to a leading nonpartisan research institute focusing on national security. In the past, international focus has been on Iran’s capability to make offensive war, this drill shifts the spotlight onto its equally impactful defensive capabilities. Iran has positioned its air defense systems over many locations within the country, and top leaders of an organization following foreign policy argue that confidence in home-based air defense creates an understanding that any retaliation from opponents is less likely. This, in turn, provides Iran more freedom to realize any ambitions for offensive action in the region.

The drill, named “Defenders of the Velayat’s Skies-99” is one of a series of joint drills conducted by the Iranian military’s air defense branches. The use of Iran’s air defense capabilities in military drills has become an increasing priority over the past several years. The effectiveness of their new air defense systems was highlighted when Iran destroyed an American drone in 2019 and accidentally shot down a Ukrainian airliner more recently in 2020.

It makes sense that Iran has decided to display large-scale military drills while it is hampered by sanctions and the potential for domestic unrest due to the coronavirus. Public military drills serve as a primary means of deterrence to any aggressor that would be assuming a degree of weakened capability from the Iranian regime, according to a Washington-based think tank. Iran’s military displays also serve as a message to the United States to back down from its intent to stymy Iran’s oppressive regime.

While Defenders of the Velayat’s Skies-99 should be taken seriously, Iran’s air defense capabilities are still limited. The United States and its allies have the capability to defeat Iran’s current air defense technology. Nonetheless, Iran’s defenses are becoming more effective, and presently constitute an additional layer of difficulty for any potential attacker, as well as some degree of deterrence.

Iran’s air defense drill is also indicative of potential future problems for the region. Russia has signaled its willingness to sell its more effective S-400 SAM air defense system. If Iran were to purchase this system, its ability to shoot down aircraft will be augmented. This would provide the capability to target aircraft in regions further outside of Iran and along international trading routes. Given the apparent failure of the international community to limit Iran’s arms imports and other limitations, this creates additional concern. Enforcement of Iran’s weapon embargo has been largely unsuccessful internationally. 

Given Iran’s recent air defense drill and the possibility of Iran gaining access to the S-400 SAM air defense system, it is important that this situation is taken with seriousness. Top experts on Iran warn that such a move could provide Iran greater freedom to militarily expand in the region, and impose on international trade. The United States and the international community need to make a concerted and effective effort to halt Iran’s regional and military ambitions. Efforts so far to curb Iran’s military technology growth have been insufficient.

Iran and Turkey in Lock Step

Despite Turkey recognizing Israel as a nation in 1949 and Iran’s recognition in 1950, they are outspoken critics of the 2020 UAE-Israel peace deal according to recent reporting on Iran from experts on Middle Eastern and Iranian government. In the epitome of an August surprise, the agreement brokered by the U.S. left President Trump detractors shocked. The shock comes not only from the lack of leaks surrounding the deal, but also its proof that stability in the Middle East is not exclusively contingent upon a two-state solution with Israel and Palestine.

Both Iran and Turkey reacted contentiously to the historic deal for which President Trump was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. The deal potentially thwarts the plan of both Arab states to further destabilize the area according to foreign policy research organizations reporting on the oppressive situation in Iran. Turkey’s encroachment into Libya, Syria, Somalia, and Qatar to Iran’s proxy war waged in Afghanistan; both countries remain active. Both use Palestine as the basis for why they oppose the deal, and they are not alone in their opposition. However, they and the greater region benefit from the agreement.

Significant Moves Yield Major Benefits 

For instance, the deal requires Israel to halt its annexation plan for portions of the West Bank for which Palestine claims ownership. This is a concession for Israel and Netanyahu, in particular, who leverage the annexation plan as the impetus for his re-election campaign. Additionally, the UAE seeks to acquire advanced U.S. weapons systems and military jets as a component of the deal. Israel is hesitant to support the latter for fear that those items could fall into the wrong hands. Currently, they are the only ones in the area with stealth warplanes and other U.S. military weapons.

Research conducted by the foreign policy group, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and substantiated by numerous news stories report that the acquisition of military weapons by the UAE is still a subject for debate. What is established is the normalization that is already taking place and is expected to develop. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, Israel and the UAE were never at war so the emphasis is on shared benefits as opposed to maintaining peace. Some of those benefits include doing business deals, exchanging intelligence, sharing technology, and generating wealth through new investment. The latest news from FDD, a research group focusing on Iranian government policy, agrees with those benefits along with the fact that a collaborative effort against their shared enemy of Iran is mutually beneficial, as well, and the deal paves the way for other countries in the region to enter into their own agreements with Israel.

A Secretive, But Productive Process Mediated by the U.S.

Initial private talks began in Warsaw in February of 2019 when Brian Hook with the U.S. State Department mediated talks between Netanyahu and several Arab leaders. The Wall Street Journal reports that Hook continued to sponsor conversations after the initial meeting. In June of 2019, Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington published an op-ed championing Israeli sovereignty and its reach into the West Bank. Foregoing this effort in spite of campaign promises and administration statements was necessary to close the deal.

As it turns out, the two leaders have more common interests than conflicts with one another as indicated by leading think tanks on diplomatic research and foreign policy. Both share enmity with Iran and its proxies, and both favor investment and regional trade. For this reason, they struck a deal and the UAE ruler formally ended its boycott of Israel. Things are now moving quickly.

Ongoing Possibility of Peace and Stability

The official deal and repeal of the UAE’s boycott opens the door to banking, aviation, and other business ventures, which kicked off with an August 31st, 2020 flight from Israel to the UAE. The flight was historic in and of itself, but equally significant is the fact that Crown Prince Mohammad Bin Salman opened Saudi air space to allow a direct path for the flight. Saudi King Salman thus signaled his support of the deal and its possibilities despite maintaining its Israel boycott in support of a Palestinian state. Now the question becomes which country joins the next peace deal.