The latest Russian S-400 missile launchers, partly camouflaged at an air defense unit for the Baltic fleet in Russia's Kaliningrad in March. The South Korean missiles sold to the UAE are based on this design. Photo: AFP/ Department of Information Support / Sputnik

It depends on which Russian publication you believe – TASS or Sputnik – on whether Iraq may be buying the Russian advanced S-400 air-defense system. But no matter whether they buy the system today or tomorrow, it is clear Iraq is heading that way.

In March 2018 Iraq’s then foreign minister Ibrahim al-Eshaiker al-Jaafari said Iraq would buy the missiles. And in late April Haidar Mansour Hadi, Iraq’s ambassador to Russia, said at a press conference following the eighth meeting of the Russian-Iraqi intergovernmental commission on trade, economic, scientific and technical cooperation, held in Baghdad: “As for the missile defense systems, the government has made a decision, it wants to purchase the S-400,” according to TASS.

Sputnik, on the other hand, reported that the Iraqi government “has not made a decision” on the purchase of Russian S-400 air-defense system yet, Iraq’s Ambassador to Russia Haidar Hadi said this week. “As for S-400, there is no contract yet.”

There are a number of issues that arise if Iraq tries to go through with a deal with Moscow to purchase the S-400.

Will Iran pay for it?

First among them is how such a procurement will be financed. The base cost for an S-400 is around $500 million. But that would be with the minimum number of missiles and limited support. More missiles, more radars and more spares could significantly boost the price.

Military expenditure in Iraq averaged $5.05 billion a year from 2004 until 2018. Iraq’s military is small and is primarily a counter-insurgency force. It has a small air force with 36 combat multirole F-16’s and 21 somewhat refurbished Su-25’s. The Iraqi Air Force also has 10 Aero L-159 light attack jets and a few other light propeller-driven combat aircraft.

The US has some 5,000 to 6,000 troops in Iraq and maintains an important base in western Iraq’s al Anbar province called Ain al-Asad. The base is jointly shared with Iraqi forces and is used as a counter-insurgency base against ISIS and as a training base for Iraq’s armed forces.

Will Iraq pay for the S-400 from its defense budget, or will Russia underwrite Iraq’s purchase? Or will finance come from elsewhere, such as from Iran? Since there is not yet a contract or a final deal, how the finances will work isn’t clear. But it is a reasonable bet that Iran is probably the top candidate to support the S-400 in Iraq. And if that is the case, will Iran surreptitiously run the S-400 system there?

America opposes the S-400

The second issue is how the US will react to an Iraqi purchase. The answer to that question is that the US probably already opposes Iraq acquiring the S-400, just as it opposes the sale of the system to India and Turkey.

But, does the US still have enough leverage to pressure Iraq? The political scene is shifting quickly.

For example, part of the reason the US moved non-essential personnel out of Iraq this past week was the threat of missiles that Iran transferred to Sh’ia militias in Iraq, according to Reuters. Reuters based its information on two Iraqi intelligence sources and two Western sources.

The Washington Times says that one of the reasons the US reinforced its troops and naval deployment in the Persian Gulf, even sending B-52 bombers there, was because Iran had transferred a number of missiles to Iraq’s Sh’ias that could be used to target American forces in Iraq. Reuters says the transferred missiles include the Zelzal (which has a range of 250 km), the Fateh-110 (200-300 km) and Zolfaqar (700km) – “putting Saudi Arabia’s capital Riyadh or the Israeli city of Tel Aviv within striking distance if the weapons were deployed in southern or western Iraq.”

Iraq has not objected to the missile transfers from Iran.

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, left, and Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohamad Alhakim talk to the press after a meeting in Baghdad in March. Photo: AFP/Haydar Karaalp/Anadolu

Which missiles will be sold?

The third issue is what missiles will be supplied for the S-400 system? There are four different missile types that can be launched from the S-400. The most formidable is the 40N6 missile that has very long range and can even block the US F-22 and F-35 stealth planes, according to the Russians. These missiles were promised to China but, rather inexplicably, a shipment of 40N6 missiles was allegedly damaged at sea and had to be destroyed. China has yet to get these longer-range missiles, a key to its strategy to be able to shut down the Taiwan Strait and US forces in Japan and Okinawa that include the F-35.

We don’t know if an Iraqi package would include the 40N6, but if Iran is the real underwriter of the deal it would most definitely want to see those missiles as part of the package.

Since Iraq’s long-term political future is, to a degree up for grabs, the presence of the 40N6 could cause major problems for the United States.

Located in sensitive Anbar Province?

The fourth issue is where the S-400 would be located in Iraq and how it would be positioned against a potential enemy.

According to Entifadh Kamal Qanbar, a former Iraqi defense attache in Washington and a former senior adviser to the Iraqi deputy prime minister, the S-400 will go to Anbar province. Qanbar spent five years in the Iraqi Air Force previously, and he knows the political community in Iraq very well. Qanbar was also the project engineer for the huge Balad Air Base, which was the second largest US base in Iraq during the war (handed back to Iraq in 2011) and is now the home of the Iraqi Air Force’s F-16’s.

An Iraqi fighter with paramilitary units fighting the Islamic State group trains colleagues on using weapons in al-Qaim in the western Iraqi province of Anbar, by the border with Syria. Photo: AFP/Ahmad al-Rubaye

Anbar is extraordinarily sensitive. It is where the difficult Fallujah battles occurred at great cost in the fight against a variety of militias, foreign fighters, al-Qaeda and others opposing the American-led multinational force. But as a missile defense base, an S-400 base in Anbar would face Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Israel (as well as Syria and Lebanon). By placing missiles there Israel would have difficulty launching attacks against Iran, except by flying deep into Saudi territory and then heading north toward Tehran and other high-value targets.

With long-range 40N6 missiles, Israeli air bases in much of the country would be at risk.

Operated by Hezbollah?

Qanbar makes the case that the missiles would give Iran or Hezbollah, an Iranian surrogate, a huge forward advantage even against Israel’s stealthy F-35’s. Hezbollah is a front for Iran, but also gives Iran plausible deniability, although that is wearing very thin these days.

If Qanbar is right, and he is a known reliable source, the acquisition of the S-400 by Iraq should be interpreted as a strategic move with Iran behind it, just as the transfer of missiles from Iran to Sh’ia militias, Iran to Hezbollah or Iran to Hamas (and the latest mass missile attack against Israel) is part of Iran’s strategy to confront Israel and the United States.

No doubt the Russians will be happy to sell the missiles to Iraq because that weakens the US and Israel at no cost to them.

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