How U.S. Can Leverage Israel-Cyprus Iron Dome Sale To Get Ukraine More Arms

Cyprus has reportedly secured a landmark agreement to buy the Iron Dome air defense missile system from Israel. The deal gives the United States a unique opportunity to push Nicosia to transfer its older Russian air defenses to Ukraine.

The Iron Dome could significantly bolster the small island republic’s limited air defenses, which currently consist of Russian-built short-range 9K330 Tor and medium-range 9K37 Buk air defense missile systems and French-built short-range Mistral missiles.

While the Iron Dome is well-known for its combat use in Israeli service against small rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, it is also an effective system against drones.

Cyprus most likely chose the Iron Dome to enable it to defend itself against potential Turkish drone threats. Turkey already deployed military drones to Cyprus’s breakaway north in December 2019. Those same drones have repeatedly demonstrated their capability to destroy Russian-built air defense systems in Syria, Libya, Nagorno-Karabakh, and Ukraine.

The U.S. has already urged Cyprus to transfer its sizable arsenal of Russian weaponry to Ukraine. And Nicosia has already expressed a willingness to do so if it could acquire equivalent systems to replace them.

Even though the Iron Dome is a short-range system, a handful of batteries could protect the island’s entire airspace from various airborne threats. That, along with its sophisticated active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, doubtlessly make it an adequate replacement for existing Cypriot Buks and Tors.

The U.S. could insist that Cyprus acquire the Iron Dome to completely replace, rather than complement, its older Russian systems and transfer those systems to Ukraine.

Washington has more than enough leverage to compel Nicosia to do so.

The U.S. imposed an arms embargo on Cyprus back in November 1987, which it only partially lifted in September 2020. Furthermore, the U.S. helped Israel develop the Iron Dome, which, as already noted in the Israeli press, means that any sale of the system to a third country “cannot take place without the approval of both developer countries.”

The U.S. has refused to grant export licenses for foreign weapons systems containing U.S. components. A multi-billion dollar sale of Turkish-built T129 ATAK attack helicopters to Pakistan was repeatedly delayed due to the U.S. refusal to grant such licenses. Islamabad eventually pulled out and the deal fell through. On the other hand, the U.S. granted the necessary licenses that allowed Turkey to sell those helicopters to the Philippines.

Cyprus knows that the U.S. could easily complicate or even compromise its Iron Dome acquisition.

However, if Nicosia agrees to willingly transfer its Russian missiles to Ukraine, then Washington could become more open to completely lifting the arms embargo and allow Cyprus to buy defensive U.S. systems, possibly including short-range air defenses. The above-mentioned partial lifting of the embargo in 2020 was little more than a symbolic gesture since it only allowed Nicosia to buy “non-lethal” military gear such as bulletproof vests.

U.S. political support for the Iron Dome sale could also reduce any serious reaction or protestations from Turkey, which is presently patching up its relations with Israel.

Therefore, Cyprus could have an awful lot to gain by offloading its Russian missiles.