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Mainstream, Vol XLVI No 1

US Exaggeration of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Threat

Tuesday 25 December 2007, by Neha Kumar


Iran claimed to have carried out a successful test of its long-range missile, Ashura, on November 27, 2007, which has the capability to strike targets in Israel and US bases in the Middle East. The missile is named after the Shia holy day of mourning for the death of Prophet Mohammed’s grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, in 680. It is a multi-stage missile with a stated range of 2000 km. One Russian military officer claimed that there is no truth behind Iran’s ballistic missile programme as there are no technical details or photographs available so as to prove the claim of such a ballistic missile programme. This led to confusion whether Iran’s ballistic missile threat is real or not. The US and Russia have their own strategic advantages to exaggerate the Iranian ballistic missile threat or to play down the danger emanating from it. The US’ stress on the ballistic missile threat of Iran validates the US argument about the urgent need of Ballisitc Missile Defence (BMD). On the other hand, Russia is against the development of BMD and deployment of radars in the Czech Republic and Poland. In recent times, Russia has expressed its opposition by suspending implementation of the Conventional Arms Forces in Europe (CFE) treaty and withdrawing from the INF treaty. Russia has also started development of offensive missile systems like RS-24 and claimed that this missile could even penetrate the BMD systems. The playing down of the Iranian missile threat would help Russia to show that the US claims for the BMD programme are not due to the Iranian missile threat but to gain domination in international affairs.

Reality behind Iran’s Ballistic Missile Programme

IRAN started development of missiles in 1977 with Project Flower. Its real effort to build ballistic missiles came after the Iran-Iraq war. During this war, Iran was left alone and faced missile attacks on its civilian population. Missiles become the major factor in the war. Iran realised that it was left alone during the war and there is urgent need to develop missiles so as to deter the enemy and to deal with any future conflicts. Iran has demonstrated its capability to develop and launch rockets and short-range missiles but the technological capability to develop and launch successfully the intercontinental ballistic missile programme is still doubtful. Iran has a record of exaggerating its missile threat for the fulfilment of domestic and international purposes. But the truth seems to be different.

Iran has acquired assistance for development of the Shahab series of missiles from North Korea. North Korea carried out an unsuccessful test of the No-Dong missile in 1998. It was found that the No-Dong could carry a payload of 100-200 kg, which means that this payload is considerably less than the amount needed to carry nuclear weapons. This also means that this missile could carry only small amounts of chemical and biological weapons, which are not sufficient to inflict large amount of mass-casualties. As Iran has borrowed the technology of Shahab-3 from North Korea’s No-Dong, the reliability of this missile is poor. It seems neither Iran nor North Korea has been able to develop this technology. Besides, there are several technological limitations of Iran’s ballistic missile programme, such as

1. Iran has still to develop a successful stage separation technology. Iran has developed the Shahab-3 single-stage missile but has not carried out the multi-stage rocket. Shahab-3D consists of liquid fuel in the first stage and solid-fuel in the second stage but the test of Shahab-3 D failed in September 2000.

2. Iran needs to develop the propulsion system for an ICBM. The current propulsion system of Iran’s Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 are not sufficient for an ICBM.

3. Iran did not have the re-entry vehicle and guidance systems so as to conduct successful attacks on enemy targets. Iran does not have these capabilities to carry out missile attacks.

4. Iran’s liquid fuel missile programme is such that it takes a very long time to prepare before launch. As a result, this increases the vulnerability of missiles and slows down the reaction time.

Therefore, Iran itself is exaggerating its missile threat so as to threaten its adversaries. It will take a longer period of time for development of efficient ballistic missile systems.

Reasons behind the US Exaggeration of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Threat

THE only reason for the US exaggeration of Iran’s missile threat is to validate its claim for BMD. The US plans to deploy interceptors and radars in the Czech Republic and Poland so as to track the missile threat of Iran. The US has said that such systems would prevent the US and its allies from Iran’s ballistic missile programme. But there seems to be no reason for Iran to try and attack the US and Europe and thus invite a disastrous attack on itself. No doubt the US would not let go Iran if it attacks the US or Europe with its missiles.

The US has various strategic reasons for deploying interceptors and radars in the Czech Republic and Poland. The deployment of BMD in Europe would establish the US as a protector of Europe, which means a change to the Cold War viewpoint on the part of Europe for the development of BMD. The other important reason could be to trace the ballistic missiles of Russia. Although the US has said that Russia is not seen as an enemy but the US fears an accidental attack from Russia. This is clear from its rejection of the Russian proposal that the interceptors and radars be installed at the Soviet-era Gabala radar station, located some 250 km northwest of Baku, rather than placing the interceptors and radars in the Czech Republic and Poland. The Russian proposal would be ideal to track incoming ballistic missiles from Iran. The Russian radar system can monitor Iran, Turkey, China, Pakistan, India, Iraq, Australia and most of the African countries and the islands of Indian and Atlantic Oceans and would be capable of automatically processing data, including technical details, such as speed, size of warheads, launch sites, drop trajectory and eventual target of missiles. The X-band radar in the Czech Republic is a system capable of tracking and guiding defensive interceptor missiles toward Iranian offensive ballistic missiles and so the Gabala radar could complement the American radar system. But the rejection of this by the US has forced Russia to conclude that the US wants to have radars and interceptors in the Czech Republic and Poland with the specific objective of tracking Russian missiles. Therefore, it is exaggerating the threat of the so-called “rogue” state’s missile tests so as to fulfil its own strategic interests.

Under such conditions, the US BMD programme is nothing more than attainment of its strategic superiority in international affairs. By doing so, the US is destabilising the whole region. The exaggerated threat of Iran’s ballistic missiles could lead to an arms race in the region. Even if BMD is successfully deployed, there is need to deal with the threat of cruise missiles and shorter-range missiles, in which Iran has become more capable than in the development of long-range ballistic missiles. In order to preserve the balance of power in Central Asia and Europe it is necessary that the US should play a very important role in the region. There are two aspects which the US has to tackle. First, to make necessary arrangements for protecting the states near Iran and deploy such missiles capable of responding to the immediate needs of the area. Secondly, the US has to develop not only its physical military strength but evolve a very strong diplomatic approach to the whole matter to convince Russia that the US’ defensive measures are necessary in the region. The twin actions in this regard will help the US win support for the BMD programme from Russia and other countries in the region subsequently. By only exaggerating Iran’s missile threat will not help the US to achieve its aim because a similar wrong policy in respect of Iraq has defamed it in the international scenario.

The author is a Research Officer, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi.

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