With help from North Korean friends, Iran fuels concerns of missile proliferation
BEIRUT - Iran claims it had tripled its missile production in the face of strenuous efforts by its US and Middle East nemeses to force Tehran to abandon what they see as a dangerous threat while Iran deems its missile programme to be the linchpin of its defence strategy.
Tehran warned that any move to force it to curtail its ambitious ballistic programme — the most advanced in the Middle East after Israel’s — would be met by force if need be.
Iran’s defiance of these efforts, which has redoubled since the July 2015 signing of an agreement with US-led global powers to rein in its contentious nuclear programme — which they claim is aimed at acquiring nuclear weapons — will undoubtedly intensify the issue of Iran’s efforts to build up its military capabilities.
The latest outburst from Tehran infuriated the US administration of President Donald Trump, a vociferous critic of the clerical regime in Tehran and whose administration has tried to force the Iranians to abandon their high-profile military posture.
The Americans and their friends see Iran’s constant arms build-up as a serious threat regionally and further afield as its technology improves, which keeps the Middle East, already beset by conflict, constantly on edge.
The latest injunction to Iran came days after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Tehran on March 5 and urged the hard-line regime on behalf of the Europeans to ditch its drive for more powerful missiles capable of reaching the United States.
Le Drian’s mission was also to reaffirm Western Europe’s support for the 2015 agreement, under which crippling economic sanctions were lifted in return for Iran curtailing its nuclear programme. The Iranians told him bluntly that the missile programme was not up for negotiation under any circumstances.
Trump views that landmark deal concluded by the Barack Obama administration and others as too soft. The Arab countries — the potential targets of Iran’s missiles — see it as a sell-out by the Americans.
Iran doggedly refused to discuss its missile programme during the lengthy 2015 talks that centred solely on the nuclear issue, leaving the United States and its fellow negotiators little choice but to acquiesce to Iran’s terms.
Trump branded the agreement as a waste of time because, in the final analysis, Iran will likely acquire nuclear weapons and, in the meantime, develop long-range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
In a major policy shift in October, Trump threatened to pull out of the deal but the Europeans, eager to do business with Iran now that sanctions have been lifted and its economy opened to outside investment, are scrambling to salvage the 2015 deal, much to Trump’s chagrin.
The Iranians’ March 7 claim to have tripled missile production did not specify what types of weapons were involved but it was widely interpreted as including medium- and long-range ballistic missiles.
While it remains unclear what current production amounts to, Western missile specialists believe the Iranians have 200-300 ballistic missiles operational at launch sites across the country, including some deep inside mountains.
Given the accelerated production of Iranian missiles, the total of deployed missiles is probably far greater.
The operational weapons are believed to consist mainly of Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 short-range ballistic missiles derived from the ubiquitous Soviet-era R-17/R-300 Scud B and R-17M Scud-C.
A longer-range variant, the Shahab-3, capable of hitting all of Iraq, Afghanistan and western Saudi Arabia from permanent bases in the Iranian interior, is modelled on North Korea’s Rodong weapon. These missile systems are road-mobile, which makes it almost impossible for US surveillance satellites to determine launch sites that could be the targets of pre-emptive attacks.
On October 19, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) declared in a statement: “Iran’s ballistic missile programme will expand and it will continue with more speed in reaction to Trump’s hostile approach towards this revolutionary organisation.”
Brigadier-General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the IRGC’s aerospace forces, voiced Iran’s misgivings about US efforts to drastically curtail Tehran’s missile programme.
“In the past, we had to explain our actions to various bodies, but not anymore,” Hajizadeh declared. “The law of the world is in the hands of the United States, Britain, France and the Zionist regime and they have written these laws with arrogance. But if they want, they change them…
“Our production has increased three-fold compared to the past,” he boasted, but gave no time reference or any other details.
Iran has apparently speeded up its ballistic missile drive because it is possibly anticipating US intervention of some kind by a peeved Trump.
Recent developments indicate that Iran has reached out to another pariah state, North Korea, which is also in Trump’s black book and with which Tehran is widely believed to have cooperated on missile development.
Pyongyang is engaged in developing what appears to be an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of carrying a nuclear warhead to the continental United States and Tehran may be involved in that so it can acquire the knowhow to develop its own ICBM.
Recent events indicate “strong technical cooperation with Pyongyang, raising concerns that Iran might be on the path to developing a nuclear-capable ICBM down the road,” analyst Farzin Nadimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy observed in September.
He said Tehran’s latest missile — the Khorramshahr — named after the city in south-western Iran where the infant Islamic Republic held back a 1980 invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in a war that lasted until 1988 — bears a striking resemblance to North Korea’s new Hwasong-10 Musudan/BM-25 missile.
Unveiled by Pyongyang in 2010, the 12-metre Hwasong-10, has an announced warhead capacity of 1,800 kilograms. So if Iran, which is reported to have acquired ten of these weapons, is able to build its own version that would be an ominous development for the turbulent region and beyond.
Nadimi cautioned: “If the Khorramshahr is indeed a variant of the Hwasong-10, that would be a worrisome sign given reports that the North Korean missile uses the same engine as its current ICBM, the Hwasong-10.”
Another troubling development is strong indications that the Iranians are seeking to acquire greater launch mobility that would give them “shoot-and-scoot” capability, making pre-emptive strikes by the United States or Israel extremely difficult while limiting their efforts to fixed-site launch centres.
The ability to domestically produce the multi-axle transporter erector launchers, known as TELs, or acquire the Chinese-built models the North Koreans employ, would greatly enhance the Iranians’ capability to evade detection of their launch sites.
A new Iranian transporter, the 10×10 Zoljanah, was unveiled in May 2014 and can reportedly carry a 30-ton missile, which is close to the estimated launch weight of the Hwasong-10.
Iran does not have the technology to build such vehicles itself but Nadimi said in a September 2017 analysis that the state-owned automaker Iran Khodro has signed a deal to distribute high-performance Mercedes trucks.
Iran Khodro’s engine-manufacturing arm, Iran Khodro Diesel, is negotiating with the German company to produce large diesel engines in Iran.
Throughout the missile furore, the Iranians have insisted that they want their missile arsenal for defensive purposes and it must be said that there is a logical reason for that, although it invariably gets lost in the alarmist predictions of what such an eventuality will impose.
Glenn Greenwald, an American whistle-blower who has frequently exposed the excesses of US security paranoia, observed recently that “it’s a point that is so obvious it should not even need to be made.
“No rational person takes seriously the claim that Iran, even if it did obtain a nuclear weapon, would commit instant and guaranteed national suicide by using it to attack a nation that has a huge nuclear stockpile, which happens to include both the US and Israel.
“One can locate nothing in the actions of Iran’s regime that even suggests irrationality on that level, let alone suicidal impulses…
“So what, then, is the real reason that so many people in both the US and Israeli governments are so desperate to stop Iranian proliferation?
“Every now and then they reveal the real reason: Iranian nuclear weapons (deliverable by intercontinental ballistic missiles) would prevent the US from attacking Iran at will, and that is what is intolerable.”
That is a cogent argument but it does not explain Iran’s expansionist ambitions, which it is advancing hand over fist through proxy Shia militias in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon, with support for Bahrain’s long-marginalised Shia majority in the Sunni-ruled kingdom of Bahrain, right on the doorstep of Saudi Arabia, the other titan of the Gulf and which has a substantial Shia minority in its main oil-producing region.
Iran has also become a source of ballistic missile proliferation, supplying proxies such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah with, by Israeli count, as many as 150,000 missiles of various calibres and destructive power, or the Syrian regime of President Bashar Assad with missiles and rockets that with Tehran’s help they are reportedly producing inside Syria and Lebanon.
Iran is also supplying the Houthi rebels in Yemen with missiles, more than 100 of which have been fired at Riyadh and other targets deep inside Saudi Arabia.