Iran’s ballistic missiles still a threat
BEIRUT - Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal, the largest in the Middle East and the Islamic Republic’s most potent conventional threat, remains largely untouched by the July 14th nuclear deal and could well grow larger and deadlier despite the ongoing UN ban on selling missile technology to Tehran.
That sends shivers of concern through the Arab monarchies of the Gulf, which are the most vulnerable to any Iranian aggression and are locked in an escalating confrontation with the Islamic Republic at a time when the United States is scaling down its military presence in the region.
Saudi Arabia and the other five members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) are already acquiring US-made anti-missile systems in a belated effort to build up long-neglected air defence networks.
The agreement between Iran and the P5+1 global powers — Britain, China, France, Russia, the United States and Germany — is thus providing a bonanza to the US defence industry — increasingly reliant on export orders to compensate for stringent cuts in US military procurement — as well as weapons makers in France, Britain and elsewhere.
The expected weapons boom will centre largely on counter-missile systems such as Lockheed Martin’s Patriot system, which made its combat debut against Iraqi Scud missiles during the 1990-91 Gulf War, and Lockheed’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system.
Iran’s missile inventory and Tehran’s immense effort to boost these capabilities was a key issue throughout the lengthy negotiations in Lausanne, Switzerland, and Vienna, Austria’s capital, in recent months.
A framework agreement reached in Lausanne in April largely left Iran’s ballistic capabilities untouched because Tehran had steadfastly refused to include its ambitious missile programme in the negotiations.
The final deal concluded a UN ban of selling missile technology to Iran would run for another eight years. But that embargo has been constantly breached by the vast, largely clandestine, procurement network that Iran has operated, primarily in the United States and Europe, for many years, and may well continue while the embargo remains.
In the early stages of the nuclear negotiations, the Americans said that “every issue”, including Iran’s missiles, would be discussed. But with the United States well out of range of Iranian ballistic weapons, in February 2014, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman said: “If we’re successful in assuring ourselves and the world community that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapons,” then that “makes delivery systems… almost irrelevant”.
Iran’s missile programme is controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which has acquired great political and economic influence over the last couple of decades. The 120,000-strong corps, the most powerful military force in Iran, has made little effort to mask its opposition to the diplomacy that produced the July 14th deal.
Fox News, the conservative US cable news and radio network, reported on July 12th that, even as nuclear negotiations in Vienna were being wrapped up, Iran was continuing to seek missile technology in Germany, a key target for Iran’s undercover procurement operatives over the years.
Fox quoted a source in Germany’s security service as saying, “Despite the talks to end Iran’s programme, Iran did not make an about-turn.”
There was no verification from Western monitoring bodies but Iran’s covert procurement operation has apparently been able to sustain Tehran’s missile programme.
Israeli and Western intelligence services say this is aimed at developing an inter-continental ballistic missile, even though in June 2011 Tehran announced it was placing a cap on the range of its missiles to 2,000 kilometres, enough to reach Israel but not Western Europe.
Michael Eisenstadt, who heads military and security studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, observed on July 6th that Iran’s steady build-up of its conventional ballistic missile strength, non-stop development of weapons with longer ranges and its alleged drive to build a nuclear warhead “highlight the need for a UN Security Council resolution (as called for in the Lausanne parameters) that would impose limitations on Iran’s missile research and development work and threaten real consequences for those who assist Iran’s missile programme.
“Tehran has built this massive inventory so that it can saturate and thereby overwhelm enemy missile defences,” Eisenstadt noted. “Many of Iran’s missiles are mounted on mobile launchers and a growing number are based in silo fields mainly in the northwest and towards the frontier with Iraq. This mix of launch options is likely intended to impede pre-emptive enemy targeting of its missile force.
“The resources invested in this effort are unprecedented for a conventionally armed force, which indicates that at least some of these missiles would likely be nuclear-armed if Iran eventually goes that route.”