Michael Eisenstadt is the Kahn Fellow and director of The Washington Institute's Military and Security Studies Program.
Iran gave a new twist to President Khatami's call
for a "civilizational dialogue" on July 22 when it
test-launched a medium-range missile with the
potential to reach India in the east, Russia in the
north, Egypt and Turkey in the west and Israel,
Jordan and all Gulf Cooperation Council states
Lingering Uncertainties: The test raised more
questions than it answered. What is known is
that Iran test launched a missile that it identified
as a Shehab-3, which flew for less than two
minutes before it exploded, apparently due to
a system failure. The Shehab-3 is believed to
be an Iranian-produced version of the North
Korean Nodong-1 missile with a maximum
range of 1,300-1,500 km -- sufficient to reach
all of Israel, nearly all of Turkey, and most of
Egypt. During the recent test, the motor and
the aerodynamics were probably the only
elements whose performance under flight
conditions could be evaluated, though
possibly the guidance and control
systems were also tested. The outcome of
the test would seem to indicate that problems
related to the design or construction of the
missile have not been resolved. More work
and testing of the motor, the guidance
system, and the warhead will therefore be
required before the missile can be considered
operational -- even if the Iranians are willing
to accept less than optimal standards of
reliability and effectiveness. This might
still take 1-2 years. Accordingly, the
Shehab-3, and its successor, the
Shehab-4 (a missile with a 2,000 km
range based on Soviet SS-4 and/or North
Korean Taepo-Dong-2 technology, which
is not expected to be tested for another
2-5 years), are probably still vulnerable
to efforts to staunch the flow of missile
technology from abroad.
Iran is currently believed to be capable of
producing Scud-B and -C missiles, with
ranges of 300 km and 500 km respectively.
However, producing a missile, such as the
Shehab-3, with a 1,300-1,500 km range, or
a Shehab-4 with a 2,000 km range, is a much
more difficult proposition. These greater ranges
result in greater initial and terminal velocities, a
higher flight trajectory, more prolonged stress
on the missile airframe, and greater problems
with heat buildup. This requires a more sturdy
airframe, a more accurate guidance system,
and the widespread use of exotic materials
that can withstand high temperatures and
stress, materials that are available from only
a limited number of sources. It is not clear
that North Korea has overcome all these
technical and technological challenges --
hence the importance of Russian assistance
to Iran's medium and intermediate-range
Implications for the Region: The eventual
deployment of the Shehab-3 missile will
raise regional tensions, though it will not
transform the regional balance of power.
Syria's deployment of SS-21 missiles in
1983 and the deployment of al-Husayn
missiles in western Iraq in 1989 led to
heightened tensions with Israel and
speculation about the possibility of Israeli
preventive strikes against missile launch
sites in Syria and Iraq. Iran's deployment
of missiles capable of reaching Israel is
likely to usher in a similar period of
heightened regional tension, though it is
also worth remembering that the earlier
episodes passed without a confrontation.
From Iran's perspective, the Shehab-3
(and subsequently the Shehab-4) will
provide a variety of new capabilities.
American missile defenses could have
problems intercepting a Shehab-3 flying a
depressed (low-level) or lofted (high-altitude)
trajectory against targets in the Gulf region.
Moreover, the Shehab-3 will enable Iran to
directly target Israel, Turkey, and Egypt.
Thus, in the now unlikely event of an
Iranian-American confrontation, the
knowledge that they are within range of
Iranian missiles could influence decisions
by Cairo and Ankara during a crisis.
Likewise, the Shehab-4, if and when
operational, will be capable of flying
depressed or lofted trajectories against
Israel, Turkey, and Egypt, complicating
the defense of these countries, and will be
able to reach southern Europe by following
a maximum-range medium-level trajectory.
For now, the main value of these missiles is
political. Tehran may believe that at a time that
Iranians are increasingly frustrated with their
deteriorating economic situation, the country's
clerical leadership could score points at home
by a missile test that appeared to flout U.S.
efforts to curtail Iran's military capabilities
(a point made by Khatami himself last
weekend) and that implicitly challenged
Israel. Moreover, Tehran may have believed
that demonstrating the ability to threaten
Israel at this time could enhance its
standing in the Arab world. Finally, the
favorable response in the Muslim world
to the recent testing of the Pakistani
"Islamic (Atomic) Bomb" may have also
encouraged Iran's clerical leadership to
demonstrate its emerging missile capabilities.
Thus, the Iranian missile test, like the recent
nuclear weapons tests by India and Pakistan,
may have been motivated, in part, by political
For this reason, it is important not to
overstate the threat posed by the Shehab-3.
This only aids Iran's efforts to magnify its
importance, and bolsters efforts by hardline
conservatives to demonstrate their ability to
raise anxiety levels in Washington and elsewhere.
Impact of U.S. Sanctions. Paradoxically,
the Shehab-3 missile test demonstrates the
success of U.S. efforts to impede Iran's missile
program. In 1993-94, U.S.-orchestrated
multilateral pressure on Pyongyang
discouraged North Korea from transferring
the Nodong-1 to Iran, forcing Iran instead
to take the more roundabout route of
building a missile using North Korean-supplied technology. That five-year delay
provided the time for the U.S.-funded
Arrow antimissile system to be developed.
The first battery will be deployed in 1999,
before the Shehab-3 will become operational.
The recent flawed test showed that the
Shehab-3 needs many improvements.
Disrupting the flow of foreign missile
technology to Iran will add years to the
time required to make an operational missile,
much less one sufficiently reliable and
accurate to be a significant military threat.
Few countries have the requisite
technology -- North Korea not being
among them -- and Russia is by far the
most likely source. Halting the flow of
Russian missile technology could therefore
have a significant impact on Iran's missile
program -- if nothing else, delaying it long
enough for the United States to improve
its own theater antimissile capabilities
through several programs now under way.
The United States has relied on a
combination of approaches to persuade
Russia to stop missile technology
transfers to Iran, consistent with Russia's
obligations under the Missile Technology
Control Regime (MTCR) to which it
belongs. Demarches, political pressure,
and economic sanctions against firms
aiding Iran's program should continue.
In this context, a vigorous debate may
well continue about the role of sanctions
legislation -- specifically, the Iran Missile
Proliferation Sanctions Act (IMPSA),
which passed Congress overwhelmingly
but was vetoed by President Clinton.
The main point is to stop the missile
technology transfers from Russia by
whatever means is most effective
because it is still not too late to
significantly slow it down.
Michael Eisenstadt is a senior fellow
at The Washington Institute. Azriel
Lorber, formerly of Israel's ministry
of science, is a visiting fellow at the Institute.