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Iran's Missile Ambitions

by Bill Samii
Radio Free Europe - Iran Report
Vol. 2, No. 51

December 27, 1999 -- Iran's ambition to develop an independent missile capability is beyond question, but the strategic aspirations behind that goal remain open to various interpretations. Islamic Revolution Guard Corps commander Major General Yahya Rahim Safavi announced in mid-November that Iran is a major regional ballistic missile power.

Assessing Iran's desire to develop a short- and medium-range missile ability, Shahram Chubin, Director of Research at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, told RFE/RL's Persian Service on 29 September: "I think that the Iranians believe that missiles are a good substitute for warplanes." This belief emerged during the 1980s, when spare parts for aircraft were hard to get. Furthermore, there is no need to train pilots. Iran has used missiles only against Iraq, although relations with its immediate neighbors are occasionally tense. Developing long-range missiles creates strategic problems, however, particularly when Iranian officials say their target is Israel, Chubin continued. There also are concerns about the type of warhead Iran would use.

Recent reports indicate that Iran will buy its first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), the Taepo Dong, from North Korea. The Taepo Dong I was tested in July1998 and is estimated to have a range of 4,000-6,000 kilometers. Development of the Taepo Dong II was postponed in exchange for U.S. aid, but the missile's range is estimated at 10,000 kilometers. Iran's Shihab 3 missile is modeled on the North Korean No Dong missile and has a range of about 1,300 kilometers.

Estimates of how long it will take for Iran to develop its own ICBM vary. Some analysts think the first flight test of an Iranian ICBM is likely to occur before 2010, while others think there is a less than 50 percent chance of a flight test before 2015. Assistance from Russia or North Korea may accelerate this schedule. Also, it is believed that Iran is targeting U.S. missile information.

The missile only needs to be tested once, and a simple deployment plan employed, thereby decreasing the time it takes for the missile to be militarily significant. What is of particular significance is not the missile's actual ability, but its ability to deter and constrain other countries.

Nor are Iranian missiles intended only as a deterrent. They also are being exported to other countries. Unnamed White House officials said that Iran sold Scud B and C missiles to the Democratic Republic of Congo in October, the "Washington Times" reported on 22 November. Didier Mumengi, Congolese Minister of Information, said his government was "scandalized" and indignant at this "misinformation campaign," according to Kinshasa state radio on 23 November. An unidentified official from the Iranian Embassy in Pretoria also rejected reports of missile sales, according to the 27 November "Tehran Times." Denials aside, Iranian arms sales to the DRC and other African states are a matter of record. For example, Iran, Russia, and China were involved in deal to provide the DRC and Zimbabwe with helicopters, tanks, and "an assortment of guns and bombs," Harare's "The Financial Gazette" reported on 25 November.