The Hunt for BM-25s
Like almost everyone else on the web, we've been following the latest WikiLeaks dump of thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables. So far, much of the media attention has been focused on Hillary Clinton allegedly ordering American diplomats in Argentina to gather information on that country's president, Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, with emphasis on how she handles stress and what medications she might be taking. So far, these revelations have been met with a collective yawn, but could you imagine the reaction if Condolezza Rice or Colin Powell made a similar request?
Clearly, Mrs. Clinton has a long history of trying to dig up dirt on potential adversaries, or those who might be blackmailed at some point in the future. But we digress; to be sure, the State Department has a hand in the spy business. Selected members of the CIA station at our overseas embassies operate under diplomatic cover, and intelligence collection is one of the major missions of defense attaches, who are also part of the embassy staff.
But dispatching career diplomats to gather dirt is jaw-droppingly stupid. Not only are they untrained for the task, such assignments also jeopardize their diplomatic cover and endanger other State Department personnel with no connection to our intelligence efforts.
On the other hand, there is much more serious stuff in the leaked cables, namely the claim that North Korea has supplied intermediate-range missiles to Iran. That's hardly news to readers of this blog. We first reported the transfer almost five years ago, after German intelligence officials leaked the story to the newspaper Bild. The delivery was later confirmed by Israeli intelligence sources.
Now, some U.S. experts are questioning the missile report. Sources tell the Washington Post there is no hard evidence the transfer actually occurred, noting that BM-25s have never been sighted in in Iran, and no flight-testing has occurred. They also cite another leaked cable, describing a 2009 meeting between U.S. and Russian officials where the Iranian missile transfer was discussed. According to the cable, the Russians expressed doubt about the report, referring to the BM-25 as the "mystery missile." American participants admitted there was no hard evidence that Iran had received the weapons system.
True, we haven't seen an Iranian BM-25--at least not yet. But the Post is also guilty of selective reporting in its account. While arguing that the BM-25s may not be in Iran, the paper's account includes paragraphs where government officials and outside experts agree that North Korea almost certainly shipped BM-25 kits to Iran. So, everyone accepts the fact that components for the missiles were received by Tehran. And in the arms trade, "kits" means everything you need to assemble a complete weapon. By that standard, the Iranians have all the bolts, nozzles, engines and other items needed to built a BM-25. Technically, that means the BM-25 is in Iran--they just haven't been assembled yet.
There are a variety of explanations as to why Tehran hasn't completed the assembly process. Openly displaying (and testing) the missile might accelerate Israeli attack plans, since the BM-25 was originally designed to carry a nuclear warhead, dating to its previous version as a Russian SLBM. As Iran scrambles to build nuclear weapons, it is trying to avoid additional provocations that might upset the proverbial apple cart. So, that's one reason to keep the BM-25s under cover.
A more likely explanation is the tried-and-true process of reverse engineering. Instead of remaining dependent on North Korea for advanced missile technology, Iran would prefer to build intermediate and long-range missiles on its own. It takes a while to analyze the various components that make up an IRBM, then develop the skill, expertise and machinery to duplicate those elements. Since Iran already has missiles capable of reaching its primary adversaries (Israel and U.S. troops in the Gulf Region), the BM-25 may be a lower priority--until Tehran has a nuke that can be mounted on that missile.
It's also worth remembering that Russia has plenty of reasons to downplay the missile story, casting some doubt on their accounts. The U.S. was very upset when Moscow sold the BM-25 (previously known as the SS-N-6) to Pyongyang. And, few in Washington bought the Russian story that the missile design was "de-nuclearized" prior to the sale--particularly when engineers from the design bureau that built the SS-N-6 assisted North Korea in building their first BM-25s.
Bottom line: intermediate range missile technology is almost certainly in Iran, and with outside assistance, the BM-25 could become operational in a matter of months. In terms of security policy, it's always preferable to prepare for the worst case scenario, instead of hoping that German, Israeli and U.S. intelligence agencies were wrong, and the missiles don't exist. Wishful thinking is never an effective substitute for clear-eyed, realistic threat assessments.
ADDENDUM: There's another disturbing confirmation in the WikiLeaks disclosures. At least one diplomatic cable reports that China failed to intercept North Korean arms shipments that transited through Beijing's airspace and sometimes landed at Chinese airfields. We reported months ago that western officials were aware of a "China" connection on some arms flights between Iran and North Korea. Those flights are continuing on a near-weekly basis, and so far, Beijing has made no effort to stop them. What a surprise.