Almost anyone who was alive in the autumn of 1962 can tell you how it began, and how the crisis eventually ended. Cuba, acting on behalf of its Soviet patrons, agreed to the basing of Russian nuclear missiles on its soil. Their discovery prompted a standoff that lasted for a week, until Moscow finally back down and removed the weapons. Meanwhile, the U.S. began deactivating Jupiter missiles at bases in Turkey and Italy. Deployment of those missiles had inspired the Russian basing in Cuba, a move that almost triggered a nuclear holocaust.
Russia's withdrawal of those SS-4 missiles marked the end of the only nuclear crisis in the history of the Western Hemisphere. And, over the decades that followed, it was widely assumed that the Americans would never again witness such an incident. After all, the U.S. was the only superpower in the neighborhood, and our military might was enough to dissuade the region's few rogue states from pursuing nuclear weapons, and the long-range missile technology. True, a few countries like Brazil and Argentina formed alliances with Middle Eastern states with the SCUD missile system (notably Egypt), but nothing really came from those programs.
However, the notion of another nuclear crisis in he Western Hemisphere is no longer unthinkable. Late last month, the German daily Die Welt reported that Iran is planning to base short and medium-range missiles in Venezuela, as part of a development program with their ally, Hugo Chavez. Die Welt's account received virtually no media in the U.S., but it highlights a potential menace to the U.S. homeland. From a Hudson Institute blog post on the story:
At a moment when NATO members found an agreement, in the recent Lisbon summit (19-20 November 2010), to develop a Missile Defence capability to protect NATO's populations and territories in Europe against ballistic missile attacks from the East (namely, Iran), Iran's counter-move consists in establishing a strategic base in the South American continent - in the United States's soft underbelly.
According to Die Welt, Venezuela has agreed to allow Iran to establish a military base manned by Iranian missile officers, soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and Venezuelan missile officers. In addition, Iran has given permission for the missiles to be used in case of an "emergency". In return, the agreement states that Venezuela can use these facilities for "national needs" – radically increasing the threat to neighbors like Colombia. The German daily claims that according to the agreement, Iranian Shahab 3 (range 1300-1500 km), Scud-B (285-330 km) and Scud-C (300, 500 and 700 km) will be deployed in the proposed base. It says that Iran also pledged to help Venezuela in rocket technology expertise, including intensive training of officers.
So, as NATO forged a missile defense plan aimed (primarily) at Iran, the leadership in Tehran was already implementing a counter-move. At this point--assuming the deployment actually occurs--Iranian missiles in Venezuela would not pose an immediate threat to U.S. territory. Cities such as Miami, Tampa, New Orleans and Houston (along with military bases in those regions) are currently outside the threat ring of the Shahab-3, which has a maximum range of up to 1500 km. On the other hand, the missiles would pose an instant threat to key American allies in the region (i.e., Colombia) and such vital waterways as the Panama Canal.
And, over the long haul, Caracas and Tehran would expand and improve Mr. Chavez's missile arsenal, adding such systems as the BM-25 (with a range of up to 4,000 km) that are capable of striking U.S. population centers with a nuclear warhead. Iran reportedly acquired the BM-25 from North Korea back in 2006 and has been working to duplicate the technology. Obviously, Tehran would have no qualms about selling the BM-25 to Venezuela, or simply moving its own intermediate range missiles to that joint base described in the Die Welt dispatch.
Venezuela also provides a convenient mechanism for Iran to evade UN sanctions and various export controls on weaponry. For example, Russia has, supposedly, decided not to go through with a planned sale of the S-300 air defense system to Tehran (a transaction opposed by both the U.S. and Israel. Now, with Moscow looking for a new buyer, who do you think is at the top of the list? If you guessed Hugo Chavez, move to the head of the class. And once the S-300 arrives in Venezuela, there's nothing to prevent Chavez from transferring the advanced SAM system to his allies in Iran.
We assume the U.S. intelligence community has been monitoring the situation, looking for any tell-tale signs of an impending arms transfer. Construction activity will be an early indicator, as Venezuela builds shelters, crew quarters, assembly buildings and other support facilities needed for missile operations and training at the joint base.
As for the actual delivery of airframes, that may come suddenly, since missile components can be easily flown from Tehran on an IL-76 transport. And, if the Iranians and Venezuelans have a satellite warning program, they can schedule on-load and off-load activities during periods when our surveillance platforms aren't overhead, making detection more difficult.
In that sense, a future missile crisis in Venezuela might resemble the 1962 standoff in Cuba. We didn't detect those missiles until they arrived in that country, thanks to elaborate Soviet deception efforts and a self-imposed moratorium on reconnaissance flights over Cuba, which lasted from August until early October of 1962. Navy aircraft actually detected a shipment to Cuba, but the containers on the deck of a Russian cargo vessel were mis-identified as those containing IL-28 aircraft, not medium range ballistic missiles.
Fifty years later, our intelligence collection and analytical capabilities are much improved, but that leads to a larger question: what is Mr. Obama prepared to do if Iranian missiles (or even missile components) are detected in Venezuela? We're guessing that Caracas and Tehran already have a cover story for that contingency, claiming the missiles are part of some space research project. North Korea made similar statements before testing its TD-1 and TD-2 long-range missiles and a few western observers actually supported that position, saying that Pyongyang had a "right" to a space program. Will the president follow a similar position when Venezuela and Iran make similar claims?
With most of its territory located along and just north of the Equator, Venezuela is in an excellent location to launch geosynchronous satellites into orbit. But that would put Chavez in competition with the European Space Agency and its established complex in neighboring French Guiana. Needless to say, the Europeans aren't worried about losing launch business to the Venezuelans and their Iranian partners. But the space ruse could provide an excuse for Chavez and Tehran to send bring even larger missiles--like the North Korean TD-1 or TD-2--to South America. The presence of those long-range systems would pose an even greater threat to the United States and our interests in this hemisphere.
Bottom line: the U.S. should never tolerate ballistic missiles in the hands of Hugo Chavez and his patrons in Tehran. According to the German newspaper account, Iran has already agreed to transfer operational control of the weapons "during an emergency." We can only imagine Chavez's thresh hold for launching a strike against the U.S.--or the Iranians using his territory to do the same thing.
One cautionary note: the German media was the first to report that Iran had acquired the BM-25. However, those claims have never been fully verified. And even if the newspaper article is correct, it may take years for the Iranians and Venezuelans to achieve operational capability, giving us more time to formulate an operational strategy. But inactivity and idle threats are not viable options. Drawing imaginary lines in the sand doesn't impress the thugs in Tehran or Caracas. Perceiving Mr. Obama as a weakling, they are making (or at least contemplating) a highly provocative move--one that demands an equally forceful U.S. response.