Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Old News (Unless You're a European)

The Guardian is out with a report, detailing Iran's efforts to acquire a nuclear-tipped missile. According to the British paper, Tehran is using a variety of cut-outs, front companies and academic institutions, in an effort to acquire the technology needed to produce nuclear weapons, expand its chemical and biological arsenals, and field long-range missiles capable of delivering those weapons.

The Guardian article was apparently based on a 55-page intelligence summary, derived from British, French, German and Belgian reporting. It largely mirrors what the U.S. has been saying about Iran--and its missile and WMD programs--for years. But from the Guardian's far-left perspective, a European report is preferable to an American summary, which (in their thinking) was probably doctored to suit the Bush Administration's war-mongering ambitions.

But I digress. The Europeans are correct in their assessment, if they are a little late to the game. There absolutely no doubt that Iran is hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapons and long-range delivery systems, and will use all means available to achieve that goal. And, not surprisingly, they are using some of the same techniques perfected by Saddam in attempting to evade UN arms sanctions. For much of the 1990s, Iraqi front companies and middle men were criss-crossing the globe, searching for (and in some cases, acquiring) technology that could be used in developing WMD. You may recall those infamous metal tubes purchased by the Iraqis, which were first cited as proof of nuclear research efforts--and later, as evidence of U.S. intelligence failures.

Using cut-outs, front companies and middlemen to acquire technology will make it even more difficult to assess Iran's WMD programs, since some of these transactions will, inevitably, escape detection. The potential incorporation of dual-use technology will further compound this problem; for example, basic chemicals and equipment used to produce insectcide can be quickly modified to produce chemical weapons, making it difficult to determine if a purchase is intended for legitimate civilian purposes, or merely a cover for a WMD operation. Other dual-use technologies can be employed in nuclear research, or missile design. In the murky world of the black and gray technology markets, it is often impossible to determine where a particular autoclave or precision lathe will wind up--and how it will be used.

In the cse of Iran, it's a good bet that some of the desired technology will be used to build long-range missiles. Iran has been developing ballistic missiles for more than a decade, and (so far), they've succeeded in purchasing (and producing) short-range SCUDs (capable of targeting the entire Persian Gulf region) and the medium-range SHAHAB-3, which can reach Israel. Tehran has probably developed chemical and biological warheads for these missiles, but a nuclear warhead is still several years away. Like any fledgling nuclear power, Iran will face the challenge of "downsizing" its early-model nukes, making them small enough to be delivered by a ballistic missile. Unfortunately, that task is not insurmountable, and with Tehran's global shopping network, they could easily acquire warhead designs and/or technology from such sources as North Korea (which has been instrumental in the SHAHAB-3 program), or Pakistan.

Cognizant of the Iranian threat, Israel has spent the past decade developing the world's most sophisticated missile defense system, built around the Arrow II and Patriot PAC III systems. The Arrow II is designed primarily to defend against the SHAHAB 3, while the Patriot provides redundancy against the Iranian missile and short-range threats from Syria.

But another threat is emerging on the horizon. Iran is continuing its missile research efforts, and is working on even longer-range variants. There have reportedly been several test flights of prototype missiles, demonstrating ranges beyond the 750NM of the SHAHAB 3. Soome analysts have nicknamed the advanced missile the SHAHAB 4, but, in reality, there are probably several long-range prototypes under development; some (as the Guardian points out) may be capable of reaching targets in southern Europe, and could be operational in a few years.

And that raises a real issue for our European friends. After arguing against missile defense systems for 20 years, they now find themselves in need of that capability. And while some European nations already have the Patriot system (notably German and the Netherlands), existing variants have only marginal capabilities against long-range missiles, with extremely high terminal velocities. The best defense against a SHAHAB 4-style threat would be something along the lines of the ARROW II, or the U.S. missile defense system, now being deployed in Alaska.

Will the U.S. share the technology with its European allies? I'm guessing we probably would, assuming the Europeans can muster the backbone to base the system on their soil. Politically, that will be a uphill battle, similar to the effort required to approve Pershing II and CLCM basing in Europe in the 1980s. Unfortunately, I don't believe the current generation of European political leaders--with the exception of Tony Blair--have the willpower to push for a missile defense system. While I give the Europeans credit for (finally) recognizing the threat from Iran, they must answer a couple of questions in a hurry: (1) Will they join the U.S. in taking decisive action against Iran's nuclear program, and (2) Will they allow deployment of missile defenses--on European soil--to protect against an emerging long-range missile threat from the Middle East?

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