Monday, November 06, 2006

Tehran's Offer

In recent days, Iran has been putting on one of its semi-annual military displays, conducting exercises highlighted by the launch of surface-to-surface and anti-ship missiles that are supposedly "improved" over previous models. Tehran is reportedly offering to share its technology with its friends in the Middle East, providing convenient cover for more weapons transfers to Hizballah, and raising the prospect of renewed conflict between Israel and the terrorists.

As for Tehran's recent display of weaponry, at least one of the anti-ship missiles fired last week was apparently the Iranian copy of a Chinese C-802, the same weapon used by Hizballah to damage an Israeli Saar-5 corvette during the recent war in Lebanon. The C-802 is a quality weapon, but not the world beater claimed by Iranian spokesmen. In fact, various post-mortems on the Saar-5 incident (which occurred on 14 July), suggest that the Israeli vessel was unprepared for the attack. At least one account indicates that the ship was on a "weapons tight" posture at the time of the attack, meaning that its anti-missile defenses could not be quickly employed. probably due to fears of potential fratricide in the crowded waters.

Along with its naval firepower demonstration, Iran also used last week's exercises as a pretext to launch a salvo of battlefield rockets and at one Shahab-3 medium-range missile. The rockets are probably similar to those already identified in the Iranian arsenal, although Tehran claims their range has been slightly improved. As with many "claims" from the Iranian regime, reports of new and/or enhanced weaponry must be taken with a large grain of salt.

For example, the Fajr-3, which Iran touted earlier this year as a multiple-warhead, radar-evading missile, is actually a short-range, unguided rocket that has been in service since the early 1990s. The "multiple warhead" was probably a cluster munition (mounted atop the rocket), and the "radar-evading" properties were likely nothing more than a coat of special paint. Cluster munitions on battlefield rockets is hardly new, and the "radar absorbing" paint likely peeled off during flight, leaving the rocket without any stealthy properties. So much for Iran's great technology leap.

Nontheless, Tehran wants to provide missile technology to its friends and allies. On Friday, the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards said his nation was prepared to "share" its missile systems with friends and neighbors, although he didn't specify which systems might be transferred. On Sunday, Iran's ambassador to Lebanon indicated that his country was ready to provide air defense systems to Lebanon, to help protect it from "Zionist" attack. Iran has already provided shoulder-fired SAMs (MANPADs) to its Hizballah allies in Lebanon, so that sort of weapons transfer would not be surprising--nor unprecedented. Unfortunately for Hizballah, the types of MANPADS offered by Tehran would provide virtually no defense against Israeli aircraft dropping precision munitions at medium altitude.

That's why I don't expect a rush of customers, anxious to acquire Iran's missile technology. Fact is, most of the stuff that Iran produces is a copy of a copy of dated Russian and/or Chinese technology. Iran's Shahab-2 short-range missile is nothing more than a clone of a North Korean model, based on Soviet designs from the 1960s. The Shahab-3 (Iranian the only missile capable of reaching Israel) is actually an extended-range SCUD, patterned after the Pyongyang's No Dong system. As with with any clones, there are predictable problems with quality and reliability. Iran's attempts to develop a longer-range version of the Shahab-3 have been largely unsuccessful, as have North Korea's efforts to perfect its intercontinental Tapeodong-2, which is also based on SCUD technology.

Besides, why should other Middle Eastern countries rush to buy missiles from Tehran when the same--or better--technology is available from other proliferators? North Korea already has ties to most of the ballistic missile programs in the region (providing better baseline technology than Iran), and for those who can afford it--or arrange convenient financing terms--far better systems are available from Russia and China. And both are more than willing to sell in the region, as evidenced by Syrian acquisition of short-range SS-21 ballistic missiles (built by Russia), and Chinese CSS-2 sales to Saudi Arabia in the late 1980s. The same holds true for air defense equipment and anti-ship systems. China will sell the C-802 to anyone; Russia's most advanced MANPAD (the SA-24) is currently on its way to Syria--and will quite possibly wind up in Lebanon--posing a more serious proliferation threat than the relative junk being offered by Tehran.

But providing military hardware to defend against Zionist aggression certainly resonates in the Islamist world, and that's a big reason behind Tehran's offer. Additionally, Tehran can offer prices well that are well below Russian and Chinese systems, or (in the case of Hizballah) simply provide the systems free of charge. In fact, Lebanese "requests" for assistance from Iran are probably nothing more than a cover for continued arms shipments from Tehran to its Lebanese allies. That's why I believe Sir John Keegan is correct; the current cease-fire in Lebanon is only temporary, and Israel will resume its campaign against Hizballah very soon, perhaps by the end of this year. Israel cannot allow Hizballah to rebuild its weapons base in south Lebanon, even if much of the weaponry is old, and of marginal military value. As the terrorists demonstrated last summer, even Katyusha rockets--which have their technical origins in the 1940s--can produce a very powerful political effect.

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