by Eric Margolis © 1998 Eric Margolis
Iran successfully test-launched a medium-range ballistic missile on Wednesday, 18 months earlier than US intelligence had estimated. The test intensified the Mideast strategic arms race, and set off alarm bells in Washington and Jerusalem.
The Shahab-3, a hybrid based on North Korea's `Nodong-1' missile, with additional technological inputs from China and Russia, can carry a 750kg warhead over 1,000-1,300 kms. Though inaccurate and technically backwards, the jerry-built `Shahab-3 is' still theoretically able to hit Israel.
For Iran, the test was an important psychological and military milestone in its long confrontation with Israel. Tehran is still many years away from deploying a militarily significant missile force, or developing nuclear weapons. Primitive, inaccurate missiles like the `Shahab-3' are militarily useless - little better than medieval catapults or trebuchets - unless they carry nuclear or chemical/biological warheads.
Still, Shahab-3 means Iran has taken a first step in developing a counter-force response, however limited, to Israel's 200-400 weapon nuclear arsenal, which can be delivered across the Mideast by Jericho missiles, or aircraft. Israel is also working on submarine-launched cruise missiles.
Having been on the receiving end of 88 Iraq Scud missiles in 1991 - which fortunately carried ineffective conventional warheads - Israel is understandably worried by Iran's missile program. But it is inevitable the Arabs and Iran will eventually break Israel's monopoly on nuclear weapons - which threatens them at least as much as their developing systems could threaten Israel.
Israel has moved swiftly and decisively to deal with the threat of Iran, its most powerful, resolute, and capable enemy. Israel is accelerating final development of its 150km-range `Arrow,' the world's most advanced anti-tactical ballistic missile (ATBM), based on US Star Wars technology. The US Congress, which refuses to vote funds to develop an anti-missile system to protect North America, evidently believes defending Israel against potential missile attack is a higher priority. The US is paying Israel for 80% of `Arrow's $1.6 billion cost. Israel will deploy three batteries next year. Additional defensive layering will be provided by shorter-ranged ground, and air-launched missiles.
Israel has offered Arrow to its new strategic ally, Turkey , slightly modified to get around US restrictions on technology transfer, and to extend its ATBM umbrella to cover Jordan's airspace.
In March, Israel revealed it had the capability to detect a hostile missile launch anywhere in the Mideast within five to seven minutes; and to identifying the launch and impact points. Thanks again to its friends in Congress, Israel has become the only nation to be directly downlinked to top-secret US satellite warning systems, including the National Reconnaissance Office's very advanced `Heritage' system. Israel has been given its own, dedicated ground station that receives real-time data directly from US satellites.
Israel's receipt of America's most closely guarded intelligence was particularly timely after the launch failure of its Ofeq-4 spy satellite last January. The existing Ofeq-3 will reportedly cease functioning in about 12 months, leaving Israel without a spy satellite to monitor the Mideast and Mediterranean.
Israel's leading-edge military technology is racing into the 21st century while Iran and Syria are laboriously trying to reinvent the V-2 rocket of WW II. Most people have forgotten that Saudi Arabia also acquired medium-ranged ballistic missiles in 1987: 36 Chinese liquid-fueled CSS-2, a large, 2,800km missiles. Inaccurate and unreliable, no one knows what purpose these conventionally armed dinosaurs serve - unless the Saudis, who helped fund Iraq's nuclear program, have somehow secretly acquired nuclear warheads.
Last April, the `Jerusalem Post' ran a series of alarmist articles claiming Iran already had nuclear weapons. According to the `Post,' a defecting Iranian nuclear scientist delivered details of Tehran's secret weapons program to Israel. Earlier this month, we saw a repeat of this story, as a purported Pakistani `nuclear scientist'- who turned out to be a bookkeeper- defected to the US via Canada, offering bogus information.
The Russian mafia sold Iran four tactical nuclear weapons and enriched uranium from Kazakhstan in 1991, claimed the `Post'. The nukes were later found inoperable. The articles claimed Russia sold two nuclear warheads direct to Iran, which were stored at the Lavizan military base, outside Tehran. Iran was still trying to get Russian technicians to disable the warhead's safety systems.
This column has seen conclusive evidence of Iran's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons and technology from the ex-Soviet republics. Still, the `Post's' overblown story sounds a little too Hollywood, and was clearly an Israeli government plant designed to pressure the Clinton Administration and Congress into hitting Russia with trade and financial sanctions to force Moscow to cease supplying Iran with technology and civilian reactors.
Israel has repeatedly threatened to attack Iran's nuclear reactors and missile facilities. Its newly acquired US F-15E Strike Eagle bombers bring all Iran's targets into range. Iran warns it may retaliate by attacking Israel's nuclear facilities at Dimona, and top-secret chemical-biological warfare plant at Ness- Ziona, part of the Weizmann Institute complex, near Rehovot. How, remains unclear, but it shows how dangerous the Mideast has become.
No Mideast nation is about to launch a nuclear or biological war. But as mass destruction weapons inevitably spread, risks of a accidental launch, or launch due to false attack warning, are sharply rising. The Mideast badly needs a dose of arms control.
[Eric Margolis is a syndicated foreign affairs columnist and broadcaster based in Toronto, Canada.]