The Iranian government has been successfully scouring Europe for the sophisticated equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb, according to the latest western intelligence assessment of the country's weapons programmes.
Scientists in Tehran are also shopping for parts for a ballistic missile capable of reaching Europe, with "import requests and acquisitions ... registered almost daily", the report seen by the Guardian concludes.
Both ask, is this bogus or real? As Drum points out:
I don't have any trouble believing that this is true, but on the other hand the "leak" is pretty obviously deliberate and the article gives no indication of what the assessment is based on. What's more, given the track record of western intelligence over the past few years, I'm reluctant to take their conclusions at face value just because they happen to seem believable to me.
I've actually got three reasons I doubt this article. First, I think Drum is wrong. I think we can guess where the most specific allegation in the article--about Iran's attempts to improve its ballistic missile capacity--came from, and it's not a credible source. I find it dubious, too, for the way the article uses a procurement program as evidence for a weapons program--a move used by Charles Duelfer to insinuate that Iraq had a WMD program. Finally, I think the strategic world suggested in the article (and, presumably, in the document) suggests the motivations of its authors, which in turn discredits the claims.
Iran's Ballistic Missiles
The Guardian article ends with the following passage:
The document lists scores of Iranian companies and institutions involved in the arms race. It also details Tehran's growing determination to perfect a ballistic missile capable of delivering warheads far beyond its borders.
It notes that Iran harbours ambitions of developing a space programme, but is currently concentrating on upgrading and extending the range of its Shahab-3 missile, which has a range of 750 miles - capable of reaching Israel.
Iranian scientists are said to be building wind tunnels to assist in missile design, developing navigation technology, and acquiring metering and calibration technology, motion simulators and x-ray machines designed to examine rocket parts. The next generation of the Shahab ("shooting star" in Persian) should be capable of reaching Austria and Italy.
In other words, one of the chief claims of this long document is that Iran is upgrading its Shahab-3 missile program.
In this post, I describe a recurring claim the Bush Administration has made about Iran's ballistic missile program. Twice before, just after the IAEA judged Iran's nuclear program no to be an immediate threat, press reports of a trove of Iranian documents came out alleging great progress in Iran's ballistic missile program. The problem is, the intelligence that claim is based on is, um, questionable. One day after the report originally came out in November 2004 a Dafna Linzer article revealed the unreliability of the data:
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell shared information with reporters Wednesday about Iran's nuclear program that was classified and based on an unvetted, single source who provided information that two U.S. officials said yesterday was highly significant if true but has not yet been verified.
According to one official with access to the material, a "walk-in" source approached U.S intelligence earlier this month with more than 1,000 pages purported to be Iranian drawings and technical documents, including a nuclear warhead design and modifications to enable Iranian ballistic missiles to deliver an atomic strike. The official agreed to discuss the information on the condition of anonymity and only because Powell had alluded to it publicly.
The information provided by the source, who was not previously known to U.S. intelligence, does not mention uranium or any other area of Iran's known nuclear program, according to the official with access to the material. It focuses instead on a warhead design and modifications to Iran's long-range Shahab-3 missile and a medium-range missile in its arsenal. The Shahab-3 has a range of 800 miles and is capable of hitting Israel.
The official said the CIA remains unsure about the authenticity of the documents and how they came into the informant's possession. A second official would say only that there are questions about the source of the information. [emphasis mine]
Now, the content of this earlier intelligence and the Guardian's intelligence appears to be the same--claims that Iran is working on the Shahab-3 missile. But remarkably, the Guardian article resolves one of the biggest contentions about the authenticity of the intelligence. You see, Iran launched a redesigned Shahab-3 missile in August 2004. That missile had a funky nose cone, one that gives the missile much greater range (perhaps as far as Austria or Italy??).
Tehran test-fired an upgraded version of the Shahab - shooting star in Persian - in a flight that featured the first appearance of an advanced nose cone made up of three distinct shapes. Missile experts noted that such triconic nose cones have great range, accuracy and stability in flight, but less payload space.
Some observers also claim that that funky nose makes it easier for the missile to carry nuclear weapons. Except when you remember that this is a country that is still developing its first nuclear bomb, which means any bomb they develop is likely to be too big to fit in the funky nose cone.
But other experts said the nose cone might be part of Iran's preparations for launching a satellite into orbit, which Tehran has said it plans to do in April. It was too thin, one said, to hold a relatively crude nuclear weapon.
''These guys need all the space they can get'' atop a missile, said a European expert who closely follows the Iranian program.
The Guardian doesn't really explain the significance of its comment about Iran's aspirations to develop a space program.
It notes that Iran harbours ambitions of developing a space programme
But that comment alone admits the underlying debate. In the same way that Iraq's aluminum tubes made more sense for use in its rocket program, Iran's funky nose cone appears to make more sense in its space program. Note, too, the way the Guardian avoids this underlying argument. When it discusses the Shahab-3 missile, it doesn't say (although it implies it, given its context within an article alleging Iran is intently developing its nuclear program) that the missile is even intended to carry nukes!
Nuclear Procurement System
Now, the claims about the ballistic missile program make this article suspicious enough. But the larger argument--that a procurement system that might be used for weapons systems is evidence of weapons systems--is also very problematic.
This document is making an argument also used with the Duelfer report. Absent any evidence that Iraq had WMDs, Duelfer instead described Iraq's weapon procurement program, which just happened to be connected to the Oil for Food program. By describing Saddam's procurement system, Duelfer allowed right wingers to conflate a procurement infrastructure with a weapons program.
CIA chief weapons inspector Charles Duelfer may not have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he sure found information enough to blow the lid off the simmering scandal of the United Nations Oil-for-Food program. As it turns out, Oil-for-Food pretty much was Saddam Hussein's weapons program.
As Duelfer documents, Oil-for-Food allowed Saddam to replenish his empty coffers, firm up his networks for hiding money and buying arms, corrupt the U.N.'s own debates over Iraq, greatly erode sanctions and deliberately prep the ground for further rearming, including the acquisition of nuclear weapons. [emphasis mine]
Now look what the Guardian does:
But it is the detailed assessment of Iran's nuclear purchasing programme that will most most alarm western leaders, who have long refused to believe Tehran's insistence that it is not interested in developing nuclear weapons and is trying only to develop nuclear power for electricity.
Frankly, I don't doubt that Iran wants to develop a nuclear program. But to imply that a nuclear purchasing program should alarm western leaders in the same sentence as you admit that Iran is claiming its nuclear program is for electricity does not prove that the nuclear purchasing program has anything to do with a nuclear weapons program. Look, for example, at the passage where the article comes closest to claiming the procurement system is for nuclear weapons:
The assessment declares that Iran has developed an extensive web of front companies, official bodies, academic institutes and middlemen dedicated to obtaining - in western Europe and in the former Soviet Union - the expertise, training, and equipment for nuclear programmes, missile development, and biological and chemical weapons arsenals.
"In addition to sensitive goods, Iran continues intensively to seek the technology and know-how for military applications of all kinds," it says.
I'll put the BW/CW claim aside (since it is not developed elsewhere in the article, and since BW/CW materials are often dual use items that Iran is allowed to import). This passage says Iran is trying to get "expertise, training, and equipment for nuclear programmes [and] missile development." It then goes on to say that this equates with seeking technology for "military applications of all kinds." But nowhere in this article does it state that it has any evidence Iran's nuclear procurement supports a program to develop a nuclear bomb. But, by presenting the nuclear procurement (which could hypothetically support a civilian nuclear program) alongside discussion of the Shahab-3 improvements (which may very well support non-nuclear delivery), it claims in the lede:
The Iranian government has been successfully scouring Europe for the sophisticated equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb
Equipment needed to develop a nuclear bomb, sure, but coincidentally also the equipment needed to develop a nuclear energy program and a non-nuclear ballistic missile program that may or may not have a connection.
The Strategic World of Iran's "Nuclear Threat"
Finally, there's the way the article mobilizes precisely the realpolitik the US would like to see behind its demonization of Iran. Here's the most detailed description it gives of Iran's procurement network.
It concludes that Syria and Pakistan have also been buying technology and chemicals needed to develop rocket programmes and to enrich uranium. It outlines the role played by Russia in the escalating Middle East arms build-up, and examines the part that dozens of Chinese front companies have played in North Korea's nuclear weapons programme.
Syria and Pakistan? North Korea? Wait a second. I thought this document was about Iran. Is this a document about the threat that Iran poses (which makes sense, given the Shahab-3 articles)? Or a document about weapons proliferation in the Middle East? And North Korea, which must be vacationing in Iran for the moment.
And look at the countries listed who are supplying weapons materials to (let's just use this phrase for fun, shall we) "rogue regimes." Russia and China. Remarkably, the two countries most apt to side with Iran in a showdown with the United States. The two countries that have a strategic interest in seeing a strong Iran. Now let's compare this list of two suppliers with the list of suppliers to Iraq from 1991 to 2003 (which, since it was under sanctions, had a much more difficult time getting materials):
- South Korea
- North Korea
Now, some of these countries (Egypt, Turkey) might be less likely to deal with Iran, and some probably wouldn't have anything valuable to offer to Iran since it's not under sanctions. And Yugoslavia isn't supplying anyone anymore. We also might want to consider where Iraq got its nuclear technology, and add in the United States and Germany (or at least companies located there) to this list. The absence of Georgia and Ukraine from the list of suppliers to Iran--both celebrated wepaons bazaars, discredits the article by itself. Do you really believe Iran is getting its materials exclusively from China and Russia?
Well, I don't.
Given the implausibility of this list, I think we ought to consider why this document would paint this picture, of China and Russia supplying Iran (and Pakistan, Syria, and North Korea) with the materials it needs to develop a nuclear weapons program.
We want to strike Iran because of the threat a nuclear-armed Iran poses to us. But what is that threat, really? It can strike Israel, which is a moral problem, but its a strategic threat to us only insofar as Israel serves as a reliable ally in the middle of the Middle East. It can strike Europe, which is an economic and moral problem, but a strategic threat to us only insofar as Europe is a critical ally. The only place Iran's nuclear program could strike at us directly is in our 51st state of Iraq. Which sounds a lot like shitting in your own bed, except that the odor and medical problems associated with the shit would last for two generations.
No. The reason why a nuclear-armed Iran threatens us (and don't get me wrong, I agree it does threaten us) is because it severely threatens our ability to influence events in the Middle East and in the world oil market. So long as we continue to dominate those spheres of influence, we will remain the hegemonic power in the world. But Russia threatens our ability to influence events in the Middle East and (increasingly importantly) in Central Asia. And China--particularly if it ever acquires a preferential source of oil--threatens (threatens? how about dooms?) our economic hegemony.
Which is what we really ought to be talking about. Iran is a threat to us. But it's not a threat primarily because it may develop into a nuclear threat. It's a threat because it could tip the balance of power toward the Russians or (more plausibly) toward China.
We really ought to be talking about that threat honestly, rather than inventing documents to drum up fears (well-founded or not) about Iran's nuclear threat. By discussing our contest with Russia and China for hegemony (in which Iran is a critical battlefield), we're apt to come up with much more viable options to maintain our hegemony.