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The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

An investigative tool for business executives, government, and the media.

Unlimited Offense:

Iran's Response to the Missile Threat


By Kenneth R. Timmerman

Director, Middle East Data Project, Inc.

Contributing Editor, Reader's Digest


Paper presented at

Military Strategy in the Age of Ballistic Missiles

Co-sponsored by the U.S. Army War College,

the Jewish Institute for National Security,

and the Boeing Corporation

Washington, DC - Feb. 23, 1999


Any presentation on Iran has to be preceded by two caveats.

First: There is not a great deal of information in the open literature about Iranian government strategic thinking, and even less on missile defense. Most of what you see or read are the ruminations and surmises of Western analysts, including myself, or the glowing portraits of a powerful and responsible Iran painted by Iranians working at Western think tanks and seeking to explain Iran's pursuit of special weapons projects.

Shahram Chubin, a noted expert on Cold War Iranian-Soviet relations, represented this latter view at a conference in Italy in September 1995, where I was also a speaker. Chubin noted that Iran was "most likely seeking a nuclear weapons capability," but suggested that if successful, Iran would be a responsible nuclear power and "even more risk adverse" than it is today. The West might even want to encourage Iran in this direction, he said, since a policy of engagement "socializes the state into understanding the limits and liabilities involved in possessing nuclear weapons." (1)

I have no doubt that Chubin is correct in devining the ultimate purpose of Iran's nuclear program; indeed, at the same conference I engaged in a prolonged exchange with a top arms control official of the Iranian government, Hassan Mashadi, who said repeatedly that Iran had to "keep its nuclear options open." (2) But I draw very different conclusions about Iranian government intentions than does Chubin.

In the absence of an open policy debate, which does not exist in Iran, one must seek to understand how Iran's leaders plan to cope with threats - missile strikes, and others - by examining what they say and what they do. In my presentation I will put greater emphasis on what they do, since relying on the always inflated and often hysterical claims of Iranian leaders would induce one to ascribe far greater importance to Iran and the threat it poses than reality warrants.

The second caveat is a two-fold. The Islamic Republic of Iran is not a "normal" country. Its leaders do not reason as those from Western Europe or even those of most Islamic countries. They have also shown a remarkable ability to sustain high losses during conflict, without suffering a loss of political control. The Islamic Republic of Iran remains a revolutionary regime, which posits its future on a radical repudiation of the former Shah's relationships to the United States and Israel. But this core ideology, which is absolutely central to the regime, has little impact on Iran's youth. Today, more than 50% of Iran's population is under the age of 21 - born during or after the 1979 revolution. I believe we could very well see an entirely different government in power in Iran in one or two years' time, which would abandon the revolutionary aims of the current clerical regime and adopt a more traditional approach toward regional security, which the United States and its allies would not find threatening.

So, given those two caveats, let me start by looking at the attitudes of the current regime leaders.

Iran's perception of the threat

Two themes emerge from a review of statements by top regime leaders over the past ten years of the threats facing the Islamic Republic: they fear, or claim they fear, an attack by the United States, or an attack by Israel; or some conspiratorial combination of the two.

I believe their actions show that they have actively rebuilt their defense forces over the past ten years to counter these two threats, while almost totally neglecting the potential threat of a resurgent Iraq. For instance, Iran has devoted almost no resource to rebuilding its decimated armored divisions, which would face Iraq, whereas it has spent tremendous amounts of money and energy building up naval forces, missile units, and amphibious attack forces based at the entry to the Persian Gulf.

Operation Desert Storm was a sobering experience for Iranian leaders. Iran had just emerged from being roundly defeated by Saddam Hussein; and here, an even stronger Saddam was ripped to shreds by the U.S. military, which fielded weapons previously unimagined by anyone in the region.

If the Americans could do that to Iraq, what couldn't they do to Iran?

Not long afterwards, Iranian leaders once again began complaining about American hegemony in the Gulf, a theme they had virtually abandoned at the beginning of the Bush administration, when the two sides were tentatively exploring how to resume relations. They complained about U.S. arms sales to Arab Gulf states, and made driving U.S. forces from the region their top strategic priority. They also, predictably, polished off the old saws of "Death to America" and "Death to Israel," primarily for domestic purposes.

In May 1991, Iran test-fired a modified North Korean SCUD-C, demonstrating a capability to launch large numbers of 1-ton warheads against U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey (3). A North Korean ship, the Dae Hung Ho, reached Bandar Abbas on March 10, 1992, bringing more SCUD-C missiles and manufacturing gear to Iran (4). Later that year, Iran took possession of the first of three Kilo-class submarines, purchased from Russia In July 1994, China delivered missile boats capable of launching C-802 anti-shipping missiles (5). Both the Kilos and the missile boats soon entered active service.

At the same time, Iran began development of the Shahab-3, a 1500 kilometer-range missile capable carrying a 1-ton nuclear warhead against Israel. They received extensive technical assistance from North Korea, China, and increasingly from Russia, which became Iran's main technology partner.

Emboldened by these military and technical successes, President Hashemi-Rafsanjani openly called for the withdrawal of the U.S. fleet from the Persian Gulf in April 1995. In a speech before the Parliament of India, he said the presence of foreign fleets "tends to aggravate tensions," and said Iran believes "it is with the regional states to preserve security and stability in this region, not foreign powers." (7) One month later, during a visit to Tehran by a senior official from Qatar, Rafsanjani accompanied this familiar dish with a scarcely veiled threat: "We expect friendly states on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf to stand up against the sinister plan of permanent military presence of foreign forces in the region," he said.(8)

One year later, the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezai, warned the United States not to make any aggressive moves toward Iran. "The world's energy is in the Persian Gulf," he told Basijis gathered for war games in August 1996. "If the Americans commit the slightest mistake there, Basij forces will set this region on fire and this will result in America's certain death." (9)

These comments were in response to real fears that the U.S. would launch military strikes against Iran, using Tomahawk cruise missiles or possibly manned aircraft, in retaliation for Iran's alleged involvement in the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia. Iran's strategy was clear: it would resort to terrorism - not only against the United States and U.S. forces in the Gulf, but against any state supporting the U.S. military presence - because it had no other defense.

Threats of their own making

The escalation in the rhetoric, and the perception that Iran faced a greater threat from the United States than ever before, was arguably of Iran's own making. In September 1992, the Islamic Republic unilaterally reasserted its claim to sole sovereignty over a trio of small islands strategically located in the Strait of Hormuz. By December of that year, Iran's Supreme National Security Council issued a warning to the United Arab Emirates and its GCC partners that Iran was prepared to defend its occupation of the islands by military force. In a Friday prayer sermon, Rafsanjani said the Gulf states "will have to cross a sea of blood" to reach the islands. (10)

Iran appears to have seized the islands as a means of countering the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, and Kuwait, and in particular, as a deterrent to U.S. naval deployments. Not long afterwards, reports emerged that Iran was building submarine pens on the islands to accommodate Kilo-class submarines recently-acquired from Russia. By late 1994, Iran was said to have stationed 3,000 Revolutionary Guards troops on the islands of Sirri, Abu Musa, Greater and Lesser Tunb, including an air defense base, with hardened SAM sites and I-HAWK missile batteries. (11) Since then, Iran has asserted its sovereignty by holding a soccer match on the islands, (12) and shortly thereafter wards, by establishing a branch office of its Revolutionary Court which was inaugurated in January 1995 by the head of the Judicial Branch, Ayatollah Yazdi (13) Secretary of Defense William Perry accused Iran of basing chemical weapons on the islands during a swing through the Gulf that March. (14)

Iran's alleged involvement in the June 1996 bombing of a U.S. military barracks in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia falls was aimed at fulfilling the same objectives. According to Ahmad Rezai, the 22-year old son of IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, his father expressed satisfaction when he first heard the news of the attack. "I asked him whether Iran could do such a thing, and he just laughed," the younger Rezai said "He told me Iran could do much more than this, but never acted out in the open. Instead, they used other contacts, such as the Hezbollah of the Arabian Peninsula." (15) This group is closely tied to former Saudi national Ossama Bin Laden and claimed responsibility for the attack. In my investigation into Bin Laden's group, which appeared in the July 1998 issue of Reader's Digest, I uncovered extensive evidence of Bin Laden's ties to Iran. These contacts were borne out by FBI confidential informants whose testimony was released in October 1998 by a New York court investigating Bin Laden's responsibility in the U.S. Embassy bombings in Africa. (16)

The younger Rezai said his father believed that attacks on U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf would force the Americans to withdrawn. "He said that if we killed just one U.S. soldier, the others would withdraw," Rezai said. The Iranians saw that such attacks had worked in Lebanon, under Reagan, and believed they would work again.

I hope you're beginning to get the larger picture, which is that the Islamic Republic of Iran takes a very broad view of strategic defense that encompasses policies - such as terrorism - which are considered beyond the pale in the West. Planning a terrorist attack, such as the Khobar Towers bombing, is far less expensive and ultimately less dangerous for Iran, than spending billions of dollars for new offensive weapons and actually using them against the United States or Israel. Terrorism provides Iran with a cheap deterrent, and the ultimate in deniability. Despite a great deal of evidence, including eye-witness reports and the arrest of at least one member of the terrorist group that carried out the Dhahran bombing who admitted to having been trained in Iran, the Clinton administration has failed to take any retaliatory measures against the Islamic Republic. (17)

Iran made it very clear in the immediately aftermath of the Dhahran bombing, when top U.S. officials including Defense Secretary William Perry pointed fingers their way, that more terrorist attacks would be carried out if the U.S. staged a military retaliatory raid. And this Iranian strategy worked. Whereas we might view the threat of military attack as a purely military phenomenon, to be countered through military means, the Islamic Republic views any threat to Iran as an existential threat to the regime. As a result, the Islamic Republic does not have a purely military strategy to respond to perceived threats. All means of countering such threats, including terrorism and pre-emptive military strikes, are considered valid.

Existential threat from Israel

Islamic Republic leaders have consistently used Israel as an excuse for their own special weapons projects. They have waged a persistent war of terrorism against Israel, including direct attacks - such as the bombing of the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992 - and indirect attacks against Israeli citizens that were carried out by Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.

Attitudes toward Israel among Islamic Republic leaders lie somewhere between paranoia and total hysteria. Just last week, the former Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai, who remains one of the top dozen leaders of the regime, told a press conference in Tehran that U.S. and Mossad agents were responsible for the recent kidnapping and murder of Heinrich Lambert, the Tehran representative of Germany's Deutsch Bank and his wife. He accused Israel of killing Iranian dissidents, as part of their desire "to create tension in the country." (18)

Islamic Republic leaders ascribe to Israel the very intentions they themselves harbor toward Israel. They claim Israel wants to overthrow their regime, and destroy their society. Failing that, regime leaders claim that Israel is secretly plotting to attack Iran with nuclear weapons.

A look at recent statements concerning the Shahab-3 missile reveals that Iran developed this missile to deter Israeli, not Iran's neighbors.

In a commentary published shortly after the July 1998 test of the Shahab-3, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said the missile was aimed firmly at a hostile Israel. "At least in the mid-term," he wrote, "the neighboring countries do not pose any threat." (19) Instead, he said Iran was worried about "the nuclear capability of the Zionist regime."

Two days later, Judiciary Chief Ayatollah Mohammad Yazdi called the Shahab-3 a "strategic weapon meant to guarantee the defense of the nation in face of any external threat." The missile was intended to "strengthen the defense of the Islamic world against any possible threat," he said, and was aimed at "creating a military balance in the world." (20) Again, these were clear references to Israel. (21)

The clearest expression of Iran's intention was at the September 25, 1998 military parade in Tehran, when the Shahab-3 was first put on public display. It was draped with English and Farsi-language banners that said: "Israel must be wiped off the map." In an interview after the parade, Defense Minister Shamkhani was even more explicit: "We have written on the warhead of the Shahab-3 that this will not land in any Islamic country," he told reporters. " Of course this program will be pursued and we will have the Shahab-4 and even the Shahab-5 to respond to our defense needs." (22)

Nuclear and biological weapons

At the same time it is preparing to deploy the Shahab-3, the Islamic Republic is also developing biological and nuclear weapons, again with the help of Russian scientists and Russian firms. (23) While it is always difficult to put a timetable on when Iran could field a biological missile warhead or a nuclear device, the likelihood is that this is not far off. Thus, with a demonstrated ability to deliver these weapons, the purely military threat from Iran will steadily increase with time.

While analysts such as Shahram Chubin might claim possession of these weapons will render Iran more cautious, I believe the Islamic Republic's track record shows that just the contrary is the case. The ruling clerics demonstrated during the long war with Iraq a cynical disregard for the lives of their fellow citizens, wilfully sending 12 and 14-year old children off to die in the Iraqi mine-fields. I don't believe they have learned greater respect for human life since then.


While the specifics of Iran's strategy at any given time might surprise, the underlying premise is as old as the Old Testament: strike fear in the hearts of your enemy, lest they attack you first. Despite the absence of theoretical writings on the subject, I think the Islamic Republic's reflexes are clear. They take any and all threats, military and economic, as existential challenges to their regime, and respond accordingly, with little nuance. Theirs is a strategy of unlimited offense. The French would call it, une fuite en avant.

At one point during the recent impeachment hearings here in Washington, there was talk of the White House launching a "nuclear response" to Congressional investigations. You frequently hear reference to the President "going ballistic" over criticism of his personal behavior.

The logic of the Islamic Republic leadership is not all that different. But as Iran becomes more technologically proficient, those terms will have to be taken literally and not as metaphors.

When Iraqi missiles hit Iranian cities, Iran responded by attacking Iraqi cities. If such attacks were to occur today, I am convinced Iran's response would be nuclear or biological. They acknowledge no stigma for the use of these weapons; nor are they deterred by the possibility of counter-attack, for as long as the nuclear or biological exchange does not threaten the existence of their regime.

At the conference in Italy I refereed to at the beginning of this presentation, Hassan Mashadi claimed that the U.S. was "blowing out of all proportion" Iran's so-called "rogue" behavior. "Iran has never been an aggressor against any of its neighbors," he said Referring to the disputed islands in the Straits of Hormuz and Iran's diplomatic sparring with the UAE over their sovereignty, he said "Iran is merely trying to claim its natural position in the region, and some countries are trying to deny it that role."

But then Mashadi let the other shoe drop: "Iran is not a country to be ignored," he said. "If these pressures [from the United States and Israel continue, there will be an explosion, and the whole region will be on fire. We need to think about this much more carefully before things get out of control."

Ultimately how Iran behaves will depend on how rational and cool-headed its leaders remain as the regime faces increasing pressure - not from outside forces - but from mounting internal dissent from young Iranians who thirst for freedom and have had enough of the austere existence offered them by the clerical elite. Will the ruling clerics loose missiles and eat chocolates like some Islamic Nero as their empire crumbles around them? Or will they bow quietly from power?

The uncertainty implied in that question is why preventing the Islamic Republic from acquiring offensive capabilities is so crucial. This is not a regime that responds to conventional deterrence. And I for one do not believe that its leaders likely to go quietly into that good night.

The Middle East Data Project, Inc., is a private corporation engaged in the analysis of strategic trade to countries of proliferation concern that contracts to private and government clients and publishes a monthly investigative newsletter, The Iran Brief.



1. Shahram Chubin, "Iran and Nuclear Weapons: prospects for arms control," in Fifty years of Nuclear Weapons, Proceedings of the Sixth Castiglioncello Conference, Union of Scientists for Disarmament, Milan (Italy), 1996, pp125-148.

2. Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Iran "keeping its nuclear options open," official says," The Iran Brief, Oct. 9, 1995

3 "Iran Fires ballistic missile," Washington Times, 5/15/91

4 CNN 3/10/92.

5 BBC Breakfast News, 9/24/92

6 AP 7/6/94

7 "Rafsanjani demands withdrawal of US warships from the Gulf," Dow Jones news service, April 18, 1995.

8 "Iran urges Gulf states to oppose U.S. build-up," Reuters, 5/30/95.

9 "Iran to set Gulf on fire if U.S. hits," Kayhan, 8/17/96; Reuters 8/17/96.

10 "Iran reasserts claim to Gulf islands," Reuter, 12/27/92.

11 Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Iranian Build-up on Channel Islands," The Iran Brief, 1/5/99.

12 Reuters 12/29/94

13 "Iran Establishes Court on Abu Musa," Tehran Radio, 1/16/95, as quoted by Reuters.

14 "Perry says Iran deploys CW on Gulf islands," Kaleej Times 3/25/95; see also wire reports.

15 Interview with the author, 2/14/99

16 Kenneth R. Timmerman, "This Man Wants You Dead," Reader's Digest, July 1998; "Prosecutors Tie Iran to Bin Ladin," The Iran Brief 10/5/98.

17 "Suspect in Saudi Bombing caught in Canada," Washington Post, 4/13/97.

18 Rezai press conference, IRNA, 2/16/99.

19 "Iran missile eyes "nuclear" Israel," Reuters 7/29/98.

20 "Shahab-3, a weapon to create military balance in world," IRNA 7/31/98

21 Well before the Shahab-3 program became public, Iranian arms control official Hassan Mashad said Iran "needs to have long-range missiles to deter an Israeli attack" on Iranian nuclear or other facilities. "You cannot expect a nation with legitimate security concerns to sit idly by in the face of a threat. If you tell them not to go nuclear, then what option do you leave open for them?" See note 2 above.

22 "Shamkhani unveils Shahab-4 and Shahab-5," International Iran Times, 10/2/98.

23 "Biological weapons program alleged," The Iran Brief, 5/1/95; "Iran's Uranium programs," The Iran Brief, 6/1/95.s