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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 BallisticMissiles

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 openliterature about Iranian government strategic thinking, and even lesson missile defense. Most of what you see or read are the ruminationsand surmises of Western analysts, including myself, or the glowingportraits of a powerful and responsible Iran painted by Iraniansworking at Western think tanks and seeking to explain Iran's pursuitof special weapons projects.

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

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

In the absence of an open policy debate, which does not exist inIran, one must seek to understand how Iran's leaders plan to copewith threats - missile strikes, and others - by examining what theysay and what they do. In my presentation I will put greater emphasison what they do, since relying on the always inflated and oftenhysterical claims of Iranian leaders would induce one to ascribe fargreater importance to Iran and the threat it poses than realitywarrants.

The second caveat is a two-fold. The Islamic Republic of Iran isnot a "normal" country. Its leaders do not reason as those fromWestern Europe or even those of most Islamic countries. They havealso shown a remarkable ability to sustain high losses duringconflict, without suffering a loss of political control. The IslamicRepublic of Iran remains a revolutionary regime, which posits itsfuture on a radical repudiation of the former Shah's relationships tothe United States and Israel. But this core ideology, which isabsolutely 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 verywell see an entirely different government in power in Iran in one ortwo years' time, which would abandon the revolutionary aims of thecurrent clerical regime and adopt a more traditional approach towardregional security, which the United States and its allies would notfind threatening.

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

Iran's perception of the threat

Two themes emerge from a review of statements by top regimeleaders over the past ten years of the threats facing the IslamicRepublic: they fear, or claim they fear, an attack by the UnitedStates, or an attack by Israel; or some conspiratorial combination ofthe two.

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

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

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

Not long afterwards, Iranian leaders once again began complainingabout American hegemony in the Gulf, a theme they had virtuallyabandoned at the beginning of the Bush administration, when the twosides were tentatively exploring how to resume relations. Theycomplained about U.S. arms sales to Arab Gulf states, and madedriving U.S. forces from the region their top strategic priority.They also, predictably, polished off the old saws of "Death toAmerica" 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 warheadsagainst U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey (3). A North Korean ship, the Dae Hung Ho, reached Bandar Abbas on March10, 1992, bringing more SCUD-C missiles and manufacturing gear toIran (4). Later that year, Iran took possession ofthe first of three Kilo-class submarines, purchased from Russia InJuly 1994, China delivered missile boats capable of launching C-802anti-shipping missiles (5). Both the Kilos and themissile boats soon entered active service.

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

Emboldened by these military and technical successes, PresidentHashemi-Rafsanjani openly called for the withdrawal of the U.S. fleetfrom the Persian Gulf in April 1995. In a speech before theParliament of India, he said the presence of foreign fleets "tends toaggravate tensions," and said Iran believes "it is with the regionalstates to preserve security and stability in this region, not foreignpowers." (7) One month later, during a visit toTehran by a senior official from Qatar, Rafsanjani accompanied thisfamiliar dish with a scarcely veiled threat: "We expect friendlystates on the southern shores of the Persian Gulf to stand up againstthe sinister plan of permanent military presence of foreign forces inthe 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 anyaggressive moves toward Iran. "The world's energy is in the PersianGulf," he told Basijis gathered for war games in August 1996. "If theAmericans commit the slightest mistake there, Basij forces will setthis 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. wouldlaunch military strikes against Iran, using Tomahawk cruise missilesor possibly manned aircraft, in retaliation for Iran's allegedinvolvement in the terrorist bombing of the Khobar Towers barracks inDhahran, Saudi Arabia. Iran's strategy was clear: it would resort toterrorism - not only against the United States and U.S. forces in theGulf, 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 faceda greater threat from the United States than ever before, wasarguably of Iran's own making. In September 1992, the IslamicRepublic unilaterally reasserted its claim to sole sovereignty over atrio of small islands strategically located in the Strait of Hormuz.By December of that year, Iran's Supreme National Security Councilissued a warning to the United Arab Emirates and its GCC partnersthat Iran was prepared to defend its occupation of the islands bymilitary force. In a Friday prayer sermon, Rafsanjani said the Gulfstates "will have to cross a sea of blood" to reach theislands. (10)

Iran appears to have seized the islands as a means of counteringthe U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, andKuwait, and in particular, as a deterrent to U.S. naval deployments.Not long afterwards, reports emerged that Iran was building submarinepens on the islands to accommodate Kilo-class submarinesrecently-acquired from Russia. By late 1994, Iran was said to havestationed 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 soccermatch on the islands, (12) and shortly thereafterwards, by establishing a branch office of its Revolutionary Courtwhich was inaugurated in January 1995 by the head of the JudicialBranch, Ayatollah Yazdi (13) Secretary of DefenseWilliam Perry accused Iran of basing chemical weapons on the islandsduring 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 atfulfilling the same objectives. According to Ahmad Rezai, the 22-yearold son of IRGC commander Mohsen Rezai, his father expressedsatisfaction when he first heard the news of the attack. "I asked himwhether Iran could do such a thing, and he just laughed," the youngerRezai said "He told me Iran could do much more than this, but neveracted out in the open. Instead, they used other contacts, such as theHezbollah of the Arabian Peninsula." (15) Thisgroup is closely tied to former Saudi national Ossama Bin Laden andclaimed responsibility for the attack. In my investigation into BinLaden's group, which appeared in the July 1998 issue of Reader'sDigest, I uncovered extensive evidence of Bin Laden's ties to Iran.These contacts were borne out by FBI confidential informants whosetestimony was released in October 1998 by a New York courtinvestigating Bin Laden's responsibility in the U.S. Embassy bombingsin 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 wouldwithdraw," Rezai said. The Iranians saw that such attacks had workedin Lebanon, under Reagan, and believed they would work again.

I hope you're beginning to get the larger picture, which is thatthe Islamic Republic of Iran takes a very broad view of strategicdefense that encompasses policies - such as terrorism - which areconsidered beyond the pale in the West. Planning a terrorist attack,such as the Khobar Towers bombing, is far less expensive andultimately less dangerous for Iran, than spending billions of dollarsfor new offensive weapons and actually using them against the UnitedStates or Israel. Terrorism provides Iran with a cheap deterrent, andthe ultimate in deniability. Despite a great deal of evidence,including eye-witness reports and the arrest of at least one memberof the terrorist group that carried out the Dhahran bombing whoadmitted to having been trained in Iran, the Clinton administrationhas failed to take any retaliatory measures against the IslamicRepublic. (17)

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

Existential threat from Israel

Islamic Republic leaders have consistently used Israel as anexcuse for their own special weapons projects. They have waged apersistent 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 outby Iranian proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and PalestinianIslamic Jihad.

Attitudes toward Israel among Islamic Republic leaders liesomewhere between paranoia and total hysteria. Just last week, theformer Revolutionary Guards commander Mohsen Rezai, who remains oneof the top dozen leaders of the regime, told a press conference inTehran that U.S. and Mossad agents were responsible for the recentkidnapping and murder of Heinrich Lambert, the Tehran representativeof Germany's Deutsch Bank and his wife. He accused Israel of killingIranian dissidents, as part of their desire "to create tension in thecountry." (18)

Islamic Republic leaders ascribe to Israel the very intentionsthey themselves harbor toward Israel. They claim Israel wants tooverthrow their regime, and destroy their society. Failing that,regime leaders claim that Israel is secretly plotting to attack Iranwith nuclear weapons.

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

In a commentary published shortly after the July 1998 test of theShahab-3, Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said the missile was aimedfirmly 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 ofthe Zionist regime."

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

The clearest expression of Iran's intention was at the September25, 1998 military parade in Tehran, when the Shahab-3 was first puton public display. It was draped with English and Farsi-languagebanners that said: "Israel must be wiped off the map." In aninterview after the parade, Defense Minister Shamkhani was even moreexplicit: "We have written on the warhead of the Shahab-3 that thiswill not land in any Islamic country," he told reporters. " Of coursethis program will be pursued and we will have the Shahab-4 and eventhe 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, theIslamic 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 atimetable on when Iran could field a biological missile warhead or anuclear device, the likelihood is that this is not far off. Thus,with a demonstrated ability to deliver these weapons, the purelymilitary threat from Iran will steadily increase with time.

While analysts such as Shahram Chubin might claim possession ofthese weapons will render Iran more cautious, I believe the IslamicRepublic's track record shows that just the contrary is the case. Theruling clerics demonstrated during the long war with Iraq a cynicaldisregard for the lives of their fellow citizens, wilfully sending 12and 14-year old children off to die in the Iraqi mine-fields. I don'tbelieve they have learned greater respect for human life sincethen.


While the specifics of Iran's strategy at any given time mightsurprise, 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 thinkthe Islamic Republic's reflexes are clear. They take any and allthreats, military and economic, as existential challenges to theirregime, and respond accordingly, with little nuance. Theirs is astrategy of unlimited offense. The French would call it, une fuite enavant.

At one point during the recent impeachment hearings here inWashington, there was talk of the White House launching a "nuclearresponse" to Congressional investigations. You frequently hearreference to the President "going ballistic" over criticism of hispersonal behavior.

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

When Iraqi missiles hit Iranian cities, Iran responded byattacking Iraqi cities. If such attacks were to occur today, I amconvinced Iran's response would be nuclear or biological. Theyacknowledge no stigma for the use of these weapons; nor are theydeterred by the possibility of counter-attack, for as long as thenuclear or biological exchange does not threaten the existence oftheir regime.

At the conference in Italy I refereed to at the beginning of thispresentation, Hassan Mashadi claimed that the U.S. was "blowing outof all proportion" Iran's so-called "rogue" behavior. "Iran has neverbeen an aggressor against any of its neighbors," he said Referringto the disputed islands in the Straits of Hormuz and Iran'sdiplomatic 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 countryto be ignored," he said. "If these pressures [from the UnitedStates and Israel continue, there will be an explosion, and the wholeregion will be on fire. We need to think about this much morecarefully before things get out of control."

Ultimately how Iran behaves will depend on how rational andcool-headed its leaders remain as the regime faces increasingpressure - not from outside forces - but from mounting internaldissent from young Iranians who thirst for freedom and have hadenough of the austere existence offered them by the clerical elite.Will the ruling clerics loose missiles and eat chocolates like someIslamic Nero as their empire crumbles around them? Or will they bowquietly from power?

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

The Middle East Data Project, Inc., is a private corporationengaged in the analysis of strategic trade to countries ofproliferation concern that contracts to private and governmentclients and publishes a monthly investigative newsletter, The IranBrief.



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

2. Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Iran "keeping its nuclearoptions 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 fromthe 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 onChannel Islands," The Iran Brief, 1/5/99.

12 Reuters 12/29/94

13 "Iran Establishes Court on Abu Musa," TehranRadio, 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," TheIran 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," Reuters7/29/98.

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

21 Well before the Shahab-3 program became public,Iranian arms control official Hassan Mashad said Iran "needs to havelong-range missiles to deter an Israeli attack" on Iranian nuclear orother facilities. "You cannot expect a nation with legitimatesecurity concerns to sit idly by in the face of a threat. If you tellthem 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 IranBrief, 5/1/95; "Iran's Uranium programs," The Iran Brief,6/1/95.s