Missile Threat From Iran
Last August an American spy satellite spotted a scar of fire on the outskirts of Iran's capital, Teheran. It was the unmistakable signature of a rocket-engine test. On the ground, engineers and technicians watched a powerful liquid-fueled missile engine bolted to a test stand shoot a plume of fire.
The engine firing, conducted at the secrecy-shrouded Shahid Hemat Industrial Group research facility, sent tremors through Western intelligence agencies:
First, the successful test marked an ominous advance for the anti-Western Islamic government of Iran. New-generation ballistic missiles could give the regime a decisive military edge in the Middle East and Central Asia.
Second, the new missile program bears the fingerprints of an old adversary that is now supposed to be an American ally--Russia. Iran's rocket engines, originally acquired from North Korea, were upgraded in Russia. Technicians at Iran's test facility included engineers from NPO Trud, a prestigious Russian rocket-motor plant that helped develop the missiles that targeted the West during the Cold War. And Iran's new missiles are based in part on Soviet SS-4 strategic rockets.
Iran, whose leaders have chanted "Death to America," is believed to be less than a year away from test-firing a ballistic missile, the Shahab-3, and is developing more powerful versions. "The deployment of these missiles, using just conventional warheads with modern guidance, adds a giant measure to Iran's ability to blackmail allies of the United States," says former CIA director R. James Woolsey.
But the threat goes even further. The CIA states that Iran is also developing chemical, biological and even nuclear weapons. This, from a regime that the State Department has labeled a terrorist threat.
A Growing Partnership. After Islamic radicals overthrew the Shah of Iran and seized the U.S. embassy in 1979, Washington slapped an arms embargo on Iran. Undaunted, Iran conducted an international campaign of assassinations and terrorism, pursued a clandestine nuclear-weapons program and waged a bitter war with neighboring Iraq (1980-88).
In that war, Iran launched missiles bought from North Korea or assembled from parts made in China. When the U.S.S.R. collapsed, Teheran began shopping in the huge arms supermarket of the fledgling Russian Federation.
In a confidential meeting in Germany, Reader's Digest interviewed an Iranian former intelligence officer who confirmed Western intelligence reports that Russians began working on Iran's long-range-missile projects in 1994. At that time, Russian technicians visited the top-secret Iranian Defense Technology and Science Research Center near Karaj, 50 miles northwest of Teheran. Iran subsequently began receiving assistance from Russia's state-run missile plants and technical universities. Russian advisers worked at Iran's missile plants in Esfahan and Semnan, as well as at design centers in Sultanatabad, Lavizan and Kuh-e Bagh-e-Melli on the outskirts of the capital.
"After that, Iran's missile program jelled," says Patrick Clawson, an Iran analyst at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.
The United States in Range. With Russian help, Iran is working to field two families of missiles in the near future. The Shahab-3 is the closest to deployment. It will carry 1650 pounds of explosives at least 800 miles--allowing Iran, for the first time, to hit every major city in Israel, including Jerusalem. It would also reach vital Persian Gulf oil fields--and the bases in Saudi Arabia and Turkey where American forces are serving. A Shahab-3 carrying the anthrax germ could kill millions.
Intelligence sources say that a number of engine tests for the Shahab-3 have been observed, and that development will be completed in early 1999, with production soon after. A senior White House official told Reader's Digest that the United States now believes Iran has most of what it needs to mass-produce the Shahab-3. "It may already be too late to stop them," he said.
An even more powerful missile in development, the Shahab-4, will carry a one-ton warhead 1250 miles--making it capable of devastating cities in countries as distant as Egypt. The Russians are also helping a solid-fuel design team at the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group in Teheran develop a 2800-mile missile, capable of reaching London and Paris, and a 6300-mile missile that could strike cities in the eastern United States.
Diplomatic Stonewall. At high-level meetings with Russian officials, including President Yeltsin himself, the United States has repeatedly expressed concern over Russian arms sales to rogue nations such as Iran. But when Vice President Al Gore pressed Russian Premier Viktor Chernomyrdin on February 6, 1997, Gore received a categorical denial.
Two months later, in April, Iran tested a new missile engine. After analyzing the evidence, U.S. officials concluded that the Russians had transferred technology from SS-4 rockets to Iran--a clear violation of the Missile Technology Control Regime that Russia signed in 1995. It also violates the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, in which the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to destroy all such missiles, including the SS-4.
Yet each time the United States presented new evidence of Russian assistance to Iran's long-range-missile program, Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny Primakov and other officials denied that this was Russia's policy. "While we appreciate such assurances," State Department official Robert Einhorn told the Senate last June, "we remain disturbed by the discrepancy between them and what reportedly is occurring."
In fact, U.S. and Western intelligence sources have confirmed that several hundred Russian engineers and technicians travel regularly to missile facilities outside Teheran, helping the Iranians draw up missile-production blueprints. Russia may have transferred to Iran a supercomputer made by a U.S. company to complete the work. And when the Iranians run into technical snags, they fly to top-secret military institutes in Russia to see how the Russians solved similar problems.
"This is not a private operation by some crazy engineers," an Israeli official told Reader's Digest in an interview in Tel Aviv. "The contracts [to assist Iran's missile program] have been signed by companies that are at least partially owned by the Russian government."
Last July President Clinton assigned veteran diplomat Frank Wisner to conduct a joint investigation with the Russians into the missile allegations. His Russian counterpart was Yuri Koptev, head of the Russian Space Agency, which intelligence sources say is aiding in Iran's missile program. (Koptev denies such involvement.)
Talks on Russian-technology transfers to Iran continue. Meanwhile, Russian technicians still travel to Iran, and shipments of missile components continue to reach Iran.
"It must be made clear that doing business with our enemies will cost them if they want to do business with us," former U.S. Under Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz says of the Russians.
U.S. laws require the President to impose sanctions on countries that assist certain nations in building ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons. But the Administration has refused to invoke sanctions, including those in a law co-authored in 1992 by then-Senator Gore and Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.). Now Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D., Conn.) and Trent Lott (R., Miss.) have introduced new legislation with sanctions that could involve:
Russia's space program. The United States is pumping $140 million a year and invaluable expertise into Russia's space program. This aid could be stopped.
U.S. contracts. Russian companies working in Iran have some $2.5 billion in contracts with the U.S. government and U.S. defense contractors. The United States could bar them from American business.
High-tech exports. Russian firms in Iran have been buying advanced U.S. technology. Such high-tech exports could be barred.
In addition to these sanctions, the United States could step up assistance to Israel's Arrow antimissile program to ensure that Israel will have adequate defenses by the time the Iranian missiles go into production, possibly in 1999.
The United States could also increase pressure on Teheran. Instead, the Clinton Administration has been seeking to open a "dialogue" with the Iranians, a gesture interpreted by some of Teheran's ruling clerics as a sign of American weakness.
Some American leaders are determined to send a different, stronger message, not only to Teheran but to Moscow as well. "Russia's transfer of missile technology to Iran is an issue of enormous national security importance to the United States and its allies," warns Senator McCain. "It threatens to further destabilize the region--and risks undercutting U.S.-Russian relations."