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The Iran Brief®

Policy, Trade & Strategic Affairs

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

Rogue States and Ballistic Missiles:

Lessons and Prospects

Paper presented before the

Commission To Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States

(the "Rumsfeld Commission"), April 1998

by Kenneth R. Timmerman

Director, the Middle East Data Project, Inc.; Publisher, The Iran Brief.
Copyright © 1998, Middle East Data Project, Inc.
 

One can draw a number of lessons from the public record on how well we in the United States do the job of preventing ballistic missile programs (and by inference, other WMD programs and technologies) in developing nations, especially in what are now called the "rogue states."

I confess a modicum of responsibility for coining this term while working on the professional staff of the House Foreign Relations Committee in 1993, when we did a series of hearings on Iran (1), Iraq (2), and North Korea. Some have objected that the term "rogue regime" is too lapidary, in that each of the five countries normally referred to (Iran, Iraq, North Korea, Libya, Cuba) present dramatically different realities. However, I still believe that from a proliferation standpoint, the term is useful because many of the problems non-proliferators face with these regimes are remarkably similar.

The point of view I will present today, however, is that of a non-government specialist who has had the good fortune of being the first Western journalist to have discoursed at length with the heads of Iraq's ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs in Baghdad, starting in 19863. I have also spent a great deal of time poking through weapons factories in a variety of developing nations. And finally, as a journalist I have spoken at length - and repeatedly - both to Iranian missile designers and to many of their Western suppliers, and have followed the arms and technology markets in that part of the world for more than fifteen years4.

So what you will hear from me today is a "ground zero" perspective, not a policy pronouncement or an analyst's forensic reconstruction.

I believe we have done the job poorly because we do not get out in the field often enough. And when we do get out in the field, we go to the wrong places or listen to the wrong people. Or, even worse, if we do hear the truth, we are culturally bound to reject it, because it challenges our basic preconceptions about the ability of Third World countries to do things we have always considered to be our unique province.

Lesson 1: The U.S. can't seem to keep an eye on more than one ball at a time.

Iraq: In the mid-1980s, the U.S. focused intently on Iraqi procurement activities aimed at developing a 2000 kilometer-range nuclear-capable missile, known in the West as Condor-2, which the Iraqis referred to as Badr-2000 or Project 395.

Condor-2 was initially intended to grow out of an existing shorter-range missile developed by Argentina with German assistance, the Condor-1. The U.S. government became alarmed when it began to detect major transfers of technology, first to Argentina, by Germany's premier aerospace concern, MBB. As investigators looked further, they discovered that MBB was only the tip of the iceberg, and that major firms across Europe were all contributing to what became known as an joint Iraqi-Argentinean-Egyptian program. Snia Bpd in Italy provided solid-fuel propellant technology; Sagem in France sold guidance kits; Egypt's Abu Zaabal Specialty Chemical Company helped to build the Taj al-Ma'arik solid fuel propellant plant in Latifiyah (al Hillah), while former MBB and Krupp group engineers working out of Switzerland in the Consen group provided overall program management. Even U.S. companies such as Electronic Associates Inc., Gould, Hewlett Packard, Tektronix, Scientific Atlanta, and Wiltron, legally sold equipment to the Saad 16 (known as the Al Kindi Research complex as of 1989), until the U.S. began denying licenses to Iraqi-based facilities known to be involved in Condor-2 in 1986.

The U.S. was so obsessed with stopping Condor-2 that the Pentagon, with the blessing of the White House, launched an extraordinary - and initially successful - diplomatic effort, to create an international club of missile suppliers specifically aimed at stopping Condor-2. Today that organization, the MTCR, has become an exporters cartel, not a control mechanism. But when it was first established in 1985, two years before the MTCR was actually ratified in public, it immediately set to work to frustrate Iraq's procurement of solid-fuel propellants and precision guidance kits for the Condor-2.

By all accounts, the MTCR succeeded its initial mission. While Iraq did manage to set up a solid-fuel propellant plant and to purchase large mixers from Germany for manufacturing the Condor-2 boosters, the vigorous international effort led by the United States prevented key technologies - especially guidance - from reaching Baghdad. The end result was the Condor-2 never took off.

But here's the rub: while all eyes were on Iraq's solid-fuel program, the Iraqis were quietly moving in another direction. In 1986, at least two years after the Iraqis realized that the Condor-2 was being targeted by the Americans (because of the prosecution in the U.S. of an Egyptian military attaché involved in procuring carbon fiber and other material for the missile nose cone), the Iraqis launched a crash program to extend the range of their Soviet-built SCUD-B missiles. In the immediately term, they wanted the range to hit the Iranian capital, Teheran. Further down the line, they wanted to reach Israel.

Western analysts have tended to pooh-pooh the extended SCUD program in Iraq, but they miss the point: this is the one that worked. The Iraqis succeeded in re-engineering the SCUD-B in something like 18 months - and that's from the start of the program to operational missile launch. It was these extended-range SCUD-Bs, now known as the al-Hussein, that Iraq rained down on Tehran during the February 1988 War of the Cities. Their use is credited (along with Iraq's extensive use of CW during the campaign to liberate Fao) with convincing Ayatollah Khomeini to throw in the towel later that year.

Iran: In Iran, a similar obsession with what was "known" appears to have blind-sided U.S. government policy-makers (and I am being kind here) to what was actually going on in the decision-making centers and the research labs of Iranian missile programs.

Iran did not have the same problems with range that beleaguered the Iraqis. Baghdad has always been within range of Iranian SCUD-Bs, without modification. So all during the 1980s, it was assumed that Iran had no strategic interest in developing longer-range missiles.

After the Iran-Iraq war, the U.S. became concerned with Iranian-North Korean missile cooperation. Early reports, leaked to press, suggested that Iran had purchased SCUD-C missiles with a range of 600+ kilometers. That brought Saudi Arabia, parts of Turkey, and even Pakistan in reach - but, most people felt, so what?

Then in April 1993, reports started to surface in the New York Times and Jane's Intelligence Review, about a deal concluded between Iran and North Korea one month earlier to co-develop the Nodong-2, a new missile with a range in excess of 1,200 kilometers and perhaps as greater as 1,500 kilometers. This would bring Israel into range of Iran for the first time, and received a lot of attention - not only from the press, but from the White House.

I remember approximately one year later by Martin Indyk, who was then the top NSC official dealing with the Middle East, that the U.S. had succeeded in blocking the Nodong-2 program in Iran. This was subsequently billed as an unintended positive consequence of the U.S.-North Korean negotiations over the North Korean nuclear weapons program.

For more than three years, the word in Washington was that Iran's longer-range missile programs had been blocked, because we had succeeded in cutting off their primary source of technology: North Korea.

But guess what: while all eyes were focused on Pyongyang, the Iranians were going elsewhere. It was precisely at this point, when North Korean assistance appears to have stopped or at least slowed, in mid-1994, that the Iranians turned in serious fashion toward Russia for the missile needs. This led eventually to two separate families of intermediate and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the first of which, the Shahab-3, appears to be ready for production later this year. I have chronicled the abysmal failure of the United States government to wake up to reinvigorated Iranian missile programs in the Reader's Digest (Jan. 1998) and my own newsletter, The Iran Brief.

I am convinced - and we can discuss this later on - that the Clinton administration chose at a political level to push aside intelligence information about the Russian assistance to Iran for long enough to be unable to prevent the most critical transfers. As a result, Iran will test-fire its Shahab-3 later this year, and this missile will be deployed where it can threaten U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia and Turkey, as well as Israel, within two years.

Lesson 2: The bad guys are much more skilled than we tend to give them credit for.

Journalists have a term they use to designate nationals of Third World countries where taxis are cheap, security officials monitor your day-to-day contacts, and the trains don't run on time: they call them "rag-heads."

But journalists are not alone in under-estimating the technical skills, the scientific achievements, or the cultural depth of the nations that today threaten U.S. interests in the Middle East the most, Iran and Iraq.

I can remember vividly long conversations in Baghdad hotels with French and German aerospace engineers, who lamented the inability of the Iraqis to use the fabulous technology they were putting at their disposal. One Frenchman from Aérospatiale claimed the Iraqis regularly tried to blame their lack of success with the Exocet missiles on factory defects, when in fact the Iraqis were storing them in open sheds out in the desert. German and Americans I interviewed who were selling machine-tools to the Iraqis never believed they would be able to use them to manufacture anything more sophisticated than a dumb steel-bomb. Surprise. The UN Special Commission for the Disarmament of Iraq, UNSCOM, found these same machine-tools in facilities designed to manufacture HEU bomb cores and tungsten-carbide penetrators.

Iraq continues to have at least 10,000 skilled nuclear scientists and technicians, and tens of thousands more Western-trained engineers who continue to work on new weapons development.

We think they won't succeed in designing a new intermediate--range ballistic missile capable without testing? How do you think the Iraqis have succeeded in pumping any oil over the past five years? It hasn't been through massive infusions of Western technology or spare parts. They have the manpower, and the skills, the make-do with what they have got. The paradigm is not that of Saudi Arabia or the UAE - or even the oil-spoiled Iraq of the 1970s. The comparison should be that of Winston Churchill's Britain under Nazi siege.

While Iran does not feel the same pinch as Iraq as a general rule, the Revolutionary Guards thrive on a similar siege mentality. They have trained tens of thousands of weapons designers over the past 15 years, and have demonstrated a high level of skills both in resolving technical problems, and in beating Western embargoes.

Lesson 3: Our export control system is not merely broken; it is nonexistent.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, we had tools and a relatively solid international consensus in preventing the leakage of Western technology to the Soviet Union through the mechanism of COCOM. Following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait, the Bush administration attempted understandably to adapt COCOM to deal with the emerging proliferation threat. While to many in Europe, this smacked of a U.S. damage-control effort, they nevertheless went along in the beginning because they also recognized the dangers of countries such as Iran or Iraq equipped with WMD.

The dramatic shift in emphasis that began in September 1993 under the Clinton administration to dismantle COCOM, while favoring U.S. computer exports to China, was seen by our allies as the first ever U.S. action that actually corroborated paranoid fantasies that had surfaced periodically over the years that the United States saw COCOM as a means of obtaining commercial advantage over European or Japanese suppliers.

This proved fatal to COCOM; and the organization was dismantled unilaterally by the Clinton administration on April 1, 1994.

Since then, our former COCOM allies have maintained national controls on high-tech exports to the rogue states - and in the case of Germany, they have been very effective. But the U.S. has shown that the lure of exports will get the better of national controls whenever large commercial contracts are at stake (viz., China). The result has been largely a self-fulfilling prophesy. Those who called export controls a "wasting asset" in 1992 - William Perry, Ashton Carton, and Mitchel Wallerstein, the three co-authors of a seminar study by the National Academy of Sciences - were all appointed to senior positions by President Clinton and used their new powers to abolish those controls, regardless of their effectiveness.

We can bemoan the results all we wish. But the result is that our nonproliferation toolbox today is virtually empty.

In a funny way, the Clinton administration has recognized this. When it became imperative to further restrict Iran's access to American technology - because critical dual-use items were slipping through - the administration decided in May 1995 to decree a total trade embargo, knowing they couldn't enforce a selective tightening of export restrictions.

The ultimate downside to this situation is the erosion of any international consensus for control regimes. The administration has contributed to this by inviting known proliferators - Russia and Brazil come first to mind - into regimes such as the MTCR.

To fill this policy void, the Pentagon invented "counter-proliferation."

Prospects

My predictions are bleak, based on what we know from the UNSCOM inspections in Iraq, and what I know from my own reporting on Iran.

• Iraq has maintained a broad-based missile production capability, within the 150-km range-limit imposed by UN Security Council Resolutions. It is clear that Iraq has designed new missiles with a much longer range. Without second-guessing our intelligence experts about existing missiles and launchers the Iraqis have hidden from UNSCOM, it is also clear that Iraq will be able to jump-start a new production program within months, if not weeks, of the end of UN sanctions.

• Iran will succeed in deploying the Shahab-3 within he next 18 months. This will bring Israel into range for the first time, as well as U.S. staging areas in Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Further down the line, Iran may succeed in developing the Shahab-4, with an estimated range of 2000 kilometers, and is known to be working on a second family of solid-fuel ICBMs capable of reaching Western Europe and the east coast of the United States. While those missiles are further out, the speed with which the Iranians developed Shahab-3 (approximately 5 years from the initial Nodong agreement with North Korea to the anticipated test-launch of a production missile later this year) should give us pause when we try to estimate a target deployment date for these missiles.

Given our demonstrated inability of preventing proliferation in these two rogue states, I believe we are in a race with time to see whether our adversaries will succeed first in developing these new missiles, or whether we will be capable of fielding limited theater missile defenses to deter them.

Notes

1 "U.S. Security Policy Toward Rogue Regimes," Subcommittee on International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights, House Committee on Foreign Affairs, July 28 and Sept 14, 1993; ISBN 01-16-043984-1, printed in 1994; with attachments on U.S. dual use exports to Iran.s

2 "Iraq's Nuclear Weapons Capability and IAEA Inspections in Iraq," Joint hearing before the Subcommittees on Europe and the Middle East and International Security, International Organizations and Human Rights of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, June 29, 1993, ISBN 0-16-041691-4. Includes a Staff report written by Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Iraq Rebuilts Its Military Industries."

3 I chronicled the Iraqi weapons program in The Death Lobby: How the West Armed Iraq, Houghton Mifflin, 1991 (also available as a Bantam paperback in the UK and in various foreign language editions).

4 See in particular, Kenneth R. Timmerman, "Missile Threat from Iran," Reader's Digest, January 1998; and various issues of our newsletter, Iran Brief.


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.