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Analysis From Washington: Capabilities And Intentions

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 24 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's successful test of a medium-range ballistic missile has triggered a debate about what this new capability says about Iran's intentions.

According to U.S. government sources, Iran successfully testfired the new missile on Wednesday. Based on a North Korean design, the Shahab 3 has a range greater than 1,600 kilometers. And it thus has the potential to reach targets in Israel, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern countries.

But what does this new capability indicate about Iran's intentions both immediately and over the longer term?

Some observers, including White House spokesman Michael McCurry, have suggested that the test is contrary to the interests of peace and stability in the region. And they suggest that the acquisition of this new capability shows that Tehran has not changed its approach to international affairs.

But other commentators have suggested that the acquisition of this new weapons system by itself does not say much about what Iran's precise intentions are likely to be. Having such a missile system, they suggest, does not mean that Iran can use it or even use the possession of it to influence its neighbors.

In a situation of minimal information and trust, Iran's neighbors have little choice but to treat Tehran's acquisition of this new weapon as an indication of its intention to play a bigger role in the region. No country acquires such a system if it does not think that having such a weapon will bring real benefits.

But even then, the imputation of specific intentions on the basis of capabilities can often exacerbate an already difficult situation.

If governments in the Middle East assume that Iran's possession of such a weapon means that Tehran plans to use it, they may take steps that could convert that assumption into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Even more, they may miss opportunities to explore the chances for a dialogue that could reduce the chances of such systems ever being employed.

Indeed, U.S. State Department spokesman James Rubin seemed to come down on that side of the debate. At a briefing on Thursday, he said that Washington was extremely concerned about Iran's development of such a weapon but nonetheless hoped to "have an opportunity" to discuss its position with Tehran.

On the one hand, this debate reflects some of the specific features of Iran and its relationship with the outside world since the Islamic Revolution in 1979. But on the other, it reflects a broader feature of the international system.

Throughout history, countries frequently have assessed the intentions of their competitors by considering the capabilities those competitors have developed. When one country builds a bigger ship, a longer range airplane, or a better missile, its competitors have tended to assume that the possession of such systems represents a clear indication of just what that country intends.

And they have often responded either by seeking to match the accomplishments of the other or by developing some kind of defensive capability to counter any innovation.

Such a response invariably appears to be prudent to those who take it. But it can have the effect of making the situation worse both directly -- yet another country acquires more sophisticated weapons -- and by prompting the first country to redouble its efforts in the hope of maintaining its advantage.

And arms races of this kind can lead to the very disastrous outcomes that most nations generally seek to avoid.

Obviously, countries must be concerned about the introduction of a new and more dangerous weapons system and should not respond by developing their own defensive capability.

Rather it is to suggest that in this debate, each side has part of the truth but neither has a monopoly. Those who suggest that they can read intentions from capabilities and thus argue for developing a defensive capacity are following a logic that has served many leaders well in the past.

But so too are those who argue that intentions may be different than capabilities and that those who must decide how to respond should take what steps they can to determine if there may be a difference between the two.