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Iran: Missile Tests Show Country Can't Be Ignored

  • Michael Lelyveld

Boston, 5 August 1998 (RFE/RL) - Iran has sent a powerful message to Central Asia and nearby nations with its recent missile test: the interests of the Islamic Republic are not to be ignored.

Last month's launch of Iran's new medium-range missile deepened concern about an arms race in the region, particularly in light of the nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in May.

There are many possible interpretations of Iran's motives for demonstrating the Shahab-3 missile. Tehran initially had no comment on the flight after it was detected by U.S. surveillance, but it has since insisted that the weapon is strictly for defense.

The obvious concern for Israel is that the missile's 1,300-kilometer range would bring the country within reach. Most analysts believe there is reason for close vigilance but not overreaction, because Israel could respond with overwhelming force.

It is more likely that Iran's real concerns are closer to home, and there is no shortage of them. The English-language Iran News cited the experience of the Iran-Iraq War as the first reason for developing such weapons. The Tehran Times argued that the world is divided into two blocs of the "strong and weak where the might is right." Neither paper specifically mentioned Israel as a reason for developing the missile.

With Afghanistan's Taliban next door and the sudden nuclear prowess of India and Pakistan, Iran certainly does not wish to be left behind in the world of the weak. As Iraq increases oil output and looks forward to an eventual lifting of sanctions, Iran may be expected to emphasize strength and insist, as it has, that it can make missiles without outside help.

But other neighbors must also wonder whether their relative weakness has now become even greater than it was before the missile test. As Central Asian and Caspian Sea nations struggle with the division of resources and decisions on export routes, a stronger Iran will have to be taken into account.

Iran's missile test could have been months in preparation. But it is notable that it took place just one week after Tehran publicly rejected an agreement between Russia and Kazakhstan to divide the northern portion of the Caspian Sea. The pact contradicted Russia's long-held insistence that all littoral states consent to any Caspian legal division.

Iran's objection led to a hasty mission to Tehran by Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Boris Pastukhov and a face-saving bilateral statement that did nothing to paper over the differences. The talks ended only two days before the missile test.

If anything, the launch created more difficulties for Moscow, which had announced investigations of nine suspected missile proliferators because of U.S. pressure, only one week before. Iran's test may be viewed as a demonstration that it is determined to maintain its weapons capability, even if foreign technology is cut off.

But the political side-effects may be as important as the military impacts. Iran is also trying to prevent the struggles over Caspian division and pipeline access from dissolving into a series of bilateral deals that could leave it with no role at all.

If it hopes to prevent other Caspian littoral states from succumbing to Russian and U.S. pressures, Iran must keep countries like Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan from assuming that they only have the two superpowers to please.

The message of the missile to a neighboring nation like Turkmenistan is that Iran represents a major force that is prepared to defend its interests. Last week, Turkmenistan received Richard Morningstar, the U.S. State Department's top official on aiding former Soviet nations, who is pressing the republic to agree on building a trans-Caspian pipeline to avoid Iran. The U.S. government has awarded a contract for a feasibility study to Enron Corp., while others like Amoco Corp. have announced plans for the project. Turkey now appears to agree with the United States on excluding an Iranian route for Turkmen gas.

Iran has previously warned Turkmenistan in strong terms against disregarding Tehran's interests. In April, Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said the trans-Caspian project would be "a violation of the rights of other littoral states."

"We will not allow the others to make a one-sided decision," said Kharrazi. Such threats will have little effect on Washington and Moscow, but they may be taken more seriously in Ashgabat which has little power and no security guarantees.

One major sticking point for the trans-Caspian line is Turkmenistan's border dispute over the Kyapaz-Serdar oil field, which is also claimed by Azerbaijan. Baku has said that the pipeline could still proceed without a settlement, but Turkmenistan has held out for a resolution.

It would not be surprising to see Turkmenistan prolong the dispute as a way to slow the Caspian project under pressure from Iran.