Defense Expert Discusses Iran's Missile CapabilitiesJune 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Iran's chief nuclear negotiator, Ali Larijani, has called the U.S. missile-defense initiative in Europe the "joke of the year." Larijani says Tehran's current missile arsenal cannot reach Europe and adds that it would be illogical for Tehran to attack Europe, which is Iran's most important commercial partner. But Doug Richardson, the editor of the London-based defense journal "Jane's Missiles And Rockets," tells RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz that Iranian missiles probably can already reach parts of Europe. He adds that Iran appears to be developing long-range missiles that could reach Italy, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic.
RFE/RL: Iranian National Security Council Secretary Larijani reportedly has described the U.S. missile-defense shield for Europe as "the joke of the year," saying Iranian missiles do not have the range to reach Europe. Do Iranian missiles now have the capability to reach European targets from Iranian territory?
Doug Richardson: They do have a capability to hit some of Eastern Europe and southern Russia but not particularly deep into those countries. Obviously, we don't have very solid information on Iran's missiles, they don't release a lot of information but we think that their Shahab-3 has got a range about 1,300 kilometers while it's improved the version of Shahab-3A, it's stretched its length to get some more fuel into the tanks and they've cut the weight of the warhead by more than half; we think that can do up to 1,800 kilometers. Now if you look at the map of Europe, Volgograd is 1,100 kilometers from Iran and certainly Volgograd was in Europe the last time I looked. That sort of narrow range would get you just about to Istanbul; there's certainly no argument that bit of Turkey is in Europe, that's about 1,400 kilometers from just inside the Iranian border. If you move to the longer-range figure (1,800 kilometers), then you get more cities of East Europe starting to come into range. Eighteen hundred [kilometers] will give you Iran to Kyiv, just about Iran to Athens, I suspect, Iran to Bucharest.
RFE/RL: What about Iran's plans to develop longer-range missiles in the future? What kind of range are they trying to develop and how far could those missiles reach from Iran?
Richardson: In order to get to Moscow you would have to get a missile of 2,000 kilometers range. We hear rumors of such developments from Iran but nothing very firm. We honestly don't have any real hard information on Iran's future missile plans, we've heard talk of something allegedly called the Shahab-3B; the story is rather vague. The reports talked about 2,000-2,500-kilometer range. There've been reports [about] Shahab-4 [but] the Iranians have said there is no such thing as Shahab-4. We have seen some pronouncement that there is a Shahab-4 but it's not a missile, it's going to be a satellite-launch vehicle. So there's just no hard information. We know they are doing a lot of rocket development work, 2,500 would not quite get you to Rome, it would probably get you to Zagreb, Budapest, you'd get most of Slovakia, it would get you a bit into the Czech Republic [and] up to Warsaw, Minsk, and not quite St. Petersburg.
RFE/RL: Who is helping Iran develop its long-range missiles?
Richardson: It's largely being done, we think, with help from North Korea. But they are probably becoming much more self-independent and self-supporting. [Iran] needed help to get started with the Shahab, so they worked in conjunction with the North Koreans, who were working on their No-Dong missile program. But [Iran] has probably got enough expertise now to be able to do most of this themselves. Whether there is a fertilization path directly from Iran to Pakistan, that I don't know. I don't think anyone outside the world of the intelligence services [knows].
RFE/RL: What do you think about Larijani's description of the U.S. [missile-defense plan] in Europe as "the joke of the year"?
Richardson: When politicians start talking about "jokes of the year," they are usually making political statements. Obviously, the U.S. Department of Defense must feel that it has credible evidence that Iran is working on much longer-range missiles, or has the capability to develop much longer-range missiles. Otherwise, it wouldn't be developing and putting this amount of money into potential defenses against them.
RFE/RL: Russia has said the U.S. missile-defense shield plans for Europe [are] targeted at the Russian missile system. Do you agree?
Richardson: The U.S. missile-defense shield is going to be a relatively small number of interceptors. It is focused very much on rogue states -- North Korea, Iran, countries that might be able to develop nuclear weapons and a small number of ballistic missiles. The Russians have been complaining recently that they see the plan to put U.S. ballistic missile interceptors in Poland as being aimed at their system.
But the basic laws of geography suggest it is not. Ballistic missiles from Russia being fired, say, at the United States, are going to fly up over the polar region. They are going to go nowhere near Warsaw. So a ballistic missile interceptor fired from Poland would have a very hard time trying to catch a Russian missile because the Russian missile would be traveling at right angles to its flight path. Essentially, the inceptor would be doing a tail chase. It would be trying to catch something that is going faster than it is. It just wouldn't [be able to] do it.
RFE/RL: Do you think the U.S. missile-defense shield plans for Europe are meant to protect Israel and Europe from Iranian missiles in the future, or is it meant more as a protective shield for the United States?
Richardson: The full range performance of the American ballistic-missile [interceptor] system has simply never been released. They have not given any hard figures as to [its] range and height capability. If you look at where the missiles are being deployed, or [where] there is talk of them being deployed, and then start looking at the potential trajectories from Iran and North Korea to the continental United States, then those existing deployments and announced deployment sites make sense. That's what they are aimed to deal with -- attacks on the continental United States of America from either the Middle East and Iran area or from North Korea. If you plot a great circle trajectory -- as navigators call it -- from North Korea to different places in the USA, or from Iran to different places in the USA, you can see that those paths are getting close to the locations where America is planning to deploy its ballistic missile interceptors.Click to enlarge the image.
Are Iranian Arms Flowing Into Iraqi, Afghan Conflict Zones?
U.S. and European officials are expressing concern that increased shipments of Iranian-made weapons are reaching Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq and Taliban militants in Afghanistan.
The officials say the weaponry includes rockets of the same type that Hizballah has used to attack Israel, plus sophisticated explosive devices, believed to originate in Iran, which have already killed many U.S. soldiers in Iraq.
Ongoing arms shipments would complicate attempts to end the fighting in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and would further strain the West's relations with Iran.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said on May 27 the United States has "solid evidence" that Iranians are supplying arms to Iraqi militant groups. Crocker said the Quds Force of the elite Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) is the channel through which the weaponry is supplied.
Iran strenuously denies the accusations.
The latest items reportedly arriving in Iraq include the Fajr-3 rocket, which has a range of 50 kilometers and was used successfully by the Hizballah Shi'ite militia in Lebanon to attack targets in northern Israel. Iraqi insurgents have already used Fajr-3's -- their longest-range rocket -- to strike at targets inside Baghdad's heavily guarded Green Zone.
In Afghanistan, U.S. forces and British NATO forces have reported seizing shipments of Iranian-made arms ranging from mortars, to rocket-propelled grenades, and small arms, in the southern Helmand Province and elsewhere.
U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, speaking at a press conference in Kabul today, said it is unclear whether such weapons are being sent by Iranian authorities.
Senior analyst Paul Ingram, of the British American Security Information Council, casts doubt on whether the Iranian government would supply arms on any scale to the Taliban. He notes, for one thing, that Iran is predominantly Shi'ite, while the Taliban are Sunni Muslims. In addition, Iran took an active part in the U.S.-led campaign to oust the ruling Taliban militia in 2001.
"It would be extremely surprising if Iran were actively and coherently behind the Taliban and supporting them with military supplies," Ingram says.
Potentially the deadliest development for the U.S.-led coalition forces and the NATO-led forces in Afghanistan is the apparent arrival of powerful roadside bombs of the type that has claimed the lives of many U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Known as the explosively formed projectile (EFP), the device is able to pierce armor. The type is thought to be of Iranian design.
AP reported from Kabul that an unexploded EFP was found near a university campus in the Afghan capital last week, and several others were earlier found in Herat, near the Iranian border.
As to whether the Iranian arms are arriving in Afghanistan as a result of commercial purchases on the arms market, analyst Ingram says the international arms trade is pervasive, and its channels are many and murky.
He notes that Iraqi insurgents have mostly Western arms.
"A large proportion of the weapons being used by the insurgents in Iraq are actually American or European in origin -- not because they are being supplied by those governments but because the weapons have found their way either through the security forces, or commercial dealings, into the hands of the insurgents," Ingram says.
Just how murky arms deliveries can get is illustrated by the surprise that Turkish authorities received on May 29, when they reported discovering a clandestine shipment of arms aboard a train traveling from Iran to Syria. There has been no word on the final destination of those weapons arms.
Meanwhile, Iran, for its part, says it has found U.S.-made weapons on the bodies of Iranian rebels it claims were trying to infiltrate into Iran from Turkey. Iran claims that U.S. and British intelligence are supporting Iranian antigovernment rebels in border areas.