Iran Test-Fires Long-Range Missile

 Jon Wolfsthal
Jon Wolfsthal (Courtesy of CSIS)
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Jon Wolfsthal
Senior Fellow, International Security Program, CSIS
Wednesday, July 9, 2008; 1:00 PM

Iran said today it had test-fired a long-range missile capable of reaching Israel and U.S. troops in the region, a step promptly condemned by the Bush administration as heightening tensions over the country's suspected nuclear weapons program.

The roughly 1,200 mile range of Iran's Shahab-3 rocket has been known for several years, but the test firing -- and pointed statements from Tehran about the country's "capability in hitting its enemies" -- added to a tense climate.

Jon Wolfsthal, senior fellow in the International Security Program at the CSIS (Center for Strategic and International Studies), said in an interview with that while the test is likely a response to recent war games by Israel, reportedly to simulate an attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, the test is also likely meant to remind states in the region and the United States that Iran has the ability to respond to any perceive military threat. How the United States, European countries and Russia respond to the continued tensions in the region will determine whether the situation improves or deteriorates further.

Wolfsthal was online Wednesday, July 9, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the situation and world reaction.

A transcript follows.


Jon Wolfsthal: Good Afternoon. Thanks for joining the discussion on Iran. I am looking forward to a good discussion. Of course, there are a lot of things to talk about, including the recent missile test by Iran, Tehran's continued pursuit of nuclear technology and the broader issue of how to best ensure America's security in the region and that of its allies. I'll try to get to as many questions as I can.

Thanks again


Miami, Fla.: If we were to place the Shahab-3 alongside four other missiles, such as the Iraqi Scud, the Israeli missile fired last month, a typical Minuteman, and the missile used in our Star Wars tests, which of these would it resemble?

Jon Wolfsthal: The Shahab-3 is, in fact, based on scud missile technology. Iran acquired the missile systems and the means to produce them from North Korea. So both in origin and in capabilities, it would be most similar to the scud missiles originally deployed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s. North Korea has been able to extend the range of the system to 1300km or so, but it is not clear how much further the missile system may be able to travel.


Los Angeles, Calif.: I find it hypocritical to condemn Iran's missile tests while supporting Israel's aerial war games in the Mediterranean. I find it hypocritical to condemn Iran's bellicose language, while echoing Israel's equally bellicose language. I find it hypocritical to criticize IAEA-member Iran's uranium enrichment program, while supporting in arms and cash and moral standing the country that introduced nuclear weapons to the Middle East and refuses to join the IAEA.

Am I the only one?

Jon Wolfsthal: There are a lot of people who are concerns that Iran is being singled out and that Israel's action are not viewed in the same light. From my perspective, each case has to be dealt with on its own merits. In the case of Iran, it has signed onto the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and promised to put all nuclear activities under inspection. It has now been determined that for over 20 years, Iran lied about its activities and violated its obligations to put activities under inspection. Therefore, in the case of Iran, there is reason to be concerned.

Personally, I don't think that Israel's war games were helpful just as I don't think the missile test by Iran will help lead to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.

Jon Wolfsthal: There are a lot of people who are concerns that Iran is being singled out and that Israel's action are not viewed in the same light. From my perspective, each case has to be dealt with on its own merits. In the case of Iran, it has signed onto the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and promised to put all nuclear activities under inspection. It has now been determined that for over 20 years, Iran lied about its activities and violated its obligations to put activities under inspection. Therefore, in the case of Iran, there is reason to be concerned.

Personally, I don't think that Israel's war games were helpful just as I don't think the missile test by Iran will help lead to a peaceful resolution of the current crisis.


New York, N.Y.: Big stupid context question. Why is Iran so obsessed with Israel anyway? Iran doesn't have a border with Israel, they don't have a big Palestinian population, they're not even ARAB, they've never had any territorial conflict with Israel, they have non overlapping spheres of influence ... basically, why care? Being Arab and Muslim doesn't automatically turn you into a crazed anti-Israeli mouth-breather; look at Morocco and Jordan.

Jon Wolfsthal: I think, in fact, it is an important question. I am always careful when trying to interpret what Iran's leadership is thinking since we don't have a very good set of insights into Iran's government or leaders, but we can guess at a few basics.

Israel is a rallying cry in the region for a number of reasons. The long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is seen as a continuation, by some, as outside suppression of the region - including both Arabs and Persians. This conflict is very real for people of the region. At the same time, governments - including in Iran can use this conflict as a way of distracting its own people from domestic problems or as a way to create patriotism/nationalism.


Washington, D.C.: Any significance to the fact oil dropped $9 this week before Iran fired 9 test shots?

Jon Wolfsthal: It is hard to link any one action to changes in the price of oil and vice versa, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest that Iran is benefiting from the high price of oil and that it is in Tehran's interest to maintain tensions, in part, to ensure that the price of oil remains high. This can be said of some other countries as well.


Anonymous: How MRBM many Shahab-3 do the Iranians have and how many are they building?

Jon Wolfsthal: I have not seen reliable information on how many Shahab-3 missiles Iran might possess, but the systems likely number in the dozens. We don't have very good information about how reliable these systems might be, but they are based on very old technology and Iran has suffered for many years from poor quality control in their military systems. While they might prove effective, they should not be confused with some of the modern, advanced, highly accurate missiles in the arsenal of the United States or other more advanced countries.


Detroit, Mich.: It seems as if the Iranians, with their nuclear program, missile firings, rhetoric, etc., actually are trying to provoke Israel into delivering a military strike on Iran. Do you think this is true and if so what are the benefits to Iran from the possibility of such a strike? (e.g., possibly driving a wedge between the U.S. and the Muslim world?)

Jon Wolfsthal: Part of the challenge in developing a sound policy toward Iran is that it is not clear who is in control of all of the government's operations. In fact, we know that their system of government was designed specifically to prevent any one person or office from accumulating too much power. So it is hard to say that a particular action is designed to do one thing.

However, some people believe that the President of Iran or more conservative elements from the government might think they would benefit politically from an attack. The thinking goes that an attack from the US or Israel would unite the people around the government. If the government is unpopular, the thinking goes, an external threat might lead people to rally around the flag despite their concerns about domestic politics.

I don't necessarily believe in this thinking, but it is not possible to discount the idea that some in Iran might think this way. The vast majority of Iranians and a good portion of their government would like to improve relations with the United States, in my opinion.


Canada: I am worried that we are getting closer to a US or Israeli attack. What are your thoughts?

Jon Wolfsthal: It is impossible to discount the possibility that the United States or Israel might take action against Iran's nuclear program. Personally, I do not think such a strike is likely in the near future, and I do not think it would be likely to achieve a successful result because Iran would be able to reconstitute a nuclear program even after a strike.

I am much more concerned about a crisis being sparked and getting out of hand by unexpected developments. Last year's capture by Iran of British sailors, the direct linking of an American death in Iraq to Iranian agents, and several other scenarios could quickly become a major crisis and lead to a larger conflict that neither state wants or would benefit from. This is one of the reasons I believe we need to pursue more direct engagement with Iran.


Washington DC: What was Sen. Lieberman's reaction to the latest development? Will this make him feel more urgent to get us into the war with Iran?

Jon Wolfsthal: I have not seen any reaction from Senator Lieberman.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: McCain proposes a missile defense system to defend Europe from these missiles. What missile defense system (Patriot, THAAD, or ballistic) would be used to counter these Shahab 3 missiles?

Jon Wolfsthal: The United States is pushing to deploy a missile defense radar in the Czech Republic and a small number of long-range missile interceptors in Poland. These are longer-range than either the PAC-3 or THAAD and have not yet been proven to work. The Shahab-3 missile cannot reach Europe and these systems are being built to counter an Iranian threat that has not yet materialized. It may in the future, but it is not here yet.

It is not clear to me why the Bush administration is pushing to build missile defense that has yet to be proven effective in Europe. I would prefer that we wait until we have a system that we know works before deploying it in Europe.


Baltimore, Md./: How do you think the worst case scenario plays out? Israel bombs enrichment facility and then what? How will regional neighbors respond/react?

Jon Wolfsthal: I think it is hard to predict how such a scenario plays out, and there are so many variables that it suggests we should take great care to avoid the worst case from coming about. Iran has the ability to strike targets in Israel, Iraq and throughout the Middle East. It also has proven it is willing to use proxies to carry out military attacks in the past.

At the same time, we have to be worried about what might happen if Iran acquires the ability to produce a nuclear weapon. This is a terrible scenario that must be avoided.

It is one of the reasons I have been concerned that we do not have a very effective policy toward Iran right now and that we need to explore other, more innovative options to head of a nuclear Iran or a war with Iran.


San Francisco, Calif.: Iran used to get along better with Israel; Iran was the second country to recognize Israel, after the United States. Then the U.S. overthrew Iran's democratically-elected government in 1953 and installed the Shah's repressive regime. Iran's current hostility toward the U.S. and Israel is a consequence of our past actions.

Jon Wolfsthal: There is, indeed, a long history between the United States, Israel and Iran. There are a few excellent books on this history that have come out recently, including one by Barbara Slavin called Bitter Friends, Bosom Enemies. Trita Parsi has also recently come out with an excellent book on the three countries called "The Secret Dealings of Israel, Iran, and the United States."

Iran often cites the 1953 coup as a major offense, just as the US cites the 1979 hostage crisis. The question is will we be forever bound by our history or can we create a new kind of relationship with Iran.


Colorado Springs, Colo.: Is the longer range Iranian missile a serious threat to the U.S.?

Jon Wolfsthal: Iran has no missile in its arsenal or in development that can reach the United States.


Fairfax, Va.: Isn't it possible that the Shabab-3 missiles could be targeted at American bases in Iraq, as a response to George Bush's rhetoric against Iran?

Jon Wolfsthal: Iran has missile systems that can reach targets in Irq. The accuracy of these systems is not very good, so it is not clear if they could hit their intended targets.

It is very unlikely, however, that Iran would commit an act of war against Iraq. It is improving its relations wit the Maliki government and is winning favor with the Iraqi people. Any such strike would undermine Iran's ambitions in Iraq.


Richmond, Va.: I noticed that the U.S. intelligence report said that Iran had stopped it's nuclear weapons program in 2003, the same time its arch enemy Saddam Hussein was ousted. They may have kept it in secret since they assumed Saddam was building his own so it was just the prudent thing to do since they had a long war with him previously. It isn't always about the U.S.

And what's to stop Iran from just dropping out of the non-proliferation treaty since apparently there is not much in the way of consequences if you don't belong (India, Pakistan, Israel)?

Jon Wolfsthal: You make a good point. We don't know exactly why Iran suspended its nuclear weapon design efforts in 2003. It could be because Saddam was deposed, or because the US position was very strong. At the same time, it is possible that Iran had already reached a level of technology that allowed it to stop development of a warhead in 2003. We don't know, just as we don't know for sure that this work has not restarted.


Boston, Mass.: Iran has threatened destruction to U.S. military personnel in the area if Israel attacks, along with forcibly closing the Strait of Hormuz. Is there any real chance that Iran could legitimately threaten U.S. warships, or do enough damage to close the Strait of Hormuz?

Jon Wolfsthal: Iran has a number of ways that it could respond to a military attack. These include a variety of ways it could target US forces or interests in the Middle East. Iran's small ships present a threat to shipping in the gulf and could present a threat to US warships in the region. Iran also deployed surface to ship cruise missiles deployed near the Straits of Hormuz.


Leeds, U.K.: Israel has been threatened on numerous occasions by the president of Iran and other officials. The threat that is being made is existential. Does the Israeli government not have a responsibility to protect its citizens and could one not argue that a preemptive attack would be justified, possibly even by international law. Is Israel being singled out for being concerned about a nuclear attack by a totalitarian regime?

Jon Wolfsthal: All states have the right to self-defense. This is enshrined in the UN Charter. I am not a legal expert, and it is not for me to say if a state has a right to take pre-emptive steps against a potential threat. My personal perception is that Israel does not want to provoke a war with Iran and that Iran is not yet able to strike at Israel. In addition, it is not clear to me that the people who have real power in Iran - a list of people that does not include President Ahmadinejad - want to attack Israel.


Washington, D.C.: We often hear about a split between "hardliners" and "reformers" in Iran. Were the "reformers" to gain power in Iran, should we expect to see a radically different policy toward Israel, the U.S. and the development of nuclear weapons? By the way, I hear you're a Yankees fan. The Yanks are up 1- 0 in the bottom of the 2nd.

Jon Wolfsthal: People who know a lot more than I do about the internal workings of Iran tend not to use the term "reformer." According to Iran experts, the battle is between arch-conservatives (i.e., Ahmadinejad) and pragmatic conservatives (Larijani and Rafsanjani).

That being said, I don't know that we can predict that Iran would radically change its policies toward Israel or the US should the pragmatic conservatives gain power. I would prefer to deal with a more moderate Iran, but as Secretary Perry once said about North Korea, we have to deal with it as it is, not as we might wish it to be. Since we can't predict the future, we should deal with the situation we have now.

I believe Joe Girardi (manager of the Yankees) would agree with me.


Richmond, Va.: Just playing devil's advocate here but if Iran gets a nuclear weapon, so what? It's not like they could use it without ceasing to exist? You could argue they'd pass it along to terrorists but they have to know it would probably get traced back to them with the same outcome. Ahmadinejad is a bit loopy but he doesn't control the military, Khamenei does.

Thanks for taking our questions.

Jon Wolfsthal: The idea that we could live with a nuclear Iran is not one I am prepared to accept. Some used to make the same argument with regards to Pakistan. Their development of nuclear weapons has been a major security challenge, despite the fact that the US and Pakistan have been at time close allies.

Any country that gains nuclear weapon capabilities is one more country we have to be concerned about. It could use these weapons, transfer them, or might not be capable or willing to effectively secure these weapons. It is a scenario we should seek to avoid.


Chicago, Ill.: While the Iranian missile may not be capable to carry the Iranian nuclear bomb, they are certainly capable of delivering a dirty bomb. For country as small as Israel, this is not much better than real nuclear attack. Do you think this will be a realistic scenario? And what is the implication?

Jon Wolfsthal: A dirty bomb is one that does not produce an atomic explosion, but that disperses radioactive nuclear material. The severity of such a bomb depends greatly on the kind of materials used. Any attack against Israel would create a regional crisis and should be avoided. A radiological attack would be a major escalation by Iran. but without knowing the exact kinds of materials that would be used, it is hard to predict the precise consequences.


Reston, Va.: Sir, You and Obama, who you no doubt support, say we should be talking to Iran. But you never offer specifics. What should we offer them? Israel? And how long do these talks continue, even while Iran continues to build its bombs? Europe has been talking to them for years, and it has accomplished nothing!

Jon Wolfsthal: I do support the idea of engaging with Iran directly. I am not sure why, however, you should assume that this means the US will offer anything more or less than we are already offering them through the European-led negotiating effort. The Bush administration has signed onto a serious set of proposals that has been presented to Iran.

I would maintain that the reason the European effort has not produced major results is because the US is not fully on board. Iran knows that the Bush administration has not been fully supportive of their efforts, as as such is holding out to see what the US might do in the future. The US is the world's only superpower and Iran is holding out for us to compromise.

That being said, I am not sure why the onus is on those who propose a change in policy. The current policy with the US not engaging is clearly not working. Not engaging has brought Iran to its current and growing nuclear capability. It is possible that by engaging directly, we can get more traction on sanctions and encourage more moderate powers in Iran to push for a compromise. More of the same policy, however, is likely to bring more of the same results.


Oslo, Norway: If Israel attacks Iran, wouldn't it have the right to retaliate? Wouldn't any country do the same? Who do you think would ultimately win an all-out non-nuclear war between Israel and Iran as long as the U.S. didn't intervene?

Jon Wolfsthal: If Iran were to attack Israel, they would clearly have the legal right to respond.

I think both countries and the region would suffer as a result. The United States would also suffer and, as a result, we should be doing all we can to make sure that such a conflict never materializes.


Jon Wolfsthal: Correction: I misread the question regarding a possible Israeli attack against Iran and would like to respond to the question as asked.

If Israel were to conduct a military strike against Iran, then Iran would have the right to defend itself, as per the UN Charter which enshrines the right of self-defense. Israel or any other country for that matter would have the same right to self-defense. It is not clear to me if such a right would extend to attacking the homeland of the attacker.

I am not a lawyer, so I don't know how the law would handle a case where Israel conducted a strike its claimed was pre-emptive, which I assume is the scenario the questioner has in mind. Regardless, Iran would clearly try to respond to any attack by Israel or the United States, just as Israel would do the same in the face of an attack from Iran, etc. What is clear to my mind is that such a scenario would be a disaster for both countries and should be avoided if at all possible.


Jon Wolfsthal: Wow, one hour went by really fast. Thanks for some very interesting questions. I hope the asks me back again soon.

You can always find more information about these issues at

Have a great day.

Jon Wolfsthal


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