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The Message In The Missile

3 minute read
Douglas Waller

The clandestine launch came shortly after 7 a.m. last Wednesday at a hidden site in central Iran, but the secret lasted about as long as a puddle of water in the scorched Iranian desert. Although technicians had tried to camouflage preparations for the missile test, U.S. spy satellites easily picked up the bright white plume as the rocket soared to an arid region in southeast Iran. Within an hour, the CIA’s operations center phoned the White House situation room. Shahab-3 (Farsi for “shooting star”) had taken to the air with an 800-mile range–enough to deliver conventional bombs, or someday nuclear warheads, to Israel, Saudi Arabia, southern Russia or U.S. forces in the Middle East.

Why is Iran saber rattling now, just when President Mohammed Khatami is cultivating nervous Arab neighbors and the West with a more moderate foreign policy? And just when Washington has signaled its readiness to improve relations? Political warfare at home may be the explanation. The country’s supreme leader, Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, controls the missile program, and he has been maneuvering to weaken Khatami ever since voters elected him a year ago on a promise to relax the government’s strict Islamic rule.

Last week a Khamenei-controlled court sentenced Gholamhossein Karabaschi, Tehran’s reformist mayor and a Khatami ally, to five years in jail on corruption charges. The missile test “could be yet another example of the hard-liners’ moving to undermine Khatami,” says Kenneth Katzman, a Congressional Research Service expert on Iran.

Shahab-3’s first flight test wasn’t that impressive. The missile blew up after a flying time of 1 min. 40 sec. The CIA doesn’t yet know if the explosion was an accident or if the Iranians intentionally detonated the missile after its liquid-fuel rocket finished burning. In either case, Shahab-3 is not much of a threat at present. It is based on a design supplied by North Korea, whose missiles are notoriously inaccurate, and Iran may need an additional two years before it can deploy a rocket reliable enough for military operations. In a region full of perils, Shahab-3 is only one more potential menace. U.S. warships in the Persian Gulf can be hit by shorter-range Iranian Scud missiles. And Israel, which reacted calmly to the Iranian launch, already lies within range of Syrian, Egyptian, Saudi and Iraqi missiles.

So far, Israel’s nuclear arsenal has proved enough to deter its old enemies from new aggression. But an Israeli official admits that Tehran’s development of longer-range missiles “is a big deal because the Iranians are not known to follow the same logic as some of our other neighbors.” President Clinton worried aloud that the Iranian missile “could change the regional-stability dynamics in the Middle East.” What that means, says Ian Lesser, an analyst with the Rand Corp., is that in a future crisis, such allies as Saudi Arabia and Turkey won’t be eager to join U.S.-led coalitions against Tehran if “all their population centers are open to Iranian retaliation.”

The Iranian test gives conservatives in Congress a new argument for deployment of ballistic-missile defenses to protect U.S. troops in the Middle East. For the moment, though, the White House won’t drop its effort to improve ties with Iran. Sending friendly signals to President Khatami is even more important now–“to get Iran to stop developing a ballistic-missile program,” a senior Clinton aide insists. Perhaps, but Khatami is not the one with his finger on the launch button.

–By Douglas Waller. With reporting by Lisa Beyer/Jerusalem

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