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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 29, August - September 1998

Iran Tests Medium-Range Ballistic Missile

On 22 July, Iran successfully conducted a test flight of a medium-range ballistic missile, the Shahab-3. According to Iran's Defence Minister, Ali Shamkhani, speaking on Iranian television on 25 July, the missile has a maximum range of 780 miles (1,300 kilometres). Shamkhani told his audience: "The defence policy of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been based on increasing the capability to deter. In view of the developments in regions that are close to us and those that are far from us, Iran has been determined to ensure a lasting peace and, consequently, it has made investments to address some of its defence needs." The Minister added: "At the moment we don't have any...plans to produce these missiles, but if we feel this need, we would do so."

Shamkhani insisted that the missile had been "absolutely domestically produced." Further details were given on 2 August by General Mohammed Baghar Qalibaf, head of the Air Wing of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards. According to the General: "It is a ballistic missile and can carry a one-ton warhead at a cruising altitude of 250 kilometres [155 miles] above sea-level." Qalibaf also specified the length - 53 feet (16 metres) - and speed - 4,300 miles (7,000 kilometres) per hour - of the missile. He concluded: "The final test of every weapon is in a real war situation but, given its warhead and size, the Shahab-3 is a very accurate weapon."

Initial US reaction came from White House spokesperson Mike McCurry (23 July): "It's a source of concern to us that they are pursuing a programme of this nature... One single missile test does not change the balance of power, but what you learn is that the direction and intent of programmes can tell you more about what their posture is with respect to military balance in the region."

McCurry added that the US was convinced the Shahab-3 was based on the design of North Korea's Rodong missile, and that its development had been made possible significantly as a consequence of North Korean assistance. Iran's "acquisition of North Korean missile technology," McCurry said, "is fully consistent with what we have been worried about for some time."

On 28 July, US Assistant Secretary of State Martin Indyk gave a grim assessment of the implications of the test - one which acknowledged the possibility that Iran's aim is to equip its ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads:

"The test that we saw last week did not come as a surprise. ... The writing is on the wall in the sense that we should expect that sometime in the not-too-distant future they will deploy a medium-range ballistic missile. ... We have worked hard to prevent Iran's acquisition of medium- and long-range missile systems and to slow down its acquisition after a recognition that preventing it from acquiring them was unlikely to succeed... We have long been concerned about Iran's nuclear programme and we believe that it does have a clandestine nuclear weapons programme. We see them seeking to acquire technologies for that programme that are quite disturbing to us."

Speaking on 23 July, State Department spokesperson James Rubin stressed the dangerous implications of Shahab-3 deployment, even conventionally-armed: "Once the Shahab-3 is made operational, Iran will have the ability to strike more distant targets - including Israel, portions of Russia, Turkey and Saudi Arabia... At that point it would have an impact strategically."

The Republican Party was quick to blame the Administration for not having done enough to prevent the development. House Speaker Newt Gingrich (Georgia) stated angrily on 23 July: "We've been telling the Administration for over a year the Russians are helping the Iranians. We are tired of the Clinton-Gore Administration misleading us." The Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Near East and South Asian Affairs, Sam Brownback (Kansas) said (23 July) that the test creates "a new and incredibly more dangerous environment for the Middle East."

Many other States have expressed concern at the test. Israel complained that, in the words of Government spokesperson Moshe Fogel (23 July), it had "been ringing for years the alarm bells about Iran's military weapons build-up, which poses a potential threat not only to Israel but to the West and Israel's neighbours." Japan's Vice Foreign Minister, Shunji Yania, told reporters on 27 July that the test "could seriously impact regional stability and global security."

Editor's note: On 3 August - partly as a means of registering its displeasure at the missile test - the US House of Representatives voted, by a margin of 405 votes to 13, to reduce the US contribution to the International Atomic Energy Agency in protest at the Agency's agreement to monitor the construction and operation of civil nuclear reactors to be constructed by Russia in the Iranian town of Bushehr. In the words of one of the resolutions' most prominent supporters, Robert Menendez (Democrat - New Jersey): "It is ludicrous for the United States to support in any way a plant even indirectly which could pose a threat to the United States and to stability in the Middle East." An opponent of the measure, Lee Hamilton (Democrat - Indiana) complained that it would "make the IAEA less effective in meeting its responsibilities for international safety and security." Hamilton added:

"This is a feel-good bill. We think we are doing something about a problem when in fact we are not... This bill is not going to stop, it is not going to slow, Iran's civilian nuclear power reactor programme. It will not make Iran's nuclear facilities any safer, it will not prevent the troublesome Bushehr facilities from being developed."

The measure also mandates the Secretary of State to report annually to the House on the compatibility of all IAEA programmes with US non-proliferation policy and objectives.

According to reports, the IAEA is planning to spend $1.5 million between 1997-99 on its work at Bushehr. The funds are drawn from the Agency's technical assistance programme, nearly a third ($16 million) of the budget of which was supplied by the United States in 1996.

Reports: Iran tests Rodong-type missile, US says, Kyodo, 23 July; Iran tests medium-range missile, Associated Press, 23 July; US concerned with Iran missile test, Reuters, 23 July; GOP alarmed by Iranian missile test, Associated Press, 24 July; Iran confirms missile test, United Press International, 26 July; Iran - new missile for defense only, Associated Press, 26 July; Japan expresses concerns over Iranian missile tests, Kyodo, 27 July; US - Iran medium-range missile deployed soon, Reuters, 28 July; Iran says it produced missile alone, Associated Press, 30 July; Iran provides details of missile, Associated Press, 2 August; House cuts nuclear money over Iran, Associated Press, 3 August; House votes to block IAEA funds for Iran, Reuters, 4 August.

© 1998 The Acronym Institute.

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