Fri, Jul 11, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Iran's missile program poses regional worries

The defense program now boasts medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads

By Alistair Lyon  /  REUTERS , LONDON

If you want respect, show muscle -- or so Iranian leaders may have reasoned when they confirmed their completion of tests of a medium-range ballistic missile capable of hitting Israel and other countries in the region.

Already accused by the US of seeking nuclear arms and delivery systems, Iran announced on Monday that the "final test" of the Shahab-3 missile had taken place a few weeks ago.

The timing was doubly sensitive in view of this week's visit to Tehran by Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the UN nuclear watchdog, who will press Iran to open its nuclear power program and prove it is not secretly developing atomic bombs.

"It's slightly surprising because they have been trying to calm fears they are going down the nuclear route," Tim Garden, a defense expert at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs, said of Iran's disclosure of progress on the Shahab-3.

Israel, which falls within the missile's 1,300km range, points to Iran's nuclear and missile ambitions as a deadly threat and wants the world to thwart them.

Indeed, some Iranians believe that last week's Israeli media reports about the Shahab-3 test were deliberately designed to force an Iranian response and keep the heat on Tehran.

Iran denies seeking nuclear arms or harboring aggressive intentions, but sees the Shahab-3 as a vital deterrent against the Jewish state, the Middle East's only nuclear power.

It also perceives a threat from the US, which has forces in Iraq, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries within reach of the Shahab-3.

"It's more of a deterrent than anything else," said Ali Ansari, an Iranian academic at Britain's Durham University.

He said the missile program had sprung from the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq war, when Iraqi Scud missiles were crashing into Tehran and Iran lacked the means to retaliate.

"It's also to do with having strategic reach, not just to deter Israelis, but other potential enemies. There is a prestige factor. They feel it's what a regional power should have," he said.

The US, which has called Iran part of an "axis of evil," gives short shrift to Iranian security logic.

"We've seen Iran's efforts to develop its missile capabilities, including flight testing, as a threat to the region and a threat to US interests in the region," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Monday.

But Iranian political analyst Amir Ali Nourbakhsh said Iran must be given security assurances if it was to bow to pressure to sign the additional protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) that would permit more intrusive inspections.

"Maybe the Shahab-3 could deter Israel, even if it does not have a nuclear warhead, but the US and the EU should assure Iran that its security won't be undermined if it signs the additional protocol," Nourbakhsh said.

The Shahab-3, first tested in 1998, is based on the North Korean Nodong-1 missile but has been improved with Russian technology. Questions remain about its effectiveness.

"They have had real problems with the testing of this," said Robin Hughes, deputy news editor of Jane's Defence Weekly, adding that the latest launch followed several failed ones.

He said it was not clear if the missile was already in operational service with the armed forces and or how accurate it was. "It would be a disaster if they got it wrong," he said.

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