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How Serious Are Iran's Threats?

Interviewee: Michael Elleman, Senior Fellow for Regional Security Cooperation, International Institute for Strategic Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
January 5, 2012

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Tensions have heightened between Tehran and Washington in the strategic Strait of Hormuz following increased sanctions over Iran's nuclear program. Iran test-fired missiles and has threatened to close the strait. This is to signal to the United States and its neighbors in the region that Iran has a deterrent capacity, says Michael Elleman, a leading expert on Iran's missile development. The threats are also aimed at bolstering leadership domestically, he adds. Elleman says while there has been no evidence since 2003 of Iran developing a nuclear weapons program, "Iran certainly is making tremendous headway in developing a range of ballistic missiles that could threaten the cities throughout the Gulf and in Israel."

Simultaneous with an Iranian naval exercise in and around the Strait of Hormuz, there has been considerable bluster from the Iranian side telling the United States not to send any more warships into that area. What's going on? Is there real tension in the area or is this routine polemics?

Iran has been making similar types of threats for some time. Two or three times a year they carry out different types of military exercises. In November last year, they did an air defense exercise where they claimed they could protect the country from any enemy action from the air. And then in June they had a huge exercise where they featured their ballistic missile capabilities.

While this was done to try to signal to others that they have a deterrent capacity, and that they could inflict unacceptable harm on anyone thinking about attacking them, this also served domestic politics within Iran. The UN and Western sanctions are really beginning to bite. The Iranian currency has nose-dived relative to the dollar recently. The leadership believes the bluster might help them on the domestic front. But in general, right now Iran is trying to convince others that it has a deterrent capacity and one element of that is its claim that it could close the Strait of Hormuz, which would be very costly economically to Iran.

Is this connected to talk in the West of blocking Iranian oil exports?

I don't think that has been expressly threatened by anyone in particular but Iran fears that that might come to pass and as a result the Iranians are trying to make the argument that "well if you are not going to allow people to buy our oil then we are not going to let any oil go through the Strait of Hormuz."

Of course that begs the question, could they really close the strait? And my understanding and talking to a lot of naval experts is that no, they could not close the strait. They could make it more costly to transit the strait and insurance costs would rise tremendously. They could hassle some of the shipping, but that would be an escalation that I'm not sure they are really willing to risk at this point

The [Iranian] leadership believes the bluster might help them on the domestic front.

Talk about Iran's military capacity right now in the missile area and in the nuclear field. There's been a lot more talk about this since the IAEA report in November, which discussed Iran's interest in military development of nuclear materials until 2003 and uncertainty on what they are doing now.

Since 2003, I don't know that there has been any evidence, at least in the public domain, of Iran taking measures to make a nuclear weapon. At least I have not seen any indication of that. But Iran certainly is making tremendous headway in developing a range of ballistic missiles that could threaten the cities throughout the Gulf and in Israel. That would include Turkey once this Sajjil- 2 , a two-stage system they are working on now reaches operational capacity.

That system has a range of approximately 2000 kilometers, though we're not really certain exactly what its maximum capacity is. Theoretically, it could threaten targets in the very southeastern corridor of Europe but there is no indication that they're developing that particular system to threaten Europe. It doesn't make much sense to threaten a corner of Europe. And in fact, when we've done analysis of this particular missile, it seems that it may have been designed with the thought in mind that a first generation nuclear warhead may weigh considerably more than a ton, and thus they may need the lifting capacity of that missile to reach targets in Israel. Their current liquid propellant systems wouldn't be able to handle that requirement.

You have written that Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.

I wouldn't say it's the most capable but it's the most diverse. Clearly the Israelis have a much more technically sophisticated set of ballistic missiles but Iran is one of the few countries that is actively seeking a number of systems and they've been focusing as much on short-range systems as they have on medium-range system.

[Iran] recently unveiled a missile called the Persian Gulf that it claims is capable of hitting ships as far away as 250 kilometers from the shore. I don't believe this claim. The analysis we've done on that particular missile is that it is not nearly accurate enough to be able to threaten a specific naval vessel in the Gulf but nevertheless it gives an indication of what they are seeking and what they are trying to deter.

Talk about the U.S. Navy's presence. Is it regularly in the Strait of Hormuz?

I'm not that familiar with their actual operations but I do know that the U.S. Navy and the fifth fleet does work with a number of countries here in the region; the Emirates [and] the Saudi navies to patrol the Gulf of Oman and the waters south of Yemen, and off the Somali coast to protect against pirates. So they're not just patrolling the Persian Gulf but they're patrolling outside in the Gulf of Oman and Arabian Sea to ensure free transit of commerce. I would assume that that includes the Strait of Hormuz as well.

Since 2003, I don't know that there has been any evidence, at least in the public domain, of Iran taking measures to make a nuclear weapon.

You also wrote that Iran is the only country to develop a 2000-km missile, the Sajjil-2, without first having a nuclear weapons capability. Why is that? Why have other countries not developed that type of missile without a nuclear weapons capability?

Ballistic missiles are really not suited for much other than nuclear weapons delivery. Because they re-enter the atmosphere at very high speeds and have a reasonably low payload capacity compared to say a fighter jet, it can't contain that much chemical or biological agents and the speed at which it reenters the atmosphere would make dispersal very ineffective. So that leaves only a conventional payload.

If you look at the destructive radius of even a 1000-kilogram conventional bomb, it really only has a lethal radius of 30 to 100 meters. So if the missile can't hit reliably a target within 100 meters, then it has not much military efficacy. It's only suited for terrorizing large urban populations. And no one has thought to spend the money to have a force or develop a force of missiles capable of 2000 kilometers only to be able to threaten civilian targets.

Say Iran wanted to develop an intermediate range system, a 3500-kilometer system to threaten targets in London with conventional payloads. At most they could deliver 10 or 15 of these missiles because they are prohibitively expensive and what effect would that have? They might kill two or three people per missile. Is that worth the risks and the costs? Not really. Countries developing these systems tend to have regional adversaries and those regional adversaries are within 2000 km anyway. So unless you can develop an extremely accurate ballistic missile, it really makes no sense to have anything but a nuclear warhead on it.

Do you think the people who design this missile are anticipating that at some point they might have a nuclear warhead?

I wouldn't go so far as to say that. It certainly suggests that they are anticipating having a nuclear warhead. Iran has calculated that if it can threaten Tel Aviv with a few ballistic missiles conventionally armed, then it can possibly deter Israel from attacking Iran. [This], coupled with the Israeli fear that Iran might arm those missiles with chemical warheads would give [Iran] further deterrent value, but there is no indication that Iran has an active chemical weapons program right now.

So Iran has an internal rationale for being able to hold targets at risk within Israel, which is about 1000 kilometers from Iran's western border. But if they wanted to launch from protected sites, they'd need a range of at least 1300 km.

They have a missile that can achieve that, it's their liquid propellant systems that they bought from the North Koreans, called the Shahab-3. They've modified it to give it a little more range and it's called the Ghadr-1. And those seem to be sufficient but Iran does not have a capacity to manufacture those on their own, they have to rely on the North Koreans for the engines, etc. So they went and designed and developed this Sajjil which relies on a different technology--solid propellants --and they have mastered the ability to produce them. It allows them to have kind of an independent force with which they can continually threaten Israel.

And these are land-based missiles?

Yes, they are all land-based missiles. To my knowledge, they do not have a sea-based ballistic missile.

The missiles that we saw on TV being fired from Iranian ships---were they short range?

We saw videos of two types of missiles being fired; one set of missiles were anti-shipping missiles, probably derived from some Chinese systems. The Chinese helped build a facility in Iran to produce some of these anti-ship missiles which have a maximum range of about 120 kilometers or so, maybe a little bit longer. And they also appear to have fired what I think was an anti-air missile, something like an air defense missile from a ship.

It's a little unclear what exactly they did fire. It looks something like the old SM-1s that the U.S. Navy used to use; in fact they stopped using that system in 1979. I don't know if Iran managed to get a hold of some but it looked strangely very much like the old SM-1. And the United States exported a large number of them to our allies. So undoubtedly they are on the international market and Iran may have procured a few.

The U.S. Department of Defense said yesterday that despite what Iran says, we'll continue to have ships in the region, which is what you'd expect. There's no way Iran is going to attack the U.S. Navy, is it, without expecting a sharp retaliation?

I try never to predict what the Iranians are going to do. I don't see it being in their interest to do that; it would be a large leap in escalation and it would just give the United States an excuse to attack them in other ways.

I do believe that Iran is really trying to signal to the U.S. and people in the Gulf that they have the ability to inflict a lot of pain if they are attacked. That's my sense of what Iran is up to right now. Some of the bluster is aimed at the domestic political situation in Iran as well. They want to present themselves as being defiant to the United States and it doesn't hurt their international stature either when they say we can tell the United States what to do.

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