Iranian Missile Test Politically Motivated

Thomas W. Lippman, an expert on Gulf security, says the latest Iranian missile test won’t have any military impact, because it is just an incremental step forward. But he says the timing of the announcement, made at a campaign stop by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not accidental.

May 20, 2009

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Thomas W. Lippman, an expert on Gulf security and a CFR adjunct senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies, says the latest Iranian missile test won’t have any military impact because it is just an incremental step forward. But he says the timing of the announcement, made at a campaign stop by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, was not accidental. Lippman says Ahmadinejad is facing a challenge from three main opponents: Mohsen Rezai, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mir-Hossein Mousavi. "I don’t know whether his position [as president] is really in jeopardy," Lippman says, "but I think the timing [of the missile test] is not an accident." He adds that "my sense is that this really is not about any greater threat to Israel than is already posed, but that there’s some other message here to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states about the fact that Iran is on the march and is not about to be deterred by anyone in the Gulf."

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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, while on a campaign stop in the eastern province of Semnan, announced today that Iran had test-fired another medium-range two-stage solid-fuel ballistic missile with a range of about 1200 miles, called the Sejjil-2. This morning’s news reports point out the obvious that Israel is in its range, as are some U.S. bases in the area. But left out is the fact that it is in range of the Persian Gulf states. What kind of impact is this going to have in the area?

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In terms of military consequences, it won’t have any impact. This is just another incremental step on a course that people believe the Iranians are following anyway. The timing, however, is quite interesting following on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Barack Obama on Monday, where Iran was a central subject. It’s also interesting as it occurred about three weeks before the Iranian presidential elections, in which Ahmadinejad is facing a challenge from three opponents, Mohsen Rezai, Mehdi Karroubi, and Mir-Hossein Moussavi. I don’t know whether his position is really in jeopardy, but I think the timing is not an accident.

The Iranians are fully aware that any overt direct action to strike at Israel or at obvious U.S. interests in the region...will be met by a very strong retaliation that they would not be able to resist.

Whether they really attempt to do anything against U.S. interests, I don’t know. But there’s something to keep in mind, and that is that the Iranians are not a particularly strong military power. The Iranians are fully aware that any overt direct action to strike at Israel or at obvious U.S. interests in the region, such as the Strait of Hormuz, will be met by a very strong retaliation that they would not be able to resist. My sense is that this really is not about any greater threat to Israel than is already posed, but that there’s some other message here to Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states about the fact that Iran is on the march and is not about to be deterred by anyone in the Gulf.

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Next week President Obama is going to meet with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. Mubarak, along with King Abdullah II of Jordan, has been pushing hard for the United States and Israel to accept the Saudi initiative that dates to 2002 that says all Arab states would recognize Israel if Israel would accept the pre-1967 borders with the right of refugees to be worked out. Is this Arab position going to strengthen an anti-Iranian alliance of any sort?

I think it’s only going to harden lines that have already been drawn. The Egyptians are already furious at the Iranians for several reasons, including the fact that the Iranians are currently fomenting Hezbollah activity in Egypt--at least that’s what the Egyptians are claiming. The Saudis and the UAE [United Arab Emirates] already have their own issues with the Iranians. The Iranians are already hostile to Israel of course. I think there’s something else going on here. The Arab peace plan at the moment is not going anywhere, whatever its merits, because Netanyahu is not interested in or maybe not even capable of making such a deal right now under these circumstances. He has the threat of Iran on his mind. This exacerbates Israeli anxieties.

When Mubarak’s in Washington, he’s going to be urging that the U.S. press harder on the two-state negotiations, is that right?

That’s my guess. Remember that the Egyptians were extremely embarrassed about the recent war in Gaza because they were under great pressure to retaliate and stand up for the Arabs and Palestinians in some way against Israel, which they weren’t in any position to do--partly because they don’t like Hamas and partly because they have to maintain their peace treaty with Israel. Given Mubarak’s fragile political position right now, the Egyptians are trying to shore up their credentials as some kind of upholder of the Arab cause, which they were widely perceived to have abandoned during the Gaza War.

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The Israelis have been talking about a de facto alliance of interested anti-Iranian powers, but my impression is that Israel can’t do anything on those terms dealing with the Arabs until they are seen as seriously dealing with the Palestinians. Do you agree?

The UAE is in a very equivocal position here because Iranian money is what’s holding up the Dubai economy. Dubai is the Iranian outlet to the world.

The other day I heard a very well-placed Israeli official, who I can’t identify, offer the suggestion that the Iranian threat could be a catalyst for an anti-Iranian grouping under which the Arabs could find common cause with the Israelis, that the threat from Iran would override their aversion to Israel--that this might be the occasion for some countries to join forces with Israel to stand up to the Iranians. Well obviously he couldn’t have been talking about the Egyptians because they already have peace with Israeli. He wouldn’t have been talking about the Iraqis because they’re not going to get involved in this. He must be talking about the Saudis. I don’t think that’s going to happen any time soon: the Saudis are in a position where they’re very anxious about the rise of Iran, but the three most powerful countries in the region--Israel, Egypt, and the United States--are already on the Iranian case. Why should the Saudis take a political risk in order to do that?

What about the United Arab Emirates?

The UAE has a longstanding beef with Iran over the three islands that the Iranians seized years ago. But the UAE is in a very equivocal position here because Iranian money is what’s holding up the Dubai economy. Dubai is the Iranian outlet to the world. They’re not in a position to take direct action that would threaten the economic viability of Dubai. You may have seen a story in the New York Times the other day about how the Omanis are also not interested in joining an anti-Iran grouping, because they have their own interests.

We don’t really know whether the Iranian population likes a tough stance towards the world or a more accommodating one. I guess we’ll find out after the presidential election, scheduled for June 12.

That’s correct. Generally what people say is that divide [in] Iran with Ahmadinejad is not religious or strategic, but rather socioeconomic. The people at the bottom of the economic ladder are generally stronger supporters of his populist agenda than are the people who live at the top of the ladder in Tehran.

Do you have any doubt that the Iranians really want to keep open the possibility of building nuclear weapons?

I don’t have any doubt. They at least want to get the first step capability where they could weaponize. A [U.S.-Russia] joint report that came out of the EastWest Institute just the other day said that the National Intelligence Estimate reporting that the Iranians had suspended the weaponization program in 2003 was still valid, but that the Iranians could unsuspend it when the time suits them.

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