Sergey Minasian, Ph.D. (Hist.), lecturer, Russian-Armenian State University Applied Politics and World Politics and International Relations departments, research associate with the National Academy of Sciences Institute of History (Erevan, Armenia)


Iran’s potential acquisition of nuclear weapons and modernization of delivery systems (ballistic missiles) could abruptly, and drastically, change the military-political balance in the whole of the Near and Middle East and adjacent regions. In his earlier publications,1 this author addressed the development of corresponding programs in Iran as well as the Iranian view on the issue. The present article looks at how the prospect of Tehran’s nuclear status could affect the political-military situation in the region as a whole and in individual states. This applies to a situation when Iran openly begins nuclear tests, pulls out of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) and the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, and officially announces the launching of a nuclear program, or when IAEA experts establish incontestable evidence that Iran is implementing a secret military nuclear program.

Possible Implications for Regional Security

According to A.Z. Arabadzhian, a leading Russian authority on Iran, “today, one major aspect of the multidimensional ‘Iran and the superpowers’ problem is the clarification of Iran’s position toward them as nuclear powers. The difficulty is that there are nuclear states both to the west and to the east of it (Israel on the one side and Pakistan, India, and China, on the other). This goes some way to explain why Iran is so concerned about its lack of nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether Iran will become a nuclear power or not, its fundamental national interests require that its possible acquisition of such weapons be seen only as a factor in the country’s economic and social advancement. Only this approach can put Iran’s possible emergence as a nuclear state into proper perspective: For all the successes that Iran had achieved in the 1990s in developing its productive forces and economic capacity, the task of overcoming economic backwardness amid high population growth rates remains unresolved.”2

Iran’s possible nuclear program is necessitated not so much by global challenges to its national security as by regional threats. Leading experts on strategic stability and security believe that the country’s nuclear and missile capability is being created not only as a means to impact Iraq or the nuclear-armed Israel but also as deterrence against Pakistan that Tehran sees as a mastermind behind the Taliban posing the greatest threat to Iran’s national security.3

At the same time, Pakistan’s nuclear status is likely to bring Islamabad dividends elsewhere in the region, as it is vying for political influence, in competition with Ankara and Tehran. This also has to do with Islamabad’s expanding economic links with the Central Asian republics and with plans of building an oil pipeline from the Caspian to the Indian Ocean via Afghanistan and Pakistan.4 In the wake of Pakistan’s nuclear tests, Iran issued a statement welcoming the creation of the “first Islamic bomb.” Tehran remembers, however, that the most serious threat to its security at the end of the 20th century came above all from the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which was installed with the active participation of Islamabad.

It is also important to take into account the factor of the so-called Islamic solidarity—in this context, referring to the use of the Islamic world’s aggregate defense capability to ensure collective protection of Islamic state security interests. This point was made, in particular, in April 1998, by Pakistani President Rafiq Tarar, who indicated that Islamabad’s program to build nuclear weapons and their delivery systems was designed above all to ensure the security of all Islamic states which, in their turn, were called upon to expedite the advancement of Pakistan’s nuclear capability to the degree possible.

Guided by Islamic solidarity principles, in the summer of the same year, the leaders of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates decided to provide Pakistan several billion dollars worth of assistance (at the time the United States had imposed economic sanctions against it as punishment for its nuclear tests). This example, on the one hand, shows that Islamabad will under no circumstances forsake Islamic solidarity and will only use its nuclear weapons (that is, if it uses them at all) against non-Muslim countries, such as, say, India. But on the other hand, “it can also be seen as formation, within a loosely defined Islamic world, of a systemic core” comprising Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. In this event “Islamic solidarity” could be cast aside, and Pakistan’s “first Islamic bomb” could be used (again, if it is used at all) also against Muslim states. After all, in the past, bloody armed conflicts often occurred also within the Islamic world so they could be possible in the future.5

So Iran’s acquisition of nuclear capability could further aggravate the permanent geopolitical rivalry between Tehran and Islamabad although hardly to a degree that would lead both sides to use these weapons against each other.

As for Iran’s relations with the newly independent states of Central Asia and the Caucasus (even should Tehran acquire nuclear weapons), they are unlikely to be seriously affected in the security sphere despite certain difficulties, say, with Azerbaijan or in defining the legal status of the Caspian Sea. True, Iran’s role as a regional powerhouse will grow substantially as it will acquire additional political and economic leverage, primarily in the energy sphere. This, however, involves one important aspect related to nuclear nonproliferation. Back in the Soviet era, research reactors and other elements of nuclear infrastructure were created in Georgia, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan. Although these states on the whole comply with the export control regime, there has been a certain measure of concern over the possible transfer of technology and expertise from these republics to Iran. Observers point out that some of the newly independent countries, say, Azerbaijan and Kyrgyzstan, have only a rudimentary export control system. Others, in particular Georgia, Armenia, and Tajikistan, adopted appropriate legislation in this sphere, but have yet to put in place corresponding export license mechanisms and regulators. Even so, by April 1998, under the U.S.-British-Georgian Ember Project, the last shipment of highly enriched uranium was evacuated from the Institute of Physics, not far from Tbilisi, while experts agree that the Nuclear Physics Institute and the OAO Foton company in Uzbekistan, which also have nuclear research reactors, do not pose a threat to the nonproliferation regime.6

Special attention in nuclear technology control was given to Kazakhstan which, in addition, ranked third among the FSU republics in the number of strategic warheads deployed in its territory (including one-third of all former Soviet SS-18 intercontinental ballistic missiles). Furthermore, the republic had a large amount of tactical nuclear ammunition. There were even reports—true, never confirmed—that Iran had acquired several tactical nuclear warheads from Kazakhstan. Another source of concern was the fact that Kazakhstan (the Mangyshlak Island) was home to one of the largest enterprises of the former Soviet Ministry of Atomic Power Engineering and Industry—the Caspian mining and enrichment combine (now the Mangyshlak nuclear power combine) that produced uranium while nuclear tests were conducted at the Semipalatinsk test site and ballistic missiles were tested in the Kzyl-Orda Region, home to the Baikonur complex.7

Strict control on the part of the IAEA and many countries concerned, including the United States and West European states, however, effectively rules out serious violation of the nonproliferation regime by these republics. In this context, it is also important to mention Armenia with its nuclear power station while Erevan has a fairly close relationship with Tehran. Nonetheless, it should be taken into account that back on 24 September, 1991, just three days after Armenia declared its independence, the Armenian parliament adopted a decision to abide by the Nonproliferation Treaty and then acceded to other WMD nonproliferation agreements. Furthermore, Armenia is the first state with an operating nuclear power plant to sign, on 23 September, 1997, the Additional Protocol based on the text of the Model Protocol (IAEA Additional Protocol of Program 93+2 INFCIRC/540), faithfully complying with it.8

Neither will Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons capability likely cause any complications in its relations with Syria—Tehran’s only serious ally in the Middle East. Syrian-Iranian military-technical cooperation, in particular in the development of ballistic and cruise missiles, is a key aspect of interaction between the two states. Furthermore, according to former Israeli military intelligence chief general Uri Saguy, Iran and Syria cooperated also on its nuclear program (true, this assertion has yet to be independently confirmed).9 Even though no state in the region is likely to welcome proliferation of nuclear weapons in the Middle East, given the current geopolitical situation, especially in light of the accusations against Tehran and Damascus as well as threats against them from the United States and Israel, it would be logical to assume that Syria could actually be interested in seeing Tehran (as its ally) acquire a nuclear capability.

That said, it should be borne in mind that Iran has a number of outstanding disputes with its Arab neighbors. Territorial disputes, largely a legacy of colonialism in the region, also divide Iranians and Arabs (as well as Arabs themselves). These include the Iranian province of Khuzestan, the three Persian Gulf islands of Abu Musa, the Great Tunb and the Small Tunb. Arabs also dispute the name of the Persian Gulf, referring to it as the “Arabian Gulf”. Khuzestan, a southeastern province of Iran, is also called “Arabistan.”10

Regional states, through the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), sought to set up a collective security system in the region with Iran’s participation. Yet, given the U.S. influence on the GCC and the outstanding disputes between GCC member states and Iran as well as among themselves, it is unlikely to emerge as a viable structure.11

In this context, Iran’s nuclear status is bound to arouse serious concern in the Arab states of the Gulf. Experts see three scenarios. Scenario 1: These countries will limit their economic and political contacts with Tehran rather than risk the dangers of pursuing policies of isolation or containment. Scenario 2: Join a nuclear umbrella. The Gulf Arabs could seek shelter under an expanded NATO umbrella or expanded security guarantees under a U.S. nuclear umbrella, seeking greater guarantees of protection from the United States. Scenario 3: Acquire their own nuclear-armed weapon systems. The Gulf States, especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have spent large sums of money in the past decade on conventional weapon packages and are in principle not interested in the spread of nonconventional weapons here. The Gulf States, individually or collectively, are highly unlikely to build indigenous nuclear programs, but their vast financial resources will enable them to purchase nuclear weapons from other states as well as to continue to buy modern conventional weapons. The latter—especially acquisition of modern combat aircraft (to say nothing about nuclear weapons)—will, however, meet with strong opposition on the part of Israel. Tel Aviv will see these actions as yet another acute threat to its security and will start pressuring the United States and West European countries (the main arms suppliers to the Gulf states) to stop arms export to the region, which will further aggravate the situation in the Middle East.12

So Iran’s possible nuclear status will not only directly threaten the security of the Gulf states (further militarizing them and increasing the likelihood of indigenous nuclear programs being implemented in the region) but also will have indirect implications (further exacerbation of relations with Israel).

As far as Tel Aviv is concerned, Iranian experts admit that it has never directly threatened other Middle Eastern nations with its nuclear arsenal. Even during difficult times, say during the 1973 war or during the Iraqi missile strikes against Israel in the 1991 war, there was no explicit reference to the nuclear factor in Israel’s calls for retaliation. What is left unsaid (a fact that is emphasized especially by Iranian experts) is that in both the 1973 and 1991 war situations, Israel could fully count on the U.S. nuclear protection and did not need to use such threats. Iran believes that Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the Middle East creates an atmosphere of military arms race and encourages the states of the region to invest in nuclear programs.13

Experts also believe that should nuclear weapons be used Israel will more likely attack Iran rather than its neighbors, such as Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan or even (before the fall of the Saddam Hussein regime) Iraq although they pose a greater threat to it. Given that Israel’s geographical area is so small and limited, any use of nuclear weapons against its neighbors will have serious fallout for the Jewish state itself. Meanwhile, Iran is a more distant target, so a nuclear strike against Tehran will have a smaller fallout for Israel’s population.14

By contrast, considering Israel’s minute size, the nonconventional threat posed by these states, including Iran, is of the highest strategic order, indeed, a matter of national existence. Given the concentration of Israel’s social, industrial, technological, and economic heartland in the tiny triangle of some 30 kilometers long by 10 kilometers wide which comprises metropolitan Tel Aviv, the Jewish state is fatally vulnerable to a nonconventional, and particularly a nuclear, strike. In this respect, Israel is, basically, in the same situation as the Arab states of the Gulf, which are sometimes called one-bomb countries and are also fatally vulnerable to nuclear attack. So Israel gives high priority to modernizing its nonconventional defense system, in particular developing and adopting for service the Arrow II defense system, which is being created with U.S. participation and has a capacity to destroy Scud-type ballistic missiles.15

In so far as its national security is concerned, Tel Aviv does not, however, confine itself to defense programs. Despite the fact that it still sticks to the so-called bomb-in-the-closet doctrine—i.e., does not officially declare its nuclear status—one key element of its policy in this sphere is deterrence, above all nuclear deterrence. In this respect virtually all of the country’s public and political circles are quite unanimous. Thus, in response to the Egyptian campaign to press Israel to sign the Nonproliferation Treaty, Israeli leaders stated that the main reason that Israel will not sign the NPT is that it is the only country in the world threatened by other countries with destruction and that Israel’s nuclear capability is the main deterrent for them. Ehud Barak, who served as the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) chief of staff, and became prime minister in 1999, declared that Israel’s nuclear policy “has not changed, will not change and cannot change,” because it is a fundamental stand of survival of the Jewish state.16

The aforementioned makes it clear that the possibility of Iran’s acquiring nuclear capability (or even capacity to produce nuclear weapons) cannot but arouse serious concern within the Israeli leadership. The fact is that Tehran not only has repeatedly threatened Tel Aviv, but also supports radical paramilitary (above all Shi‘ite) groups in Lebanon. It is believed that in a certain situation Israel could deliver a preemptive strike against Iran, especially before the latter has acquired a more formidable nuclear arsenal. Importantly, Tel Aviv has already made such a move. On 7 June, 1981, eight Israeli F-16 fighters, supported by six F-15s, using intelligence information received from U.S. satellites, destroyed Iraq’s Tammuz-1 nuclear reactor, in Osiraka, near Baghdad, which, according to the Israelis, was used in a nuclear military research program. That was the first strike against a nuclear reactor in the world.

Presumably Israel has several scenarios for delivering such a strike against Iran’s nuclear infrastructure facilities. Furthermore, this strike can be targeted not only (and even not so much) against the Bushehr nuclear power station, which, in the admission of Israeli experts themselves, is not in principle a key element in Tehran’s supposed nuclear program, as against its research reactors as well as scientific research centers and other facilities that are involved in military nuclear programs. Experts believe a strike could be dealt with both conventional and (in the event of heightened danger) nuclear weapons, including mini-bombs. One such scenario is the use of Jericho-1/2 silo launched ballistic missiles.

Recently yet another scenario has been actively discussed. It emerged when Israel obtained three Dolphin-800 submarines built in Germany that will carry cruise missiles (possibly U.S.-made BGM-109 Tomahawk or, more likely, Sub-Harpoon USGW or Israeli-built Popeye Turbo), also possibly nuclear armed. According to some reports, these submarines will be on constant patrol duty in the Indian Ocean and the Ormuz Strait so as, if need be, to strike Iran, Iraq or other Arab states. Under a system of rotation, two of the vessels would remain at sea: one in the Red Sea and Persian Gulf, the other in the Mediterranean. A third would remain on standby. In May 2000, Israel reportedly test-fired its first submarine-launched cruise missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The missile, launched near Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean, is said to have hit a target at a range of 1,500 km,17 which substantially changed the entire military-strategic balance in the Middle East. Whereas before, Israel’s nuclear forces mainly consisted of a ground component (nuclear warheads on Jericho-1/2 ballistic missiles, tube artillery and nuclear mines) and an air component (primarily nuclear-armed F-16 aircraft), when it has armed its submarines with nuclear-tipped cruise missiles, Tel Aviv will become the first new member of the nuclear club, its strategic nuclear forces comprising the classic triad with air, ground, and naval components.18

Israel’s possibilities for delivering a preemptive strike on targets in Iran are not limited to these two options. It could also use its Air Force, which is the strongest in the Middle East, especially once it has adopted new U.S.-built F-15I aircraft.

In this context, Israel’s political-military contacts with Turkey have a special significance. On 23 February, 1996, they signed a military cooperation agreement providing for military information sharing and joint exercises. Priority is given to Air Force exercises, in particular training flights in each country’s air space (for one week, four times a year). Many experts believe that such exercises will enable Israeli pilots to gain experience in flying long-range missions (a skill that would be necessary for missions over Iran) and over mountainous areas, where visually identifying an enemy aircraft is more difficult than during over-sea flights. In exchange, Turkish pilots will benefit from Israel’s systems of training in advanced technology warfare. (F-16C/D and top-of-the-line F-15I aircraft are most likely to be used to this end.)19

It should be noted that these exercises in Turkish airspace have lately been getting three-way with U.S. Air Force planes. Thus, more than 90 combat aircraft were involved in a series of exercises in the country’s southeast in April, June and September 2001 (code-named Anatolian Eagle).20 Another factor to consider is the possibility of U.S. technical and information support for the Israelis should the latter attack Iran by using Turkish airspace.

At the same time, whatever might be said, the relations between Ankara and Tehran cannot be described as hostile. Of course, development of normal, good neighborly contacts is impeded by a number of problems, in particular Turkey’s military-technical cooperation with Israel and Iran’s cooperation with Syria, the presence of U.S. military bases on Turkish territory (as well as Turkey’s NATO membership for that matter), a clash of Iranian and Turkish interests in Central Asia and the Caucasus, and so forth. But all of these problems should be seen through the prism of rivalry rather than open confrontation.

In this context, Iranian experts highlight the role that Turkey played in the first few years after the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran. At the time Ankara did not support the Western boycott of Tehran and did not participate in the economic blockade against Iran, also adopting a neutral position on the U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, during the Iran-Iraq war. For its part, Iran’s import, in the first post-revolutionary years, of substantial amounts of Turkish goods contributed to the development of Turkey’s export sectors of industry, playing a major role in reviving its economy. Thus, in 1983, Iranian import from Turkey was 25 times higher than in the last year of the shah regime, Tehran being Turkey’s leading importer for two years. Furthermore, Turkey saw a considerable increase in revenues from the transit of Iranian goods through its territory.21

The prospect of Tehran’s acquiring a nuclear capability certainly worries Ankara, but a resultant aggravation of Turkish-Iranian relations is unlikely to destabilize regional security as, say, does the escalation of Iranian-Israeli tensions in a similar context. In addition, despite the considerable superiority of the Turkish armed forces, it is all but ruled out that Iran will use the nuclear factor in dealing with Turkey as a NATO member state that is under the “nuclear umbrella” of the United States and other members of the alliance.

Should Iran acquire nuclear capability, regional security will naturally to a very large extent be contingent on the position of the United States—that is, if it decides to use force. Many experts believe that, given its overwhelming military superiority, the U.S. reaction could turn out to be much stronger than even Israel’s. We will not go into the whole spectrum of U.S.-Iranian relations and their development prospects (plenty has been written on the subject), but will only look at the most likely options for U.S. action in these conditions.

Recently, especially after George W. Bush included Iran into the “axis of evil,” Western media have not only been considering various scenarios for Washington’s strikes against Tehran, primarily its nuclear facilities, say, the Bushehr nuclear power stations, but also their expediency.

As the Bushehr project is nearing completion, there has been a flurry of speculation that the reactor could become a cause to test the new doctrine of preemptive strikes to eliminate potential threats to U.S. security, as formulated by George W. Bush. The ongoing discussion shows the difficulties involved in the pursuit of preemptive action policy. How will such a strike impact on U.S.-Russian relations? How will the destruction of a civilian nuclear power station affect Iran’s secret nuclear weapons program that, according to U.S. intelligence analysts, is being implemented at a dozen or so other, less conspicuous facilities across the country? And more importantly, what consequences will have the steps perceived by Tehran as an act of war? On the other hand, Iran, fearing a U.S. air or missile attack to destroy the plant, has been surrounding it as well as other nuclear facilities with anti-aircraft batteries.22

Comprehensive analysis of possible U.S. action (should Iran continue the work on its non-military nuclear program, especially should there be conclusive evidence of its nuclear weapons project), which was made before the second war in the Gulf, showed that for the time being the majority within the U.S. administration believed that as long as Tehran complied with international security safeguards and nonproliferation regime, Washington should not use force. It is important to bear in mind here that the United States will have to reckon with the position of Israel, its main ally in the Middle East, which has been openly calling for a preventive strike to be dealt on Iran.

In this context, the outcome of the military operation by the United States and its allies against Iraq will be critical. It cannot be ruled out that the Americans will once again be able to use the allegations that Tehran is working on or even already has weapons of mass destruction (such allegations have been made since 1979)—this time to launch a military attack against Iran. As of the mid-1990s, even U.S. experts suggested that if Iran does manage to achieve substantial progress in developing its nuclear infrastructure, preemptive or covert military operations by the United States or some of its allies should not be ruled out. Indeed, such an option has already been considered in what is known as the Silver Books—i.e., U.S. plans to deliver strikes against “rogue states” should they acquire WMD capacity.23

True, even if Washington does exercise this option, these will most likely be pinpoint missile and air strikes (or a limited use of special task forces) on targets that, in the American eyes, could have to do with Iran’s nuclear weapons development programs. The United States will hardly begin large-scale military operations in the foreseeable future, especially under the pretext of “nuclear disarmament” of Iran, as was the case with Iraq.

As for the position of the Iraqi leadership on the issue in hand, it cannot be judged of until after the outcome of the war against Iraq and the country’s future have been clarified.

Russian-Iranian contacts and their impact on Tehran’s possible nuclear and missile program are a separate subject. This program is closely related not only to international politics but also largely determines the relations between Russia and the United States which have a significant impact on regional security.

There are three major factors in Russian-Iranian cooperation and Moscow’s position on the problem of nonproliferation in the Middle East: Russia’s clear-cut position on the WMD nonproliferation regime; the interests of Russian exporters, above all those representing the military-industrial complex and the atomic industry; and the country’s political priorities in the Southern Caucasus and Central Asia as well as in the contiguous areas of the Middle East and South Asia.24

Neither politicians nor representatives of defense and security agencies in Moscow have provided an unambiguous response to U.S. statements that should Iran acquire nuclear weapons that would primarily threaten Russia, or explained what Russia’s reaction would be in that event. This is attributed to two main considerations—either the calculation that if Russian intelligence services receive credible information to that effect, appropriate military action will be taken without delay, or Russia acts on the assumption that it can rely on its own nuclear deterrence capability to repulse or ward off possible nuclear threats on the part of Iran.25

There is a growing conviction within some expert circles in the United States (especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and following a new rapprochement with Russia) that Washington could relax its position on Russian-Iranian cooperation in the nuclear energy sphere. That would have a positive impact on the problem of nuclear proliferation, prevent Iran building a nuclear device, and even hold back its longer range missile production program. More specifically, U.S. experts advise the administration to invite Russia to sign an agreement on bilateral nuclear cooperation and go ahead with mutually beneficial activities in this and other spheres, in particular in missile technology export control, including projects that have already been proposed by Washington. To this end, Moscow should do the following.

Firstly, limit its nuclear cooperation with Iran to delivery of light-water reactors and fuel for the Bushehr project as well as to personnel training, but not in any way help Tehran acquire (least of all make available) technology, nuclear fuel components, technical heavy-water production capacity, research reactors or technology related to conversion, reprocessing and enrichment of uranium.

Secondly, Moscow and Tehran will agree that all fuel for the Bushehr reactor will be supplied by Russia while spent fuel will not be stored in Iran longer than required by considerations of nuclear safety and will be returned to Russia. Furthermore, Russia will demand that Iran publicly pledge not to acquire nuclear fuel-cycle technology (independently or from an external source) and will liquidate any technology in this sphere (either existing or developing).

Thirdly, Russia will work to persuade Tehran to comply with the IAEA’s Additional Protocol that makes it incumbent on its signatories to make available detailed information about their nuclear programs and grants the IAEA broader discretion to inspect undeclared activities.

Fourthly, in missile technology export control, which, according to U.S. experts, is key to resolving the problem, Russia will only be required to enforce current laws and regulations vis-à-vis termination of supplies of materials, equipment, and technology to assist implementation of ballistic missile programs abroad.

For Russia, this trade-off would fit into its obligations under the 1995 Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement whereby Moscow is to limit its nuclear cooperation with Tehran to provision of energy reactors to Bushehr, but would not force it to give up on its most lucrative obligations to Iran. All of these measures—again, from the American perspective—would help advance Russian-U.S. cooperation.26

Yet, back in 2000, Moscow refused to honor its obligations under the Gore-Chernomyrdin agreement, marking a new stage in Russian-U.S. discussions on the issue of Russian export of military or dual-use products, which without a doubt has a negative impact on the entire range of Russian-U.S. relations.

Iran’s Missile Program and Regional Security

Even if Iran’s missile program is seen separately from its conceived nuclear research program, it is still expedient to analyze it from the regional security perspective. Financial constraints compel Tehran to focus only on priority lines in modernizing the country’s military, the missile (along with naval) development program being one of the two basic components of the general rearmament plan. In the event of an armed conflict with the United States or neighboring Arab states Iran intends to use its relatively strong navy to seal off tankers in the Persian Gulf region and contiguous sections of the Arabian Sea as well as to impede operations by the U.S. Fifth Fleet and Washington’s Middle East allies while Iran’s missile program envisions countering national security threats throughout the Middle East.27

Although the Shahab-3 ballistic missile program is believed to be aimed primarily against Israel, it can be seen also as part of a general military strategy to strengthen Tehran throughout the Near and Middle East. This view is shared by many Russian experts: “Development and modernization of Iran’s missile systems, above all long-range missiles capable of striking targets on a substantial part of the Middle East, is mainly driven by the regime’s aspiration to get closer and more actively involved in the unfolding struggles for strategic superiority in the post-confrontation era in the region and on the tactical level, to ensure Iran’s integration into the collective security system in the Persian Gulf.”28

Still, Iran’s missile program cannot be seen as a serious threat to some of the militarily strong states in the region. Thus, after yet another Shahab-3 missile test was carried out in Iran, a Pentagon spokesman made a statement claiming that the Shahab-3 missiles were perceived as a threat by Israel, Turkey and U.S., but the Turkish Foreign Ministry indicated that these missiles did not constitute any threat to Turkey.29 On the whole, new Shahab-3 tests no longer arouse the same concern among Iran’s Arab neighbors as they did before. Saudi Arabian, Kuwaiti, Yemeni, and other government officials said that the program does not threaten the Gulf states. This, apart from other things, points to changes in the perception of threats to the national security of Arab states and a review of their attitude toward Iran and its role in the region.30

Many experts, however, believe that at the present time, Iran’s missile program should not be considered as a serious threat to the United States either. First, neither the general condition of Iran’s economy nor the country’s defense expenditures allow Tehran to devote significant amounts of its limited resources to the military in order to build missiles with intercontinental ranges. Second, according to the Pentagon, the program’s implementation could in the future run into serious problems. (Although according to Iran’s Defense Minister Adm. Ali Shamhani, during the fifth test of the Shahab-3, on 26 May, 2002, the missile flew over 1,000 kilometers.31) Third, Iranian defense policy is primarily regional in character while Iran has no real global influence. Iranian Foreign Minister Kharrazi has claimed that Iran’s missile program is “only for defensive purposes, which is the legitimate right of Iran.” Finally, it is assumed that as democratic transformations deepen in Iran, the likelihood of its confrontation with the United States will decline further.32

Iran’s missile program (just as, incidentally, the analogous projects pursued by other states in the Middle East) cannot pose a serious threat to Western Europe. European experts point out that the destructive power of ballistic missiles with conventional warheads, deployed in states of the Middle East, is far lower than that of modern combat aircraft. The main strategic value of Scud-type conventional missiles lies in their psychological impact they inflict on the civilian population of the opposing country. The experience in the use of such missiles during wars in the Middle East shows that owing to their low accuracy rates (their CEP, or Circular Error Probability, coefficient reaches up to 2 kilometers), they do not have significant military value and were employed mainly to strike large population centers, which only resulted in civilian casualties. European experts believe that things would not change very much if such missiles were used to deliver chemical agents or biological agents. Only ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads would offer an unparalleled opportunity to intimidate and threaten Middle East as well as Western countries.33

By contrast, experts in Moscow maintain that creation and development of WMD missile delivery systems in countries of the Near and Middle East jeopardizes Russia’s national security interests. This applies not only to Iran and other states in the region, but also to Israel with which the United States actively cooperates in the missile sphere despite Tel Aviv’s refusal to sign international nonproliferation documents. Here, Russian and U.S. positions diverge as Russia does not cooperate with Israel on programs to modernize WMD missile delivery systems.34

Nonetheless, articles in the Western press often reported that some Russian enterprises transferred technology related to the RD-214 rocket engine, used in the SS-4 medium-range ballistic missile; guidance systems; high-strength steel sheets (such as those seized by Azerbaijani customs en route to Iran, in March 1998), etc. Incidentally, the U.S. administration repeatedly brought that to the attention of the Russian leadership.35 Thus, during the February 1997 visit of Russian Prime Minister Chernomyrdin to Washington, the U.S. delegation issued a diplomatic warning to Russia because it had allegedly transferred SS-4 technology (with a range of 1,250 miles) to Iran that could threaten U.S. troops in the Persian Gulf. Similar warnings, in particular over the transfer to Iran of Scud missile technology, were issued also to Ukraine.36

Although the Russian leadership assumed unambiguous political obligations not to provide assistance to Tehran in this sphere, establishing strict export control regulations, Washington believes that Moscow often violates its obligations. Iran still seeks to acquire missile technology from small Russian companies and with assistance from individual scientists—clearly in defiance of laws and Kremlin policy. The way many in Washington see it, Moscow honors export control agreements to the extent to which this is necessary in order to ease U.S. pressure and the threat of sanctions without taking any measures that could damage Russia’s general relations with Iran.37

True, it has to be recognized that Tehran’s military-political leadership also categorically refuses to observe in good faith the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), which naturally arouses the concern of the international community.


The experience of states that have either joined the Nuclear Club or refused to do this shows that the key element in acquiring nuclear weapons for them was a corresponding political decision by the leadership of each individual country. NATO’s 1999 operation against Yugoslavia could be seen as a catalyst of this process in some countries. This applies above all to the group of so-called threshold states that already have the necessary scientific-technological and industrial base but have for some political reasons or other thus far refused to acquire nuclear weapons.38

It must be said that the best way of stopping Iran from building nuclear weapons should be the country’s transparency and openness to inspections by the IAEA and other organizations concerned. At the same time, it is essential to relax sanctions against Tehran, which would help it overcome its vulnerability complex.

According to Andrey Kokoshin, former Security Council secretary and first deputy Russian defense minister, it would be instrumental to create a tripartite—Russia-U.S.-EU (or one or two leading EU countries, say, France and Germany)—mechanism, also bringing in China. This structure should work out a set of economic and scientific-technological incentives and security guarantees for Tehran. “Iran could be offered an array of measures ensuring its legitimate security interests in the region, compensating for its lack of nuclear and missile weapons. Participants in this mechanism could also offer Iran a more comprehensive program to facilitate its integration into the world’s economy, one worthy of this country and civilization with a rich history and culture and an important role in the international energy sphere.”39

As for the U.S. policy in strengthening the nonproliferation regime and the practice of imposing unilateral sanctions on states that, in Washington’s opinion, violate this regime, it has proved inconsistent in the Middle East context. This policy, on the one hand, can only make Iran more intransigent and determined to advance its military nuclear program. On the other, the entire history of the nonproliferation regime shows that not even the apparently harshest of export controls can stop states from acquiring nuclear weapons once they have committed themselves to creating them and if they have the necessary capabilities and resources. A case in point is Pakistan’s nuclear device, presumably built with Chinese assistance. It must be stressed that the United States has greatly damaged the nonproliferation regime. After all, it was owing to Washington’s support that Israel, which has the so-called closet bomb, in its time set a threshold precedent and avoided sanctions.

1 See: S. Minasian, The Contemporary Status of Iran’s Nuclear Missile Program and the Russian-Iranian Relations. Iran and Caucasus, Vol. VI, Briel, Leiden, Boston, 2002; S. Minasian, “Iran on the Way to the Nuclear Bomb? (Analysis of Tehran’s Nuclear Missile Program),” Central Asia and the Caucasus, No. 3 (21), 2003.
2 A.Z. Arabadzhian, “Sverkhderzhavy i Islamskaia Respublika Iran (tochka zreniia),” in: Iran: islam i vlast, ed. by N.M. Mamedova, Mekhdi Sanai, Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow, 2001, p. 166.
3 See: A.A. Kokoshin, V.A. Veselov, A.V. Liss, Sderzhivanie vo vtorom yadernom veke, Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Peace and Security Problems, Moscow, 2001, pp. 58-59.
4 See: Shaikh Farzana, “Pakistan’s Nuclear Bomb: Beyond the Nonproliferation Regime,” International Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 1, January 2002, p. 46.
5 See: A.A. Ignatenko, Samoopredelenie islamskogo mira. Islam i politika (vzaimodeistvie islama i politiki v stranakh Blizhnego i Srednego Vostoka, na Kavkaze i v Tsentral’noi Azii), ed. by V.Ia. Belokrenitskiy, A.Z. Egorin, Russian Academy of Sciences Institute of Oriental Studies, Moscow, 2001, pp. 8-9.
6 See: Yaderny doklad. Yadernoie oruzhiie, yadernyie materialy i eksportniy kontrol v byvshem Sovetskom Soiuze, No. 6, December 2002, Washington, Moscow, 2002, pp. 83, 193-197.
7 See: Yadernyie vooruzheniia v respublikanskiy suverenitet, ed. by A.G. Arbatov, Moscow, 1992, pp. 13-14, 36.
8 See: V. Gabrielyan, “Armenia’s Policy in the Area of Nonproliferation and Export Control,” The Monitor: Nonproliferation, Demilitarization, and Arms Control, Vol. 4, No. 4, Fall 1998, pp. 43-45.
9 See: Ehteshami Anoushirvan, R.A. Hinnebusch, Syria and Iran. Middle Powers in a Penetrated Regional System, London, 1997, pp. 110-111.
10 See: Amirahmat Hooshany, “Iran and the Persian Gulf: Strategic Issues and Outlook,” The Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. II, No. 2, September 1993, p. 373.
11 See: I.A. Krainev, “O nekotorykh aspektakh politicheskoi deiatel’nosti Soveta sotrudnichestva arabskikh gosudarstv Persidskogo zaliva,” in: Blilzhniy Vostok i sovremennost, ed. by V.A. Isaev, A.O. Filonik, No. 7, Moscow, 1999, pp. 123-127.
12 See: K.N. Schake, J.S. Yaphe, “The Strategic Implications of a Nuclear-Armed Iran,” McNair Paper, No. 64, INSS NDU, Washington, 2001, pp. 32-33.
13 See: J. Roshandel, “Iran, Nuclear Technology and International Security,” The Iranian Journal of International Affairs, Vol. VIII, No. 1, Spring 1996, pp. 159-160.
14 See: E. Mottaghi, “An Analysis of Israel’s Conduct Vis-à-vis the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Siasat-e Defa’t (Defense Policy) Quarterly, No. 18, Spring 1997, pp. 76-85.
15 See: E. Karsh, “Israel’s Imperative,” The Washington Quarterly, Summer 2000, pp. 155-157.
16 See: G.M. Steinberg, “Parameters of Stable Deterrence in a Proliferated Middle East: Lessons from the 1991 Gulf War,” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall-Winter 2000, pp. 48-49.
17 See: Said Mohamed Kadry, “Missile Proliferation in the Middle East: A Regional Perspective,” Disarmament Forum, UNIDIR, No. 2, 2001, p. 58.
18 See: W.D. Farr, “The Third Temple’s Holy of Holies: Israel’s Nuclear Weapons,” Counterproliferation Paper No. 2, USAF Counterproliferation Center, Air War College, Alabama, 1999, pp. 19-20.
19 See: D. Jung, W. Piccoli, “The Turkish-Israeli Alignment: Paranoia or Pragmatism?” Security Dialogue, Vol. 31, No. 1, March 2000, pp. 95-96.
20 See: “Israel Center Stage: Country Briefing,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, 1 May, 2002, p. 25.
21 See: Nurmuhhamad Nouruzi, “Vstrecha Irana i Turtsii v Srednei Azii i na Kavkaze,” Amu Darya, No. 5, 2000, pp. 114-115.
22 See: D. Priest, “Iran Reactor May Test First-Strike Doctrine,” The International Herald Tribune, 30 July, 2002; “Iran: Current Developments and U.S. Policy,” CRS, The Library of Congress, Washington, 7 August, 2002, pp. 2-7.
23 See: Bahgat Gawdat, “Beyond Containment: U.S.-Iranian Relations at a Crossroads,” Security Dialogue, Vol. 28, No. 4, December 1997, p. 459.
24 See: A. Pikayev, “Strategic Dimensions of the Russo-Iranian Partnership,” The Monitor: Nonproliferation, Demilitarization, and Arms Control, Vol. 7, No. 1, Winter 2001, p. 7.
25 See: A. Zobov, “Bezopasnost Rossii, Iran i Amerikanskiie sanktsii,” Special supplement to the collection Yadernoie rasprostraneniie, No. 1, 2001, p. 13.
26 See: R. Aykhorn, G. Seymur, “Neobkhodimost vozobnovleniia amerikano-rossiiskogo sotrudnichestva s tseliu predotvrashcheniia sozdaniia iranskoi bomby,” Yaderny kontrol, No. 4, July-August 2002, pp. 46-48.
27 See: D. Waxman, The Islamic Republic of Iran: Between Revolution and Realpolitik, Research Institute for the Study of Conflict and Terrorism, U.K. Conflict Studies 308, April 1998, p. 18.
28 L.M. Kulagina, V.M. Akhmedov, “Iran vykhodit iz izolyatsii,” in: Iran: islam i vlast, p. 160.
29 See: B. Aras, “Turkish-Israel-Iranian Relations in the Nineties: Impact on the Middle East,” Middle East Policy, Vol. VII, No. 3, June 2000, p. 156.
30 See: L.M. Kulagina, V.M. Akhmedov, op. cit., p. 160.
31 See: R. Hughes, “Iran Claims ‘Success’ with Latest Missile Test,” Jane’s Defense Weekly, 5 June, 2002, p. 12.
32 See: I. Eland, D. Lee, “The Rogue State Doctrine and National Missile Defense,” Foreign Policy Briefing, CATO Institute, No. 65, 29 March, 2001, p. 8.
33 See: J. Krause, ‘The Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction: The Risk for Europe. Europe and the Challenge of Proliferation,” ed. by P. Cornish, P. van Ham, J. Krause, Chaillot Paper, No. 24, ISS WEU, Paris, May 1996, p. 13.
34 See: A. Krasnov, “Iranskaia tema v rossiisko-amerikanskom dialoge po raketnomu nerasprostraneniiu,” Yaderny kontrol, No. 5, Sep.-Oct. 2002, p. 58.
35 See: F. Wehling, “Russian Nuclear and Missile Exports to Iran,” The Nonproliferation Review, Winter 1999, pp. 138-142.
36 See: V. Zaborsky, “U.S. Missile Nonproliferation Strategy Toward the NIS and China: How Effective?” The Nonproliferation Review, Fall 1997, p. 91.
37 See: R. Aykhorn, G. Seymur, op. cit., p. 38.
38 See: A.A. Kokoshin, V.A. Veselov, A.V. Liss, op. cit., p. 59.
39 A.A. Kokoshin, “Nuzhny novye podkhody dlia resheniia poblem strategicheskoi stabil’nosti,” Izvestia, 24 February, 2001.

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