Vol. 1, No. 14 January 3, 2002
During the U.S. military build-up for America’s anti-terrorism campaign in Afghanistan, speculation grew over a possible political by-product of the war: a U.S.-Iranian accommodation after years of mutual hostility. The apparent driving force of this shift was the shared opposition in the U.S. and Iran to the Taliban, who had mistreated Afghanistan’s Shi’ite minority in an expression of extreme Sunni fundamentalist doctrine. Yet Iran’s alarmingly rapid development of strategic missiles and its continued backing of Hizbullah terrorists makes any Iranian-U.S. rapprochement premature and potentially destabilizing — especially in the aftermath of the Rafsanjani threat to Israel’s existence.
Signs of Warming Relations
There were multiple signs of this developing U.S.-Iranian relationship over the last three months. First, Iran agreed to perform search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots on Iranian territory, despite Tehran’s opposition to the American war effort (Washington Post, October 18, 2001). Second, Iran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Hadi Nejad Hosseinian, was hosted by Senator Arlen Spector (R-PA) at a dinner on Capitol Hill; the movement of the Iranian UN ambassador outside of the New York area generally requires Washington’s prior approval (Washington Post, October 29, 2001).
Third, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi shook the hand of Secretary of State Colin Powell during the opening of the UN General Assembly in November (Reuters, November 13, 2001). This was the first public gesture of this sort between cabinet-level members of the U.S. and Iranian governments in 20 years. Former Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas R. Pickering and John Newhouse view Iran as one of the “big opportunities” for the U.S. in the wake of September 11, and have called for relaxing U.S. trade sanctions, including the importation of Iranian oil to the U.S. (Washington Post, December 28, 2001).
Appraising the Iranian Threat
Prior to September 11, there were very strong reasons for the U.S. to continue a policy of firmness towards Iran:
Iran, which has long had hegemonial ambitions in the Middle East, particularly toward Shi’ite populations in Bahrain in the UAE, in Lebanon, and in eastern Saudi Arabia, recently accelerated its military build-up; in 2000-2001 alone its defense budget grew by 50 percent (Michael Eisenstadt, MERIA Journal, Volume 5, No. 1, March 2001).
Meanwhile, Iran remained one of the worst sponsors of international terrorism: in June 2001, a U.S. District Court in Virginia identified Iran, along with Lebanon and Syria, as having hosted the training of Saudi Hizbullah for the 1996 terrorist attack on U.S. troops in al-Khobar, Saudi Arabia, that left 19 American servicemen dead and 372 wounded.
Iranian defense spending over the 1990s was not devoted to understandable security challenges along its immediate perimeter. For example, by the decade’s end, Iraq’s tank forces still outnumbered Iran’s (2,000 to 1,520) (The Middle East Military Balance, 1999-2000, Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies). Rather, Iran’s top priorities were its programs that had strategic reach well beyond Iran’s borders: the Iranian Navy, which even sought facilities in the Indian Ocean (Mozambique) and Red Sea (Sudan), and Iran’s missile/non-conventional capabilities.
Iran’s missile programs have been particularly alarming. After first test-firing its Shahab-3 1,300 kilometer range missile in August 1998, that had sufficient range to strike Israel and Turkey, the new missile became operational in February 2000. While it acquires a more reliable missile capability against Israel, Iran has forward-deployed Fajr-5 artillery rockets in Lebanon, under Iranian command and control. Meanwhile, Iran is proceeding with the Shahab-4, with a range of 2,000 kilometers, that could pose a threat to central and southern Europe. Iran is known to be planning a 10,000 kilometer range Shahab-5. For this reason the 1998 congressionally-mandated Rumsfeld Commission concluded that Iran already “has the technical capability and resources to demonstrate an ICBM (inter-continental ballistic missile)” in less than a decade. In other words, with Russian technological assistance, it is likely that Iran could possess the capability of striking U.S. territory with ballistic missiles by 2010 (W. Seth Carus in MERIA Journal,Volume 4, No. 3, September 2000).
Understanding Iranian Intentions
The Iranian regime’s development of missiles of this range is indicative of intentions that go well beyond its hostility to Israel or its regional hegemonial ambitions. Furthermore, Iran’s former president, Ali-Akbar Hasheimi-Rafsanjani, who currently serves as Chairman of the “Assembly to Discern the Interests of the State,” explicitly declared in mid-December 2001 that a nuclearized Iran could pose an existential threat to Israel:
“If a day comes when the world of Islam is duly equipped with the arms Israel has in possession, the strategy of colonialism would face a stalemate because application of an atomic bomb would not leave anything in Israel, but the same thing would just produce damages in the Muslim world.”
In a December 25, 2001, letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres warned that Rafsanjani’s statement “contradicts the Iranian claim that its plans to acquire nuclear technologies are designed for peaceful purposes.” Peres’ written conclusion about Rafsanjani was simple: he “left no room for doubt” that the Iranian regime’s “declared goal” was to destroy Israel. This was further substantiated by other Iranian declarations. On November 14, 2001, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharazi addressed a meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement in New York. Emphasizing that “the issue of Palestine can be settled only” with “the right of return,” he proposed that after its implementation a referendum then be held of all original “residents of Palestine” to determine its future political system. Kharazi was essentially presenting a program for nothing less than the eradication of Israel. The Iranian foreign minister had made the same proposal in September at Durban.
If Iran only posed a threat to Israel, while offering new diplomatic opportunities to the U.S. and its NATO allies, then it would be possible to anticipate a threat perception gap between Jerusalem and Washington. However, Iran’s continuing support for international terrorism through Hizbullah — an organization with proven global reach from South America to Saudi Arabia — and its declared interest in achieving a nuclear-strike capability demonstrates the severe hostility and broad geographic scope of involvement of the Iranian regime.
An existential threat to Israel can easily evolve into an existential threat to other states, given the planned ranges of the Iranian missile forces.
Despite short-term tactical joint interests in defeating the Taliban, the present Iranian regime has a very different foreign policy agenda from that of the West. Without a strategic change in Iranian support for terrorist organizations, any accommodation with Tehran is premature and even dangerous.