Thursday, June 30, 2011

Iran and nuclear-capable missile tests: a look into the British claim

This week witnessed some controversial political developments regarding Iran. Most notably, in a rare incident British Foreign Minister William Hague outbid his American and Israeli counterparts in leveling serious accusations against Iran before the British House of Commons. Hague claimed that “Iran has been carrying out covert ballistic missile tests and rocket launches, including testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload in contravention of UN resolution 1929,” . According to the British foreign minister at least three secret tests of medium-range ballistic missiles have been conducted by Iran since October, including some in the ongoing missile drill by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.

Regardless of the fact that the British foreign minister has presented no evidence to substantiate his allegation, two words in his statement deserve closer scrutiny. First comes the word “covert”, which begs the question of how to determine which missile tests are what it signifies. Put differently, what is the criteria of covertness of missile tests? Advance public announcement of missile tests or any other type of military drills is what is conventionally understood to distinguish a public act from a covert one. Yet this was exactly what was done in the latest missile drill by Iran. How could some of the missile tests in the ongoing drill be labeled covert while others normal? Hague has not elaborated on this.

It appears from Hague’s statement that other claimed instances of what he has referred to as “covert missile tests” have been conducted as isolated cases and not as part of a major military drill. Common sense has it that military organizations typically conduct isolated tests of their newly-purchased or newly-developed missiles in prelude to major military drills. It simply does not sound reasonable for military organizations to publicly announce every single case of their weapons tests. After all, how often do we hear other countries publicly announce their missile tests? Why should then a different standard be applied to Iran?

Second, the term ‘nuclear-capable’ missiles is pretty nebulous and the British foreign minister has not explained how he has verified this. Many kinds of ballistic missiles are capable of carrying both conventional and non-conventional warheads. Even in the unlikely event that Iran had tested such missiles, it is pretty obvious that testing nuclear-capable missiles is not equivalent to working on the design of nuclear warheads. According to Western media reports, several other regional countries are already in possession of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. For example, Saudi Arabia is reported to have purchased nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from China in recent years. Secretary-General of the Saudi National Security Council Prince Bandar bin Sultan reportedly negotiated a deal with Chinese officials that paved the way for the transfer of two types of Chinese missiles to Saudi Arabia, including “the DF-21 (NATO-designated CSS-5), which is a two-stage, solid-propellant, single-warhead medium-range ballistic (MRBM) system developed by China Changfeng Mechanics and Electronis Technology Academy. The DF-21 is capable of delivering a 500kT nuclear warhead over a distance of 1,800 km”.

The recent statement by former Saudi intelligence chief and ambassador to Washington Prince Turki al-Faisal at a NATO meeting in the U.K. that “ if Iran were to build a nuclear weapon, that "would compel Saudi Arabia ... to pursue policies which could lead to untold and possibly dramatic consequences.", indicates that the Saudi Regime has already been planning for worst case scenarios and the purchase of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles from China can be understood as an integral part of that plan. Despite clear evidence of the possession of nuclear-capable missiles by Saudi Arabia and several other countries in the region, not to mention Israel’s formidable nuclear weapons arsenal, Iran has been target of the latest round of accusations by the British foreign minister. It has been long that double standards have been the spice of the foreign policy of Western powers towards the region but the British foreign minister has turned out to have added a different flavor to that spice.


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