Iran can al­ready make an ICBM any time it wants

So we need to keep it busy do­ing some­thing else — like send­ing satel­lites into space

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - JEF­FREY LEWIS

If you like North Korea’s nu­clear-armed ICBM, you are go­ing to love Amer­ica walk­ing away from the nu­clear deal with Iran.

On this week’s episode of the Fed­eral Ap­pren­tice, the staff forced Don­ald Trump to cer­tify that Iran is com­ply­ing with the nu­clear deal bro­kered by his pre­de­ces­sor. None too happy with that out­come, Trump is re­port­edly ex­plor­ing ways to col­lapse it. That’s a ter­ri­ble idea. Two rocket tests launched last week by Iran and North Korea help ex­plain why. They of­fer a use­ful op­por­tu­nity to com­pare two very dif­fer­ent pos­si­bil­i­ties: what Iran looks like to­day, with the nu­clear deal in place, and how things have turned out with North Korea.

Last week, Iran launched a rocket called the Si­morgh as part of a pro­gram to place satel­lites in or­bit.

Space launches do not vi­o­late the terms of the nu­clear deal. The text of the deal is silent on mis­sile launches.

Ac­cord­ingly, UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil Res­o­lu­tion 2231, which im­ple­mented the deal, toned down the tough lan­guage in pre­vi­ous res­o­lu­tions. Iran is merely “called upon” — the diplo­matic equiv­a­lent of a sug­ges­tion — to re­frain from ac­tiv­i­ties re­lated to “bal­lis­tic mis­siles de­signed to be ca­pa­ble of de­liv­er­ing nu­clear weapons.” (And the term “de­signed to be ca­pa­ble” is so am­bigu­ous as to be al­most mean­ing­less.)

Th­ese de­tails, though, don’t mat­ter. The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion is al­ready sig­nalling it in­tends to sab­o­tage the nu­clear deal by in­sist­ing on in­spec­tions in a trans­par­ent and cyn­i­cal ef­fort to push Iran out of the agree­ment.

Ac­cord­ing to Nikki Ha­ley, the U.S. am­bas­sador to the UN, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion won’t be talk­ing about North Korea’s mis­sile launch. Af­ter all, what’s to talk about?

North Korea’s re­cent tests of an ICBM clearly vi­o­late var­i­ous UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tions, and the United States isn’t go­ing to do any­thing about it. North Korea’s Hwa­song-14 ICBM flew more than 3,700 kilo­me­tres in al­ti­tude be­fore land­ing in the Sea of Ja­pan. Had North Korea fired the Hwa­song-14 on a nor­mal tra­jec­tory, it would have trav­elled far enough to hit most ma­jor U.S. cities in­clud­ing New York and Los An­ge­les.

The peo­ple who are promis­ing you a bet­ter deal with Iran have ex­actly no plan to deal with North Korea.

Dur­ing the 1990s, a lot of U.S. of­fi­cials ob­jected to any diplo­matic agree­ment with North Korea that would al­low it to use its own rock­ets to launch satel­lites into space, ar­gu­ing that the coun­try would learn too much about ICBMs. The Barack Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion walked away from a deal with North Korea in April 2012 be­cause Py­ongyang in­sisted it be able to con­duct a space launch to cel­e­brate Kim Il Sung’s birth­day.

The short-sight­ed­ness of those de­ci­sions should now be ob­vi­ous.

North Korea has tested an ICBM that can de­liver a nu­clear weapon through­out the United States. Did it con­vert its Unha space launcher, which the United States calls the Tae­podong-2, into an ICBM? No, it did not. It built some­thing far more fright­en­ing.

North Korea’s ICBM, known as the Hwa­song-14, looks noth­ing like the Tae­podong-2 or Iran’s Si­morgh. The lat­ter mis­siles are very large. It takes North Korea and Iran a long time to as­sem­ble them us­ing cranes and then to fuel them. The Si­morgh was re­port­edly vis­i­ble on the launch pad for an en­tire day. In a war, the United States isn’t go­ing to give ei­ther Iran or North Korea a day to as­sem­ble a nu­clear-armed mis­sile.

That is pre­cisely why North Korea de­vel­oped the Hwa­song-14.

The mis­sile is small enough to be trans­ported by a big truck that can drive to a re­mote lo­ca­tion and then ready the mis­sile to launch, prob­a­bly in un­der an hour. That makes the Hwa­song-14 ex­traor­di­nar­ily dif­fi­cult for the United States to track.

For the most re­cent test, North Korea seems to have fired the mis­sile from a sur­prise lo­ca­tion deep in­side the coun­try.

There are, of course, links be­tween space launch pro­grams and bal­lis­tic mis­siles. At CNS, my re­search in­sti­tute, we sus­pect that the sec­ond stage of North Korea’s Hwa­song-14 mis­sile is sim­i­lar to the up­per stages de­signed for the Ira­nian space launch ve­hi­cles. And while that does mean that Iran’s space pro­grams could help ad­vance an ICBM pro­gram, it also sug­gests some­thing else. We are now see­ing in­no­va­tions in Iran that later ap­pear in North Korea. Iran could build an ICBM just as well as North Korea, if not bet­ter, when­ever it wants. So what’s stop­ping Tehran? Prob­a­bly be­cause it is hard to imag­ine an ICBM with any pur­pose other than de­liv­er­ing a nu­clear weapon. That would throw the Iran nu­clear deal into chaos and trig­ger a con­fronta­tion that, for the mo­ment, Tehran seems to want to avoid. In other words, the deal is work­ing.

If we want it to keep work­ing, we have to learn to live with Iran’s as­pi­ra­tions for space flight.

In life, there are some risks that you sim­ply can­not elim­i­nate.

And there is this: Idle hands are the devil’s play­things. If we re­ally want to dis­cour­age Iran from build­ing an ICBM, we need to keep Iran busy do­ing some­thing else. If Iran’s mis­sile sci­en­tists are con­tent with send­ing satel­lites into space, that’s fine by me. We can sanc­tion them when they sell their ser­vices to North Korea, but if they stop, we need to be pre­pared to wel­come them into the com­mu­nity of space­far­ing states.

Per­haps that’s not the best out­come, but it could be worse. Look at North Korea.

Jef­frey Lewis writes on for­eign pol­icy for the Wash­ing­ton Post


A hand­out photo from the Ira­nian De­fence Min­istry shows a Si­morgh satel­lite-car­ry­ing rocket be­ing launched from an undis­closed site in Iran on July 27. The launch comes two days af­ter the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives ap­proved a bill that would im­pose ad­di­tional sanc­tions against Iran, Rus­sia and North Korea.

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