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Iran Seeks Image of Defiance With New Missile Tests

September 28, 2009 at 12:00 AM EST
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Iran has test-fired its most advanced missiles, demonstrating its ability to strike targets as far away as Europe, and increasing tensions over its nuclear program. Analysts break down the details of the development.
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JIM LEHRER: In Washington today, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said Iran’s decision to test-fire missiles was “provocative.”

Now, Judy Woodruff continues our lead story coverage.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on Iran’s missile tests, we turn to Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and Michael Elleman, a former United Nations missile inspector who’s now a visiting fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Thank you both for being with us.

I’m going to start with you, Michael Elleman. These missiles tests, what more do we know about them?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN, former United Nations Missile Inspector: Well, we know very little other than the Iranian proclamations. They have not released videotapes of these specific tests, so we don’t know how successful they might have been. But, nonetheless, it is a continued effort by Iran to develop the systems, and the development tests appear to be going on schedule.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So how much beyond what was known about Iran’s capability does this represent? How much of an advance is this?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Well, it’s not an advance at all, in terms of the Shahab-3. They’ve been testing this missile since 1998. They’ve been making incremental improvements to the system, but they have not, you know, developed a new capability with regard to their liquid propellant systems. The Sejjil test is the fourth test that they’ve conducted.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This is the other missile.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: The solid propellant system, which in the longer term has greater consequence, but as of right now it’s not a deployable system. It’s simply in its first years of development. It’s at least a couple years away from being deployed.

JUDY WOODRUFF: At least a couple of years away.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Yes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And how much of this was this a surprise to the United States?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: I don’t think it was a surprise at all. My understanding is that these military exercises had been planned in advance. The question as to whether they had actually planned to launch these strategic missiles — or strategic for Iran — that might have been a surprise to some.

But we would be expecting these tests. They seemed to be doing them about twice a year. And this would be on schedule, the last tests having occurred in May.

A 'show of strength'

Karim Sadjapour
Carnegie Endowment for Int. Peace
This was a show of strength ahead of these negotiations...to project an image of defiance to the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Karim Sadjadpour, what is it believed that Iran is up to, coming just days after it was learned that they had this second uranium enrichment site, and just days before they're due to have this meeting with the big powers?

KARIM SADJADPOUR, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: Judy, this has long been the modus operandi of the Iranian regime, particularly the modus operandi of supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, that when the world thinks you're under pressure, given these latest revelations of the uranium enrichment facility in Qom, show the world that you're not going to compromise. Don't compromise, because that's going to project weakness.

So I think this was a show of strength ahead of these negotiations to show the -- to project an image of defiance to the world.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So a gesture, a symbol, in other words?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Absolutely. I think the conventional wisdom since these revelations were made in Qom is that now the West has the upper hand, because this has strengthened European resolve, and now it's going to make it more difficult for the Russians to give Iran the benefit of the doubt.

And Iran is trying to say that, no, don't think that we're under pressure, don't think we're in a position to compromise. We're going to move forward like we had planned on it in the past.

JUDY WOODRUFF: From a political standpoint, how much more of a threat does this make Iran in the region and beyond?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I think broadly speaking, Judy, after the June 12th elections, what's transpired in Iran is that the moderate and pragmatic elements in the system have really been purged, and so, whereas in the past you had perhaps more checks and balances, right now you have essentially the country being ruled by a cartel, a cartel of hard-line clergymen and nouveau riche revolutionary guardsmen.

And I remember President Ahmadinejad said a couple years ago and he said more recently that Iran's nuclear program is a train with no brakes and no reverse gear. I think they're going to move forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How does this affect, Michael Elleman, the balance of power in that region, in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Well, certainly, it has to be a continuing worry for the Israelis, because the systems that they have in place now, the missiles, can reach Israel and have been able to since they deployed them in 2003.

On a strategic level, over the long term, Iran may be able to develop with their solid propellant systems longer-range capabilities, in other words, be able to threaten Western Europe. But this is 5, 10 years down the road, and there will be a number of indicators or signatures of activity that will allow us to forecast that well in advance of its realization.

JUDY WOODRUFF: If this was a step, as you say, that wasn't a surprise, then does that mean that further tests can be expected down the road as they advance, make even further advances on these missiles?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Well, certainly. The tests from a technical perspective have two primary objectives. One, you have to train the troops on how to operate the systems. They're not simple. They need to go through exercises. And with the Shahab-3, I think that's exactly what they're doing, though they are incorporating some minor modifications to improve its performance.

With the Sejjil, they're still trying to establish that they can reproducibly and reliably produce this missile. And that will take another four years of testing, if history is any indicator of the future.

Impact on upcoming nuclear talks

Michael Elleman
Institute for Strategic Studies
I think we're making much more fuss over what I would call just ordinary developments.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, again, Karim Sadjadpour, with these talks coming up just Thursday of this week, is it thought that this strengthens Iran's hand? Does it unsettle these talks? How is that being viewed?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think Iran is going to go into the meeting with two objectives. One, they want to project this image of defiance, that we're not in the mood to compromise, we don't feel like we need to compromise on one hand.

On the other hand, I think they want to show just enough leg to make sure that there's a second meeting, to drag on these negotiations. And I think they will be able to reconcile that.

I think, from the vantage point of the West, particularly the United States, there's very little confidence that this particular Iranian regime is willing or capable of making the type of meaningful compromises to meet the United States halfway or even a third of the way.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Drag on the meetings for how long?

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Well, I think that this is a regime which has ceded enormous legitimacy domestically. And in a way -- a way of trying to recoup that legitimacy is to show their own population that great powers are now negotiating with us, we are legitimate.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Michael Elleman, if you are part of the military establishment in any one of these other countries -- United States, Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China -- how does it affect your attitude toward Iran?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Well, Iran has a very limited ability to use its air force to attack targets a good distance away from their border. This is the only mechanism that they have in place where they can threaten targets as far as Israel or the Persian Gulf. So in that sense, you must plan your military strategies to be able to counter that.

And in fact, if you look at the missile defense programs that Israel has and the change in the missile defense programs that the U.S. has announced two weeks ago, we see that we're trying to develop and implement capabilities that will be able to neutralize the Iranian missile threat.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Is it possible we're making too much of this, making too big a deal of this?

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Of the missile tests themselves?

JUDY WOODRUFF: Yes.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Yes, I think we're making much more fuss over what I would call just ordinary developments.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: I would agree with that. I always look at the institution of the bazaar. And I say that, when you go into a carpet bazaar and you see a carpet you like, never show the merchant how much you like that carpet, because if he knows you're not going to leave the shop without the carpet, he can extract a very high price for it.

I think from -- from the Iranians' vantage point, they say, well, if the Americans feel so strongly about our nuclear program, then they should offer us the corresponding price. And I actually once posed this to an Iranian official. I said that, I don't think this nuclear pg was ever so important for Iran until it became so important to the United States. And he said that's absolutely right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So what you're saying is, for the rest of the world, just to act as if this is -- to yawn and say, you know, "What's next?"

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Speak softly and carry a big stick, I would say.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, we'll leave it there. Karim Sadjadpour, thank you.

Michael Elleman, thank you both.

MICHAEL ELLEMAN: Thank you, Judy.

KARIM SADJADPOUR: Thank you.