Features | Security | Central Asia

The Danger of a Tehran Winter

While international attention focuses on an ‘Arab Spring,’ the prospect of a nuclear Iran still looms large over the region, argues Joel Starr.

By Joel E. Starr for

‘Welcome to the earthquake!’ boomed Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to our congressional delegation last month in Jerusalem.  ‘An Arab earthquake,’ he told us, ‘that has been shaking the Middle East politically, affecting all countries in the region except Israel.  Why?  Because Israel represents the only existing democracy in the Middle East where all of its citizens—Jew and Arab—already have a voice in their society.’

‘But,’ he added, ‘do not be distracted from the single most important pre-existing threat to Israel and the United States:  Iran.’

In the midst of what some are calling the Arab Spring (after the 1968 Prague Spring) the United States should heed Netanyahu’s warning, and redouble efforts to contain and defeat the nuclear threat posed by Iran.

But it’s about more than Iran’s nuclear programme. The revolutionary spirit of hope and democracy that is now filling the Arab street must not be hijacked by radical fundamentalist thought fuelled from Tehran. Sustained and unwavering US support of Israel, while refocusing on the threat from Iran, will keep the pressure on this repressive regime, retard its nuclear development, and hopefully stunt ideological and materiel support to anti-democratic forces seeking to end the Arab Spring.  

Of course Netanyahu’s warning isn’t new—he was warning about Iran as far back as 1996, when he addressed the US Congress during his first tenure as prime minister.  US Sen. James Inhofe, who led our congressional delegation and is a member of both the Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, has also been making such warnings on the Senate floor since 2002. But it’s clear that events in the Maghreb demand refocused attention on halting Iran’s nuclear and radical Muslim fundamentalist ambitions.

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There’s no time to lose. Netanyahu said that we are in a ‘pivot of history’ where, unless we do something now, Iran will become the first militant Islamic regime to possess nuclear weapons.

Regardless of such warnings, it’s clear that the public at large doesn’t fully realize the nuclear threat posed by Iran to Israel and the United States (or as the Iranian mullahs call us, the ‘Little and Big Satan’). And to date, Arab ‘earthquakes’ haven’t interfered with Iran’s ability to fund terrorist organizations or develop its nuclear and ballistic missile programmes. The swift and deadly punishment meted out to Iranian Green Movement revolutionaries after their 2009 presidential election with no international repercussions speaks for itself. 

This has meant that Iran has continued to provide terrorist organizations with arms and resources, including militants in Iraq, Hamas in Gaza, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and allegedly also the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. 

To fulfill its goals, Iran has over the last decade aggressively pursued the development of medium-and long-range missiles, including the continued development of the Ashura and Shahab-3 missiles and the launching of the Safir Space Launch Vehicle and the Kavoshgar 3 (Explorer) rocket.  According to the US Missile Defense Agency, by successfully launching multi-stage, liquid fuelled rockets, Iran has demonstrated the key technologies of propulsion, staging,and guidance to deliver a weapon of mass destruction globally. 

Experts we’ve heard from in Congress have said such a weapon could hit the East Coast of the United States within the next five years.  But in spite of all this, President Barack Obama opposed and then killed the ground-based missile interceptors scheduled to be deployed in Poland and the Czech Republic in order to ‘reset’ relations with Russia.

There’s no doubt that Iran would like to have the ability to fire long range missiles tipped with nuclear warheads. But in response to requests from envoys representing the United States, European Union, and the United Nations for Iran to abandon its nuclear programme or face more isolation and sanctions, Iran has either ignored or mocked such efforts to bring it into the community of non-proliferating nations.  It continues to play cat-and-mouse with the international community about holding talks, while clinging to its fig-leaf claim that it is seeking nuclear development only for civilian energy purposes.

To combat this threat, the United States and Israel are now working together to develop air defence systems and a multi-layered missile defence system—the two countries have signed an agreement for 20 F-35 Joint Strike Fighters worth an estimated $2.7 billion, with deliveries scheduled to begin in 2016. The two countries have also successfully conducted the 19th test of the Arrow system, with an Arrow II missile intercepting a simulated Iranian ballistic missile, and we are developing the Arrow III to intercept missiles outside the Earth’s atmosphere so there is no toxic debris. 

Meanwhile, the United States is funding development of the ‘Iron Dome’ system to intercept projectiles used by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and the Iran-backed Hizbollah in Lebanon.  This system passed initial tests last summer and has just been deployed against the swarm of 60 rockets fired at Israeli communities from the Gaza strip last week. It’s also scheduled to be deployed in northern Israel along Lebanon's border.  The United States is also funding ‘David's Sling’—also  known as ‘Magic Wand’—to  intercept rockets with a range of hundreds of miles. It should be completed by 2013. And finally, the United States and Israel will continue to integrate, operate and train together in exercises such as the Juniper Cobra 10—the first major joint exercise integrating THAAD, Patriot, Aegis, and Arrow defence missile systems and the largest joint missile defence exercise in the world. 

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But there’s been more to US efforts to ensure stability than fostering ties with Israel. The United States has also been working to bolster security agreements with other nations in the region, such as Saudi Arabia, to enhance the country’s advanced air and missile defence technologies and reinforce unified missile defence plans against Iran. The United States will ensure, however, that Israel will always maintain a qualitative military advantage in the region.

Taken collectively, all of these air and missile defence systems must be fully funded and constantly upgraded to protect against the regional and global Iranian nuclear threat. It isn’t good enough to simply trust intelligence estimates predicting when Iran will have a certain ballistic or nuclear capability—intelligence estimates have been wrong in the past, and we don’t have the luxury of being able to be wrong about this threat.  Just look at how surprised we were back in 1998 when North Korea launched a long-range ballistic missile that sailed over Japan. 

As Netanyahu pointed out in our meeting, US support to Israel is a ‘bargain basement investment’ in providing security to the United States from the Iranian threat when compared to the billions already spent legitimately in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Sustained and unwavering US support of Israel, while refocusing on the threat from Iran, will keep the pressure on this repressive regime, inhibit its nuclear development,and perhaps stunt ideological and materiel support to anti-democratic forces in the Middle East. Unless we continue to fight the nuclear and terrorist threat from Iran, there’s a genuine chance that we’ll be facing not an Arab Spring, but a Tehran Winter.

 

Joel E. Starr serves as Counsel and Legislative Assistant to US  Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Ranking Member on the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and a senior Member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.  Starr was Deputy Assistant Secretary of State from 2007-09, and is a Major in the US Army Reserve Judge Advocate General’s Corps.