US papers twist Iranian missile tale
By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - A diplomatic cable from last February released by WikiLeaks provides a detailed account of how Russian specialists on the Iranian ballistic-missile program refuted the United States suggestion that Iran has missiles that could target European capitals, or intends to develop such a capability.
In fact, the Russians challenged the very existence of the mystery missile the US claims Iran acquired from North Korea. But readers of the two leading US newspapers never learned those key facts about the document.
The New York Times and Washington Post reported only that the United States believed Iran had acquired such missiles - supposedly called the BM-25 - from North Korea. Neither
newspaper reported the detailed Russian refutation of the US view of the issue, or the lack of hard evidence for the BM-25 from the US side.
The Times, which had obtained the diplomatic cables not from WikiLeaks but from The Guardian, according to a Washington Post story on Monday, did not publish the text of the cable.
The Times story said the newspaper had made the decision not to publish "at the request of the Obama administration". That meant that its readers could not compare the highly distorted account of the document in the Times story against the original document without searching the WikiLeaks website.
As a result, a key WikiLeaks document, which should have resulted in stories calling into question the thrust of the Obama administration's ballistic-missile defense policy in Europe based on an alleged Iranian missile threat, has produced a spate of stories supporting the existing-Iranian-threat narrative.
The full text of the US State Department report on the meeting of the Joint Threat Assessment in Washington on December 22, 2009, which is available on the WikiLeaks website, shows that there was a dramatic confrontation over the issue of the mysterious BM-25 missile.
The BM-25 has been described as a surface-to-surface missile based on a now-obsolete Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile, the R-27 or SS-N-6. The purported missile is said to be capable of reaching ranges of 2,400 to 4,000 kilometers - putting much of Europe within its range.
The head of the US delegation to the meeting, Vann H Van Diepen, acting assistant secretary for international security and non-proliferation, said the United States "believes" Iran had acquired 19 of those missiles from North Korea, according to the leaked document.
But an official of the Russian Defense Ministry dismissed published reports of such a missile, which he said were "without reference to any reliable sources".
He observed that there had never been a test of such a missile in either North Korea or Iran, and that the Russian government was "unaware that the missile had ever been seen". The Russians asked the US side for any evidence of the existence of such a missile.
US officials did not claim to have photographic or other hard evidence of the missile, but said the North Koreans had paraded the missile through the streets of Pyongyang. The Russians responded that they had reviewed a video of that parade, and had found that it was an entirely different missile.
The Russian official said there was no evidence for claims that 19 of these missiles had been shipped to Iran in 2005, and that it would have been impossible to conceal such a transfer. The Russians also said it was difficult to believe Iran would have purchased a missile system that had never even been tested.
United States delegation chief Van Dieppen cited one piece of circumstantial evidence that Iran had done work on the "steering [vernier] engines" of the BM-25. He said Internet photos of the weld lines and tank volumes on the second stage of Iran's space-launch vehicle, the Safir, showed that the ratio of oxidizer to propellant was not consistent with the propellants used in the past by the Shahab-3.
That suggests that the Safir was using the same system that had been used in the R-27, according to Van Dieppen. The Russians asserted, however, that the propellant used in the Safir was not the one used in the R-27.
Even more important evidence from the Safir launch that Iran does not have any BM-25 missiles was noted in an authoritative study of the Iranian missile program published by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) last May.
The study found that Iran had not used the main engine associated with the purported BM-25 to help boost its Safir space-launch vehicle.
If Iran had indeed possessed the more powerful engine associated with the original Russian R-27, the study observes, the Safir would have been able to launch a much larger satellite into orbit. But in fact the Safir was "clearly underpowered" and barely able to put its 27-kilogram satellite into low-Earth orbit, according to the IISS study.
The same study also points out that the original R-27 was designed to operate in a submarine launch tube, and a road-mobile variant would require major structural modifications.
Yet another reason for doubt reported by the IISS is that the propellant combination in the R-27 would not work in a land-mobile missile, because "the oxidizer must be maintained within a narrow temperature range".
Van Diepen suggested two other Iranian options: use of the Shahab-3 technology with "clustered or stacked engines" or the development of a solid-propellant missile with a more powerful engine.
The Russians expressed strong doubts about both options, however, saying they were skeptical of Iranian claims to have a missile with a 2,000 km range. They pointed out that the longest range on a missile tested thus far is 1,700 km, and that it was achieved only by significantly reducing throw weight.
Van Diepen cited "modeling" studies that showed Iran could achieve a greater range, and that adding 300 kilometers "is not a great technological stretch". But the Russian delegation insisted that the additional length of the flight could cause various parts of the missile to burn through and the missile to fall apart.
The head of the Russian delegation, Vladimir Nazarov, deputy secretary of the Russian Security Council, said Russia believed any assessment of the Iranian missile program must be based not only on modeling but on "consideration of the real technical barriers faced by Iran".
One of several such barriers cited by the Russians was the lack of the "structural materials" needed for longer-range missiles that could threaten the United States or Russia, such as "high-quality aluminum".
The Russians maintained that even assuming favorable conditions, Iran would be able to begin a program to develop ballistic missiles that could reach Central Europe or Moscow only after 2015 at the earliest.
The Russians denied, however, that Iran has such an intention, arguing that its ballistic missile program continues to be directed toward "regional concerns" - meaning deterring an attack on Iran by Israel.
The US delegation never addressed the issue of Iranian intentions - a position consistent with the dominant role of weapons specialists in the US intelligence community's assessments of Iran, and their overwhelming focus on capabilities and disinterest in intentions.
Michael Elleman, the senior author of the IISS study of the Iranian missile program, told Inter Press Service that the report on the US-Russian exchange highlights the differences in the two countries' approaches to the subject. "The Russians talked about the most likely set of outcomes," said Elleman, "whereas the US side focused on what might happen."
Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specializing in US national security policy. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.