By Greg Thielmann
Bilateral interagency discussions about Iranian and North Korean missiles with a Russian delegation in Washington on December 22, 2009, revealed significant differences between U.S. and Russian assessments of the threat, according to a SECRET State Department cable released by Wikileaks. The substance of the detailed discussions challenged some of the missile threat estimate timelines most commonly heard in U.S. political circles. The cable also revealed a highly professional and courteous exchange of views, which suggests future potential for narrowing of differences between competing estimates and for facilitating U.S.-Russian missile defense cooperation.
So far, the U.S. press seems to have passed over some of the most interesting elements in the cable, highlighting instead the U.S. claim that Iran had obtained 19 missiles from North Korea, based on the R-27 (SS-N-6), a Russian submarine-launched design from the 1960s. Notable exceptions to this common story line can be found in the commentary of David Hoffman and Gareth Porter.
Both the New York Times and the Washington Post coverage led with the 19 imported missiles angle and left an impression of imminent danger not merited by the specifics in the cable. For example, the New York Times declared: "[Iran] has in its arsenal..." The Washington Post carried an Associated Press story, leading with: "[Iran] has received advanced North Korean missiles capable of targeting Western European capitals and giving the Islamic Republic's arsenal a significantly farther reach than previously disclosed." This language implies that those missiles are ready for operational use. However, the text of the cable makes clear this is not the case. Moreover, independent studies such as the May 2010 IISS dossier, "Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities" and the report's principal drafter, Michael Elleman, have noted that Iran or North Korea would have to introduce some "very significant changes" and conduct multiple flight tests if they wanted to use this missile type as a mobile platform– see Elleman comments at ACA's panel discussion on November 22. According to the leaked cable, the U.S. admitted it had not seen the missile in Iran and both sides agreed there had been no flight tests of the system in Iran or North Korea; the Russians even expressed doubt that the missiles exist.
Experts will differ on whether Moscow's focus on current operational threats or Washington's on technically feasible future threats is most relevant for policy makers. But looking back on a cable reporting a meeting from the end of last year, Russian skepticism about U.S. projections for Iranian capabilities seems warranted. With regard to the most capable solid-fueled MRBM Iran has flight-tested to date, the Sejjil-2, "The U.S. said that it would not be surprised if a two-stage [solid] system with a range up to 2,000 km were fielded within a year, at least in limited numbers." That system was not fielded in 2010. In fact, the Iranians did not even conduct a single flight-test of any medium-range ballistic missile all year long.