According to some reports from various locations (I’ll begin with Hudson Institute’s as that is where I first read it with a h/t to Xformed for his heads-up) it would appear that back in October, Iran and Venezuela signed an agreement that, among other things, would establish a joint base in Venezuela as well as jointly developing and deploying ballistic missiles of varying ranges, up to and including the SHAHAB-3 with a nominal range of 1500-1800km. Reaction in the blog-sphere was limited, but along expected lines with many comparisons being made to the Soviet’s foray into Cuba and followed with demands for actions ranging from blockades to offensive operations.

Let’s step back for a minute and try and examine this from a couple of standpoints, beginning with the political, followed by an assessment of the threat missiles and then a little historical compare and contrast. We’ll wrap with a a short discussion on extant conventions and declarations that have bearing on this case and which may offer some avenues of approach and action.  

1. Political.  

   Iran is increasingly economically and politically isolated as a direct result of its nuclear program.  Yet Iran is still able to link with other states also finding themselves on the list of international pariahs (e.g., Syria, North Korea) and in so doing, looks for ways to export energy while importing the technical, scientific and engineering knowledge (and cash) needed to finance that nuclear program as well as others – such as its very active ballistic missile program.  Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez, has managed to antagonize a long list of neighbors and regional powers, including Colombia, Brazil and the US.  His appeal to and support from radicalized elements in Venezuelan society deepens the enmity and suspicions as to his true intents and purpose.  Like Iran, Chavez too is looking for aid and assistance in developing the domestic gas and oil industry, suffering in the wake of his nationalization that sent so much expertise home.  To this end, Iran and Venezuela have already launched joint ventures (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, housing, and infrastructure) beginning with a finalization in 2007 of a $2 billion joint-fund for their numerous projects. As a major investor in the Ayacucho oil field joint project ($4 billion), Iran has agreed in 2008 to invest an additional $760 million in Venezuela’s energy sector and in 2009 and Venezuela agreed to invest $760 million in Iran’s South Pars gas field. In late October 2010, Venezuela offered an additional $800 million investment package in Iran’s Pars Field gas sector. Iran has also invested in Venezuela’s uranium mining industry – a necessary move on their part given the paucity of native uranium. Left unsaid, but not unnoticed, is the manner in which these large investments may be used to cover and facilitate the flow of cash, arms and people potentially used to promote and support “revolutionary” aims. Venezuela is one of the few countries permitting direct flights to/from Iran, which in itself increases the degree of difficulty in tracking persons of interest.

But economics isn’t the whole of it — in the run-up to the NATO Summit in Lisbon back in November, there was considerable effort on the part of the US to elevate discussions on missile defense to assume a major role in the conference with a desired outcome of the European partners agreeing to the necessity for missile defense in general, and regional defense in particular, something they had been studying for the better part of a half-decade. Until the eve of the conference, the basis of the discussion was focused on the threat presented by the growing numbers of Iranian medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) and the threat they constituted to peace and stability in the Middle East as well as the threat to many cities in Eastern Europe. I say until the eve of the conference, because in a move to get Turkish buy-in to the concept of regional defense, specific language referring to Iran was removed from the table and substituted with more generic wording about the general threat presented by ballistic missiles, assuaging Turkey’s concerns about singling out Iran. How does this tie-in with Venezuela? Just as Syria provides a kind of diplomatic/military/economic breakout for Iran (of albeit limited means), so too does a feint with Venezuela. On the one hand, there is the opportunity it provides for domestic agendas and consumption — ongoing defiance of the US-dominated West and associated institutions, for example, continuing to trade on the one-sidedness of UN sanctions. Coming on the eve of the Lisbon Summit it was seen as an opportunity to preempt the NTO minister’s regional missile defense announcement with a bit of strategic tit-for-tat as well. On the other is the opportunity for the aforementioned hard currency.  

2. The Threat.


What type of threat set then would be presented by deployment of ballistic missiles to Venezuela? Primarily, they will serve to heighten tensions in the region, but chiefly with Venzuela’s immediate neighbors – Colombia and Brazil. There are long standing disagreements between Venzuela and Colombia over border areas and Colombia’s assertion that Chavez is providing assistance to rebel forces in the shared border regions. The majority of the missiles mentioned as part of the deal will have ranges of 600 km or less and thus, be of principal interest to states immediately bordering Venezuela. Among these are the Fateh 110 and ZelZal solid fuel, mobile rockets (up to 400 km range), SCUD C (up to 600 km range) and SHAHAB 3 (up to 1500 – 2000 km range though most estimates focus on the 1500-1800 km range).

 By far and way, the most attention has been focused though on the SHAHAB 3. The SHAHAB (derived from Persian: شهاب-Û³, meaning “Meteor”) is a domestically produced and modified, liquid-fueled SR/MRBM derived from the SCUD B, first obtained from Libya during the Iran Iraq war. Over time, the Iranians have modified the basic SCUD to improve range and accuracy with new or modified airframes, tankage, up-rated engines and most notably, changes in the nosecone shape for dealing with aerodynamic loading and heat dissipation. The longer-range variants (over 1000km) were alleged to have been tested in 2008 as part of the Great Prophet II wargames, though some subsequent test claims have been disputed. Nevertheless, Iran is moving towards a larger MRBM force as a strategic deterrent to Israel and the US (primarily) and as a means for coercion in the region. The missile is transportable, though the continued use of liquid fuel (and extremely toxic fuel at that) impacts the ability of the missile to be a truly mobile deterrent.

In view of these characteristics, Iran appears to be following a dual track approach for deployments using on the one hand, underground storage with dispersal to pre-surveyed sites as tensions increase and a presumably smaller cohort based in semi-hardened shelters (similar to the early Atlas deployments) for a more rapid response. With a range of 1500-1800km, the SHAHAB 3 is able to cover Israel from northern/central Iran as well as US and allied forces in Iraq, Afghanistan and the better part of the region. Because the missiles are presumed to armed with conventional explosives only (Iran is a long way from producing a nuclear device, much less one that will fit in the RV of a SHAHAB 3) and have a pretty large Circular Error Probable (CEP), a preemptive or response launch would entail large numbers of mssiles to both overwhelm defenses as well as offsetting their poor accuracy and would be limited primarily to countervalue-type targets (so-called “soft” targets). All this sets the stage to examine the real threat potentially posed by these missiles. Presuming the SHAHAB is deployed to Venezuela (and there are indicators it won’t), the credibility of the threat is negligeable considering the extreme range required to reach the continental US (and southeast Florida in particular) and the amount of damage potentially to inflicted vs the guaranteed response by US, if not a combined US-regional force. Absent a nuclear or other WMD-type warhead, and with the limited numbers likely to be deployed (more token than credible deterrent) this threat, unlike that of the nuclear armed SS-4s and FROGs in Cuba would have little if any credible deterrence. In that case, there was a potential threat set that provided nuclear coverage of most of the southeastern US and incorporated short flight times (less than 15 minutes) enabling a decapitating first strike, substantially delaying or preventing a response.

3.  Options

As alluded to above, there is every likelihood that this agreement will not proceed beyond mere tokenism – Venezuelan VIPs at Iranian launches, a drawn out site construction process, etc. There may even be delivery of a certain number of the shorter-range missiles (e.g., Fateh 110) though we have not seen export of these except to Syria and possibly to Hezbollah forces in northern Lebanon . Nevertheless, assuming deployments proceed, there are a range of options under the DIME (DIplomatic/Military/Economic) umbrella to work with. Two venues are of particular note where ballistic missiles are involved – the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and applicable UNSCR resolutions.  The MTCR is:

“(A)n informal and voluntary association of countries which share the goals of non-proliferation of unmanned delivery systems capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction, and which seek to coordinate national export licensing efforts aimed at preventing their proliferation. The MTCR was originally established in 1987 by Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States. Since that time, the number of MTCR partners has increased to a total of thirty-four countries, all of which have equal standing within the Regime.
The MTCR was initiated partly in response to the increasing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction (WMD), i.e., nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. The risk of proliferation of WMD is well recognized as a threat to international peace and security, including by the UN Security Council in its Summit Meeting Declaration of January 31, 1992. While concern has traditionally focussed on state proliferators, after the tragic events of 11 September 2001, it became evident that more also has to be done to decrease the risk of WMD delivery systems falling into the hands of terrorist groups and individuals. One way to counter this threat is to maintain vigilance over the transfer of missile equipment, material, and related technologies usable for systems capable of delivering WMD.
The MTCR rests on adherence to common export policy guidelines (the MTCR Guidelines) applied to an integral common list of controlled items (the MTCR Equipment, Software and Technology Annex). All MTCR decisions are taken by consensus, and MTCR partners regularly exchange information about relevant national export licensing issues.
National export licensing measures on these technologies make the task of countries seeking to achieve capability to acquire and produce unmanned means of WMD delivery much more difficult. As a result, many countries, including all MTCR partners, have chosen voluntarily to introduce export licensing measures on rocket and other unmanned air vehicle delivery systems or related equipment, material and technology.”

As a voluntary association, however, it carries little in the way of ability to enforce sanctions against member states – some of whom have only acceded to part of or earlier provisions of the regieme (e.g., China). Non-member states presumably would be prevented from obtaining the necessary technology and engineering knowledge and equipment – but that presumes an informal alliance between non-member states would gain little. Unfortunately, we are seeing a growing linkage between the programs in Syria, Iran, and North Korea which may be a slower path, is still providing the necessary ingredients for successful programs, especially in the case of Iran. Alternately, the sanctions outlined by UNSCR resolutions provide for actions in the event they are ignored or subverted. In particular, for Iran, this would focus on UNSCR 1737 et al which provide legal ground for actions like interdiction, should we choose to do so:

“7. Decides that Iran shall not export any of the items in documents S/2006/814 and S/2006/815 and that all Member States shall prohibit the procurement of such items from Iran by their nationals, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in the territory of Iran;
“8. Decides that all States shall prevent the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer to Iran, from or through their territories or by their nationals or individuals subject to their jurisdiction, or using their flag vessels or aircraft, and whether or not originating in their territories, of any battle tanks, armoured combat vehicles, large calibre artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems as defined for the purpose of the United Nations Register of Conventional Arms, or related materiel, including spare parts, or items as determined by the Security Council or the Committee established pursuant to resolution 1737 (2006) (“the Committee”), decides further that all States shall prevent the provision to Iran by their nationals or from or through their territories of technical training, financial resources or services, advice, other services or assistance related to the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture, maintenance or use of such arms and related materiel, and, in this context, calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and restraint over the supply, sale, transfer, provision, manufacture and use of all other arms and related materiel;”
“9. Decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities;”
“17. Calls upon all States to exercise vigilance and prevent specialized teaching or training of Iranian nationals, within their territories or by their nationals, of disciplines which would contribute to Iran’s proliferation sensitive nuclear activities and development of nuclear weapon delivery systems;”

Under similar provisions stipulated for North Korea, the Spanish navy stopped an unflagged merchantman that had been tracked leaving North Korea and bound for Yemen with a load of SCUD parts concealed by bags of concrete.  

 Clearly, Iran would have to undertake a notable effort to ship airframes, support equipment, warheads and personnel to establish and maintain a joint base of operations in Venezuela – one for which it (a) is resource poor but more importantly (b) could rebound decisively against the regime if a growing segment of the populace, increasingly afflicted under sanctions, perceives this as an unnecessary foreign adventure. Likewise, overt moves and measures taken by Chavez utilizing these weapons will equally threaten his government’s survival in a region where suspicions already are elevated over previous purchases from abroad. As much as we tend to paint both leaders as wildly irrational, at their core, self-preservation rules and one expects a certain degree of self-limiting rationality to be imposed.  Unlike the case of the Soviets installing nuclear armed IRBMs in Cuba, this threat is still talk only – affording the US a wider range of options to employ without the urgency of a Cuban Missile Crisis.  And while both parties (Iran and Venezuela) should take the time to thoughtfully reconsider COAs, one party in particular ought to be especially thoughtful about pushing beyond heated rhetoric – because, afterall, there is still the Noriega option if someone in this hemisphere gets too far out of the box.