The Message in the Missiles

July 17, 2008

Last week the ayatollahs’ capacity to stow death and destruction beyond Iran’s borders was on full display, when a barrage of Shahab missiles was test fired. Also last week, the French energy company, Total, pulled out of a huge investment in Iran’s gas sector, citing “political risks.”

Meanwhile, back in Iran, the gallows were busy. On July 10, Khalij Fars news agency reported four men were publicly hanged in the southern city of Borazjan. On Sunday, two men were hanged in the central city of Isfahan. A day before, Iran’s Supreme Court upheld the death sentence for three Kurdish political activists.

The common thread here is that Tehran faces mounting political and social dissent, aggravated by factional infighting, at home, and growing international isolation abroad. Belligerence looks to Tehran like a way out of this impasse.

Dismissing the missile test as a mere bluster is very dangerous. Much has been made of the unimpressive technology and Tehran’s failed attempt at doctoring images of the launch. That analysis misses the point that Tehran’s missile capability still poses a grave threat to the region, because the intent behind it is belligerent.

Moreover, Iran’s missile program has made advances in recent years, particularly since the ascendance of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to the pantheon of power and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s presidency in 2005. After the main Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK) exposed Tehran’s nuclear site at Lavizan in 2003, the regime transferred much of its nuclear work to secret tunnels. As I reported in my book, The Iran Threat: President Ahmadinejad and Coming Nuclear Crisis, the secrecy of Iran’s missile production is now based upon so much of the program being underground. North Korea has been Iran’s primary collaborator in building and expanding this underground infrastructure, providing experts and blueprints.

In September 2005, MEK provided more details about Iran’s missile operations in the secret tunnels associated with the Parchin Military Complex, a site 19 miles southeast of Tehran. A few weeks later the group was able to provide new information about the massive size and operations of the regime’s tunnel complexes.

Accessible only by military roads, the largest tunnel complex is beneath the mountains of the Khojir region, just east of Tehran. This is where Movahed Industries, housed in the largest tunnel in the Khojir complex, builds the main body, does the final assembly, and warehouses the final product. This tunnel is about 1,000 meters long and 12 meters wide. Inside are six forklike, 500 meter extensions which extends from deep inside the central area of Khojir to the Bar Jamali Mountain.

The eyewitness accounts of the Iranian opposition sources inside Iran describe this tunnel as an underground city, complete with its own firefighting system, steam boilers for an independent heating system, air conditioning, water pumps, and a water-resistant electrical system.

Security measures include codenames for the industries that work on various aspects of the program. For example, Nori Industries, which builds the warhead and is the most secretive part of the program, is known as “8500.”

The Khojir complex also contains dozens of other well-equipped tunnels that vary in length from 150 to 300 meters and contain more industries and warehouses in which missiles are kept. Among these is Bakeri Industries Group, whose five facilities in the Khojir complex produce surface-to-surface missiles, including the Iran-designed Fateh A-110, Nazeat, and Zolqadr. Fateh was among the missiles the Iranian regime fired last week.

Indeed, in an interview with the French daily Le Monde on February 25, 2005, Iran’s then nuclear negotiator Hassan Rowhani, acknowledged that reports about Iran building tunnels to hide its nuclear technology “could be true.”

So with much of the ayatollahs’ missile program tucked away in massive underground tunnels, the level of its missile technology cannot really be judged from the video clips of last week’s launch. But one thing the world can be certain of is the nefarious intent of a regime whose IRGC commanders boast they have their fingers on thousands of missile triggers, aimed at 32 U.S. targets in the Middle East, and will plunge the region into “raging fire”. Bluster? Maybe, but can the free world afford to take that chance?

The mullahs are building nuclear bombs and the missiles to carry them. Nuclear capability will make them a powerhouse in the region, and will bolster the morale of the hated IRGC, the key means to their repressive regime’s staying power.

Although the ayatollahs’ missile-rattling can hardly disguise their growing political weakness, if they are not stopped, we are looking at a nuclear-armed state-sponsor of terrorism with an aggressive agenda that extends beyond neighboring Iraq. Washington needs to recognize this fact, with finality.

A day before the ayatollahs’ launch, the US Treasury Department slapped new sanctions on Tehran and pursuant to Executive Order 13382, designated four individuals and four entities for their roles in Iran’s missile and nuclear program. As Stuart Levey, under Secretary of Treasury for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, correctly pointed out, “Iran’s nuclear and missile firms hide behind an array of agents that transact business on their behalf.”

A growing number of members of Congress from both sides of the aisle believe that sanctions should be coupled with political pressure aimed at heightening the internal discontent, and weakening the regime. They maintain that Washington should remove all restrictions from the Iranian opposition groups, allowing them to play their real and indigenous role as a potent political force and dedicated to democratic change in Iran.