What the…?

You know, this may well turn out to be a dud, or a complete error, but it looks like the Bush administration may have actually come up with a foreign policy initiative for the Middle East that’s a good idea. (Yes, I’ve gotten rather cynical about these things. Does it show?)

If it goes off, OT1H it’s probably a big win for Bush and some of his cronies, but it’s also potentially a win for quite a few other people as well, and it may actually advance peace in the Middle East. And since the cynical advantage part is pretty obvious, it doesn’t make me worry about hidden booby-traps quite as much.

But you know… this sort of policy, of keeping everyone’s hands so far in one another’s pockets that they can’t reach for a gun does sound vaguely like the Clinton doctrine… *grin*

Story here.

Apparently the administration has decided to rattle sabers a bit at Iran. (story) Basic statement, they’re working on nuclear weapons, and on missiles that can deliver them.

These statements are both pretty definitely true. The Iranian nuclear program has had some fits and starts – good progress in the 80’s, but interruptions for various political reasons, and for a while it got pretty quiet, but in recent years they’ve been looking at it again. There are some rumors that they had some back-room cooperation with North Korea. (e.g., that NK was hiding some of its Plutonium refinement capacity in northern Iran, in exchange for giving Iran access to the equipment as well) Realistically, their program is in pretty good shape, and they have some very sharp people there – it wouldn’t surprise me at all if they got the Bomb in the very near future.

The missile program is a bit more interesting. Iran imported the designs for various North Korean missiles (gotta love those international merchants of everything deadly…), including their top-end Taep’o-Dong series. They’ve integrated many of these technologies into their own missile line, the Shahab series. (Summary sheet available here. The missiles also have some kinship to various Soviet designs) The Shahab-4 is (I believe) currently in a production state, and has a range of ~2,000km with a 1,000kg payload, enough to carry a pretty serious nonconventional warhead well into Western Europe. The Shahab-5 and 6, currently in development, may have a range as high as 5,500km with a 1-ton payload, putting most of the Eastern Hemisphere into range; with a light payload it may even be able to reach Newfoundland. (These numbers are probably a bit optimistic, but they give an idea of what’s realistically possible. I’d say that as of now, Eastern Europe is entirely in range, and how far out the next gen will reach – if they’ll be able to get to Beijing, for example – is an interesting and open question)

What’s interesting about this is the extent of home-brewed technology they’re using. Although the design is clearly based on NK work (which in turn is based pretty directly on Chinese work, which I’m sure is thrilling China, being one of the people that these Shahabs are going to be pointed at) it’s definitely been worked on and improved. Iran has a pretty impressive intellectual arsenal available, and very likely if they didn’t have as fscked-up a government as they have now, they’d be a major international power.

Of course, the real politics question in Iran is what’s going to happen with the struggle between the conservatives and the reformers. My own sense is that the conservatives are going to fall, badly, sooner or later; the question is simply whether they go peacefully (and give way, perhaps, to the first real Islamic democracy – that seems to be what Khatami and his friends have in mind, and I think they could pull it off, given the chance) or if the country descends into a civil war that blasts it back into the Middle Ages. In the latter case, I think the rest of the world has very little to fear; it’s far less likely to go about distributing WMD to other countries than, say, North Korea, and many of its weapons (like large missiles) aren’t really easy to hand off to people without a great deal of technical know-how themselves. In the former case, we may find ourselves with a new major power on the block in a very strategic location.

(My own thought is that this wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for America, even if they’re not our friends – it would shift the balance of power in Central Asia around quite a bit, definitely costing us influence in the Arab states but OTOH helping keep the India/Pakistan situation calm, and giving China something else to worry about for a while… if we played it correctly, we could come to an excellent working agreement with Khatami and his people. And frankly, if we’ve got to have outside competitors, I’d much rather it be relatively sane people who know that political power doesn’t mean continuous saber-rattling and noise-making, unlike, say, several of their immediate neighbors)

But now the Bushies are making noise in the Iranian direction, and it’s hard to tell whether they’re just doing some standard saber-rattling and threatening (which is a fairly reasonable negotiation tactic about now…) or if they’ve got some lunatic scheme in mind. My own money is on the former, but I suppose the fact that you can’t tell off the bat is a sign that it’s a well-made threat. Anyway, this is definitely a situation worth keeping an eye on. Some sort of comprehensive Middle East policy seems to be emerging.

(Additional link, for reference – here is the FAS’s summary of Iran’s nuclear program, which is pretty characteristic of many policy assesments from a year or two ago. However, I’m inclined to say that these estimates are too conservative – they were based on an underestimate of the extent and success of North Korea’s program, and the extent to which such knowledge might propagate outwards.)

Published in: on May 9, 2003 at 00:40  Comments Off on What the…?  
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