Bahai News - Missile has no impact on U.S. hopes for Iran Nation & World : Friday, July 24, 1998

Missile has no impact on U.S. hopes for Iran

by Robin Wright
Los Angeles Times
WASHINGTON - The United States moved quickly yesterday to prevent troubling developments in Iran - including the test launch of a new missile - from derailing efforts to open a dialogue with Tehran.

U.S. officials said they hope to continue detente with Iran despite:

-- The disturbing implications of the new missile, which could strike targets throughout the Middle East.

-- The harsh prison sentence meted out to Tehran's reformist mayor.

-- And the execution of an Iranian member of the Bahai faith for trying to convert a Muslim.

The White House said U.S. intelligence is "actively monitoring" Iran's growing military capability. But officials played down the threat to the region or American forces in the Persian Gulf.

"This is the first test. Additional time is normally required to bring missiles into serious production and operational status," a senior White House official said.

U.S. intelligence personnel detected Iran's test of the Shahab-3 missile on Wednesday. The missile has an 800-mile range and could target Iran's neighbors in the oil-rich Persian Gulf, South Asia, Russia, Turkey - and Israel.

An import from North Korea and Russia

The Shahab is similar to North Korea's No Dong missile, first tested in 1993. Tehran has been working with North Korea and Russia for years to acquire technology and adapt others' missiles for its own use, State Department spokesman James Rubin said.

The Shahab was fired from a base southwest of Tehran but exploded before completing its trajectory. U.S. intelligence was uncertain whether the missile blew up by accident or was deliberately detonated after its performance was proven.

Despite the ominous implications, a single missile test "does not change the balance of power," White House press secretary Mike McCurry said.

"U.S. policy is still on course. This test only underscores the need for dialogue," a senior administration official said. "It is the reason that one of the first topics we will raise forcefully, if and when we have a dialogue, will be weapons of mass destruction and why they are not the best way to secure Iran's interests in the region."

Test was predicted

The missile test was not unexpected. In January, CIA Director George Tenet told Congress he had revised his agency's earlier estimate that Iran would not achieve medium-range missile capability for another decade.

"Iran's success in gaining technology and materials from Russian companies, combined with recent indigenous Iranian advances, means that it could have a medium-range missile much sooner," Tenet said then. The CIA had privately forecast a test this year.

"It'll still be a long time, probably many years, before Iran's missile will be a threat to any of our allies," a senior administration official said yesterday.

Israel isn't too concerned

Iran also is very unlikely to be able to place chemical or nuclear warheads on a missile, a U.S. official said. Iran's nuclear program is at an early stage.

Even Israeli officials said they did not regard the test as an immediate threat, although they expressed concern about its long-term implications.

"If I read the publicized information correctly, this is not a missile that can reach Israel," Defense Minister Yitzhak Mordechai said. "But the very fact of the test launch of long-range missiles by Iran is grave and constitutes an acute threat that is developing in the Middle East."

At this stage, Iran's motives appear to be defensive, U.S. and Israeli experts said. It is not believed to have any active targets in mind, and there have been no diplomatic crises since Iran's new reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, undertook a policy of rapprochement with his Gulf neighbors.

"Missiles are first of all a deterrent. They are meant to deter Israel against such a possible move such as attacking Iranian nuclear sites," said Yiftah Shapir, an arms expert at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies in Tel Aviv.

After a devastating eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, when Iraqi Scud missiles rained on Iranian cities and chemical weapons were used on Iranian civilians, Tehran has sought to develop weapons to discourage use of the deadliest arms by its neighbors. "Iran feels vulnerable because it has been the target of aggression. It also lives in an unstable neighborhood," said Shaul Bakhash, an Iran expert at Virginia's George Mason University.

Mayor's sentence is more troubling

The Clinton administration, for its part, appeared more alarmed by internal political developments in Iran than by the missile test. U.S. officials and Iran experts expressed concern about what they viewed as the severe sentence imposed on the Tehran mayor, a Khatami ally convicted of corruption.

Reformist Mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi was sentenced to five years in prison, 60 lashes and a large fine, and was banned from politics.

The sentence, U.S. officials said, appeared to signal widespread opposition by religious conservatives to the policies advocated by Khatami's moderate government.

©Copyright 1998, The Seattle Times Company
Original Story

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