December 26, 2010

Nose under the tent - Iranian missiles in Venezuela

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has agreed to permit Iran to deploy medium range ballistic missiles to his country. According to press reports, the Iranians will construct a missile base in Venezuela housing several versions of North Korean-made Scud short range missiles and the Iranian-produced Shahab 3 medium tange ballistic missile. The Shahab 3 has a range of about 900 miles, not enough to reach the United States mainland.

The fact that the missiles cited in the press reports cannot reach the United States is not the issue. What is important is the fact that the Iranians are deploying missiles to the Western Hemisphere at all. Since the missiles do not appear to pose an immediate threat, Chavez and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hope that the Obama Administration will not attempt to block the missile deployment in an effort reminiscent of what President John Kennedy did during what many are calling a similar crisis, the attempted Soviet delivery of ballistic missiles to Cuba in 1962.

While Iran is not Russia, and Venezuela is not Cuba, this initial deployment of Iranian missiles and their Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) crews is merely the first step, or as we say in the Middle East, the "nose under the tent."

I should also have added that Barack Obama is not John Kennedy. The Iranians have assessed that the Obama Administration, correctly, in my opinion, is weak and naive on foreign policy. The Obama diplomatic "engagement" strategy toward Iran and Syria has yielded no positive results for the United States. I suspect that Ahmadinejad believes that the American administration has no stomach for confrontation and will do nothing more than demand additional sanctions as Iran continues to develop a nuclear weapons capability. In other words, Ahmadinejad sees a window of opportunity, specifically a period in which a weak American administration focused on controversial domestic issues is unwilling to take a tough stance on Iran's grand ambitions.

Once the initial deployment of Iranian missiles, which will be portrayed as not posing a threat to the United States, is a fait accompli, it only requires minimum effort on the part of the Venezuelan and Iranian governments to introduce longer range missiles currently in the Iranian inventory. These missiles do pose a threat to the southeastern United States, including Washington, DC.

The chance to deploy IRGC troops into America's "back yard" is possibly too great a temptation for Ahmadinejad to pass up. He opposes the presence of American forces in the Middle East and is attempting to turn the tables on the United States. If you ascribe grand strategic thinking to the Iranian president, you could make the case that he is beginning this deployment in a attempt to catalyze an agreement with Obama much like Kennedy did with Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev. In 1962, the United States removed some missiles from Turkey and the Soviets halted the deployment of missiles to Cuba.

Perhaps Ahmadinejad thinks that he can "engage" with Obama for the withdrawal of American forces from the Persian Gulf if he halts Iran's missile deployment to the Caribbean. Why would he not think that? He has successfully outmaneuvered the Obama Administration at virtually every turn. There has been no slowdown in Iran's quest for a nuclear weapon because of anything done by the American government. The most serious impediment to Iran's acquisition of a nuclear weapon is a computer virus at some Iranian uranium enrichment facilities and the assassination of two of its top nuclear scientists. Most Middle East analysts, myself included, attribute those incidents to the Israelis.

There are additional troubling aspects of the Iranian-Venezuelan agreement. The missiles will be manned by Iranian military and IRGC officers, in conjunction with Venezuelan military officers. The Venezuelans will receive intensive training in missile technology. The Iranian missiles can be used by the Venezuelans for what is called "national needs." Although that has not been defined, Iranian SRBM's and IRBM's in Venezuela pose a serious threat to American allies in the region, such as Columbia, as well as some American territories (Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands).

Again, if you ascribe grand strategic thinking to Ahmadinejad, you might believe that increased cooperation with Venezuela has other benefits for Iran as well. A few months ago, the Russians backed out of a deal to sell the advanced S-300 air defense system to Iran, citing United Nations sanctions. The Russians are, however, marketing that same weapon system to the Venezuelan armed forces. Perhaps these air defense systems might find their way from Venezuela to Iran? Never underestimate the Iranians; this is exactly the type of Byzantine maneuvering that is common in the bazaars of the region.

Where is the concern?

For those of us who vaguely remember the Cuban missile crisis (I was 11 years old) and our quick lessons in the Monroe Doctrine, the mere thought of offensive missiles in the Western hemisphere is troubling. It is especially troubling when the culprit is the volatile and fairly unpredictable regime of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The Iranian leaders believe that the American administration is naive and weak - they may be right. Thus far there has been almost no reaction to the impending deployment of strategic missiles into South America, the deployment of missiles to a country that has demonstrated open hostility to the United States. No reaction is tacit acceptance. Just like the Iranians believe the United States has tacitly accepted their eventual acquisition of nuclear weapons, they believe there is no real action on the horizon to prevent them from stationing offensive weapons only 1000 miles from the United States.

This is another direct challenge to the United States, and yet another test of President Obama's leadership. Where is the concern from Washinton?