Experts cast doubt on Iran missile cache

John Pomfret & Walter Pincus – Washington Post Dec 1, 2010

On Oct. 10, to celebrate its 65th anniversary as a one-party state, North Korea unveiled a new missile in the type of military parade that for decades has been a hallmark of authoritarian regimes. The North Koreans call the missile the Musudan.

The Musudan is now playing a starring role in reports this week prompted by WikiLeaks’ release of U.S. diplomatic cables. One of the documents says that Iran has obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, prompting news reports suggesting that the Islamic republic can hit targets in Western Europe and deep into Russia – farther than Iran’s existing missiles can strike.

The problem, however, is that there is no indication that the Musudan, also known as the BM-25, is operational or that it has ever been tested. Iran has never publicly displayed the missiles, according to experts and a senior U.S. intelligence official, some of whom doubt the missiles were ever transferred to Iran. Experts who analyzed Oct. 10 photographs of the Musudan said it appeared to be a mock-up.

The snapshot provided by the cable illustrates how such documents – based on one meeting or a single source – can muddy an issue as much as it can clarify it. In this case, experts said, the inference that Iran can strike Western Europe with a new missile is unjustified.

The 19-page document, labeled “secret,” summarized a Dec. 22, 2009, meeting between 15 U.S. and 14 Russian officials who gathered as part of a bilateral program to monitor missile threats from Iran and North Korea. The two sides clashed repeatedly and agreed occasionally. The Russians claimed the Iranian missile program was not as much of a threat as the Americans feared and argued that the BM-25 might not even exist, dubbing it a “mysterious missile.” Americans at the meeting acknowledged never seeing the new missile in Iran.

According to experts who are familiar with the Iranian program, the Americans and the Russians came to the meeting with competing agendas. The Americans were intent on emphasizing the Iranian threat because of their fears about Iran’s alleged nuclear weapons programs and their support for a multibillion-dollar missile defense shield that is a priority of the Obama administration. The Russians focused on playing down the threat because they opposed the missile shield and because of their embarrassment that Russian technology was showing up in North Korean and Iranian missile systems.

At one point, the U.S. side said it believed the BM-25 “was sold to Iran by North Korea.” The American team cited news reports as proof. But the main news source on the issue, a story by the German newspaper Bild Zeitung in 2005, quoted German intelligence sources as saying only that Iran had purchased 18 kits made up of missile components for the BM-25 from North Korea – not 19 of the missiles themselves.

“The U.S. side does not firmly say we have evidence that the BM-25 is in Iran,” said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, referring to the discussion described in the document. “They don’t present anything. I was a little surprised that they didn’t come out more definitely.”

“If you’re claiming that there’s a missile that can reach Western Europe from Iran, then you should be able to produce evidence,” said Theodore Postol, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor and a former Pentagon official. “But they can’t. The Iranians love to show photographs of what they have because part of their game is to appear bigger than they are. There is no reason for the Iranians to keep it secret. I am kind of surprised at the American side’s assertions.”

A senior U.S. intelligence official said Tuesday that he was unaware of any sale of a complete BM-25, although there was probably a transfer of kits.

“There has been a flow of knowledge and missile parts” from North Korea to Iran, he said, “but sale of such an actual missile does not fully check out.”

The presence of those “missile parts” explains why the Russians were also on edge and eager to deny that the BM-25 was real.

“References to the missile’s existence are more in the domain of political literature than technical fact,” the document quoted the Russian delegation as saying. “In short, for Russia, there is a question about the existence of this system.”

But there is evidence that the origin of the Musudan was Soviet. According to missile experts and U.S. officials, a large quantity of Soviet naval ballistic missile parts were shipped to North Korea during the Soviet collapse of the 1990s. Russia has never acknowledged this transfer, Postol and Elleman said, because it would tarnish Russia’s reputation as a country that claims to have never sold technology that could be used in an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Over time, however, parts that appeared to be from the ballistic missiles – known as the R-27 and in the West as the SS-N-6 – began showing up on North Korean and Iranian missile systems, according to U.S. officials quoted in the document and to Postol. When Iran launched a satellite in February 2009, experts noticed a steering engine on the Iranian Safir rocket that was the same as one that appeared on the R-27.

Postol said that other components from the R-27 that have surfaced in recent years went unmentioned by the Americans in the meeting described in the secret document. For example, when North Korea apparently tested its Taepodong-2 missile last year, Postol said, the evidence was strong that the rocket’s second stage was from an R-27, potentially boosting its range above 2,500 miles.

North Korea also began building a variant of the R-27 that they call the Musudan. Postol said the program hasn’t gotten very far. In the October parade, it showcased the missile on top of launcher. It was about six feet longer than the original R-27.

“But they were mock-ups,” he said. “So it’s unclear what it can do. It’s not a weapon yet.”

That, he said, was at least three to five years away.

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