Monday, March 06, 2006

Iran Said to Step Up Plans for Shahab Missiles

Louis Charbonneau, Reuters:
As Iran pursues a nuclear programme the West fears is aimed at producing bombs, Tehran also appears to be stepping up development of missiles capable of carrying atomic warheads, diplomats citing intelligence say.

According to an intelligence report given to Reuters by a non-U.S. diplomat, a covert Iranian programme run by people closely linked to Iran's military includes plans to arm its Shahab-3 missiles, which experts believe have a maximum range of around 2,000 km (1,240 miles), with nuclear warheads. READ MORE

The report, which could not be independently confirmed, surfaced as the United States and its allies seek to highlight the potential security dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran.

The report said it was code-named Project 111 and that the "aim is arming Shahab-3 missiles with nuclear warheads".

An Iranian official, who asked not to be named, denied the charge.

The assessment that Iran has nuclear ambitions for the Shahab-3 is shared by the European Union, Washington and Israel, said an EU diplomat who asked not to be named.

Tehran says it only wants nuclear power stations, not bombs. After three years of inquiries, U.N. inspectors have been unable to verify that Tehran's nuclear programme is purely peaceful.

An Iranian exile who has reported accurately on Tehran's nuclear programme in the past said Iran had significantly increased production of Shahab-3 missiles.

The International Atomic Energy Agency's board of governors met in Vienna on Monday to consider the latest IAEA report on Iran's nuclear programme. It will be sent to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions on Iran.

Project 111 was first mentioned last month in a report by the Washington Post, which described it as "a nuclear research effort that includes work on missile development". The Post said U.S. officials believe it is the successor of Project 110, which they believe is the military arm of Iran's atomic programme.


German intelligence officials believe Iran has stepped up covert efforts to procure missile technology, said a German government official, who asked not to be named.

The intelligence officials are sending "early-warning letters" to German firms, urging them to be alert for Iranian agents hunting for missile technology, he said.

German authorities have detained several Germans and at least one foreigner as part of a series of investigations of suspected attempts to purchase missile and other arms technology in Germany on behalf of Iranian intelligence, the official said.

Iran has repeatedly warned it would not hesitate to deploy the Shahab-3 missiles, which can reach Israel and U.S. military bases in the Gulf, if it comes under attack.

Material recovered by U.S. intelligence from a stolen laptop computer also suggests Iranian missile experts have been trying to develop a missile re-entry vehicle capable of carrying a relatively small nuclear warhead, EU diplomats have said.

But David Albright, a former U.N. weapons inspector and head of a U.S.-based think-tank, cautioned that however credible, all this intelligence is based on assessments, not certainty.

"I don't think any of the available intelligence represents a smoking gun," Albright said.

His Institute for Science and International Security estimates that Iran could not produce a bomb before 2009.

Alireza Jafarzadeh, an Iranian exile who heads a think-tank in Washington, told Reuters Tehran had sharply accelerated production of Shahab-3 missiles to around 90 a year from 15-20.

Jafarzadeh, formerly a spokesman for the National Council of Resistance in Iran (NCRI), listed by Washington as a terrorist organisation, revealed the existence of Iran's secret uranium enrichment plant at Natanz and other sites in August 2002.

North Korea has also been key to Iran's missile development.

Last month a German diplomat, citing his country's intelligence, confirmed a German newspaper report from December that said Iran had purchased 18 disassembled BM-25 mobile missiles with a range of around 2,500 km from North Korea.

The NCRI said at a news conference in London on Monday that Iran was also working on developing so-called Ghadr missiles, with a range of up to 3,000 km. Unlike the Shahab, which is based on North Korean Nodong missile technology, the Ghadr missile is based neither on North Korean or Russian designs.

No comment from Iran was immediately available.

(Additional reporting by Gideon Long in London and Parisa Hafezi in Vienna)