Iran takes critical stance on US missile defences

Iranian officials attempt to discredit US missile defence deployments. China warns Obama over meeting with Dalai Lama. Somali Al Shabab unite with Al Qaeda’s jihad. Female suicide bomber kills 54 Iraqi pilgrims. All this and much more in today’s security briefing.
Dries Belet
2 February 2010

Iran dismissed the operational effectiveness of US plans to bolster missile defence systems in Arab gulf states, claiming the move will only undermine stability in the region. Last weekend, news broke out that the US is accelerating the deployment of interceptor systems in at least four countries on the Persian Gulf.

It took until Tuesday for foreign ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparas to respond to US plans, saying that Iran considers the deployments “inefficient”. He added that Iran sees “these kinds of moves by overseas countries in the region as unworkable”, and predicted that they will end in “failure”.

Ali Larijani, the Iranian parliamentary speaker blamed the Americans for not noticing “that the problem in the region is your (US) presence and the more you deploy artillery, the more host countries will be concerned”, the state broadcaster IRIB reported.

The US is to sell eight Patriot ground-to-air missile batteries, designed to knock-out short- and medium-ranged missiles, to Arab countries in the region. According to US military officials, two batteries each will go to Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Kuwait. In addition, the US is deploying two Aegis cruisers, which can also provide a missile defence capacity, in the Persian Gulf.

The openSecurity verdict: The US shield is designed to reassure its allies in the region, particularly the Arab Gulf states who resent Iran’s aggressive international posture. Strengthened missile defences may help to constrain a regional arms race, as the Iranian nuclear programme may prompt other powers who have the capacity to develop nuclear weapons, principally Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, to respond in kind. The missile defence announcements are part of a bigger effort: Saudi Arabia and the UAE have bought more than $25 billion in American arms these past two years, including missile defence systems. The US plans also aim to calm the Israelis, fearful of the possibility of a nuclear armed Iran, a country whose president has proclaimed that Israel “should be wiped off the map”. Assurances of missile defence could provide US policymakers more time to pursue diplomacy and sanctions on Iran.

A year after having promised engagement with Iran, Obama is increasingly vulnerable to claims that his dovish approach has brought few benefits. Iran has refused a deal to ship part of its enriched uranium out of the country, and has continued to develop its nuclear sector. Obama may hope the US deployments demonstrate that he is not afraid to take tough measures, particularly if they stem pressures from Iran's regional rivals for further action. The threat of military engagement was reiterated throughout January; the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said “the Pentagon must have military options ready to counter Iran, should Obama call for them”. Another US military official remarked that the announcement of the US plans by General Petraeus were “a pointed reminder to Iranians of American resolve”.

Iran's response to the US's increasingly confrontational policies is difficult to gauge. At first, no important figures in the Iranian security establishment appeared willing to react, probably due to the sensitive nature of this security issue. Behind closed doors however, an anonymous Iranian analyst told the Guardian that “the Iranian reaction will be serious”.

Iran's public response has been to dismiss the operational ineffectiveness of missile defence systems and play down their strategic influence. Missile defence systems are deeply flawed and the patriot system is no silver bullet against any kind of missile attack. It was only able to intercept 40% of the scud missiles Saddam Hussein launched against Israel in 1991, and although the US has significantly improved the system since, a recent US test to simulate intercepting an ‘Iranian or North Korean’ missile resulted in failure.

Secondly, Iran seeks to portray the US as a warmonger, claiming that the new missile defence deployments will foster instability in Persian Gulf region. This is in line with Iran’s standard practice of accusing the US (the “Great Satan”) of imperialist ambitions in the Muslim world, while Iran presents itself as the leader of Islamic resistance. In this way it seeks to undermine the authority of other powers in the region that collaborate more closely with the US, such as Saudi Arabia.

Regardless of such rhetoric, it is important to remember that missile defence systems need not be used solely for defensive purposes. If they can effectively guarantee a state and its allies from retaliation, they may encourage a preemptive strike from a position of invulnerability. The instability this brings was reason for their regulation during the Cold War period under the now lapsed ABM treaty.

All this has consequences for Iran’s domestic politics; increased US pressure runs the risk of hardening internal repression by the theocratic regime. It provides hardliners in the government with an external threat, giving them an excuse to clamp down even more brutally on the domestic opposition, like the green movement of Hossein Mousavi, a reformist candidate during last summer’s presidential elections. Hence, if the US wants to pursue a successful foreign policy in the region, its policymakers should be wary about the effect its policies have on the popular sentiment in Iran. The US needs to monitor these developments closely, in order to walk a fine line between supporting the Iranian opposition and not letting American support discredit the revolutionary movements in Iran.

China warns Obama over meeting with Dalai Lama

China has threatened US President Obama not to meet the Dalai Lama, saying any meeting could further deteriorate already-strained relations between the two countries. The warning came in the midst of a dispute over US arms sales to Taiwan.

Zhu Weiqun, executive vice minister of the Communist Party, said a meeting “will certainly threaten trust and co-operation between China and the United States”. He warned that the American refusal to recognize that Tibet is a part of China would “seriously undermine the political foundation of Sino-US relations."

The Dalai Lama is scheduled to visit the US later this month but no meeting with Obama has yet been announced. China views the Dalai Lama as a dangerous separatist, who is bent on making trouble and inciting world hatred of China. Chinese leaders claim that Tibet has been part of its territory for several centuries; Tibetans counter that their region has been functionally independent for much of its history. The Dalai Lama was forced to flee Tibet after a failed uprising against China in 1959.

Somali Al Shabab unite with Al Qaeda’s jihad.

Al Shabab, an Islamist rebel group in Somalia, has made an official declaration that it is joining the “international jihad of Al Qaeda”. In a statement on Monday, the militant group said its leaders had agreed “to connect the horn of Africa jihad to the one led by Al Qaeda and its leader Sheikh Osama Bin Laden."

The Al Shabab rebels represent the most potent militant force challenging Somali’s weak transitional government. The rebels control large swathes of the south and centre of the country, where they are attempting to establish an Islamic state under the Sharia law. The group has been divided between hardliners seeking to emulate Al Qaeda's transnational aims and others focusing on achieving political power in Somalia. Yesterday’s decision appears to indicate that the extremist elements have won out in the struggle for the leadership of Al Shabab.

Female suicide bomber kills 54 Iraqi pilgrims

A woman detonated an explosives belt among a group of Shia Muslims yesterday in Baghdad. At least 54 people were killed and 109 wounded, sowing carnage among pilgrims who were making the journey to the city of Karbala in honour of a Shia holy day.

The suicide bomber’s explosives were hidden under her abaya – a long, black cloak covering a woman from top to toe. Witnesses described seeing a massive fireball at a hospitality tent in the neighbourhood of Bal al-Shams, in the northeast of the capital. The attack raises fears of escalating sectarian violence in Iraq in the run-up to national elections in March.

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