Over the last four years, U.S. agencies have opened 17 major cases involving illegal shipments of defense technology to Iran– two more than the 15 cases involving illegal shipments to China in the same time frame. And in the last six years there have been more than 800 investigations of illegal exports to Iran.
Since the rise in tensions between the U.S. and Iran over Tehran’s nuclear weapons program, U.S. federal law enforcement authorities and other agencies that monitor traffic in armaments have recorded a significant increase in the activity by Iranian procurement agents, middlemen and arms dealers seeking to acquire two specific types of hardware. In the first category are spare parts and other components for Iran’s fleet of aging U.S.-made weaponry– mostly materiel the nation acquired under the rule of the Shah. But the second type of acquisitions are not–as might be expected–spares for old, worn-out fighters, but rather advanced technologies that can be used in the development of Iran’s ballistic missile fleet and its nuclear facilities.
Arms dealers who have been working with sources in Tehran or front companies registered in locales such as Dubai or Gibraltar have allegedly exported or have made attempts to deliver numerous military and dual-use systems obtained from the U.S. These include experimental aircraft, precision machinery used for measuring the structural strength of steel and metal alloys (a technology commonly used in the development of nuclear weapons), spare parts and component replacement kits for the Grumman F-14 fighter, plus a long list of components for missile systems and military jet engines. These and all other military-capable technologies have long been embargoed from sale to Iran, a ban that dates back to the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought a government of radical clerics into power in Tehran.
Although the transit points for these shipments lie in neutral nations, the source of most of these systems is the U.S. And part of the motivation for the Iranians to increase this activity has been what they see as the rising threat of a U.S.-led attack on Iran’s nuclear installations, military establishments and special facilities controlled by the Pasdaran, the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.
But this illegal arms trading has advanced beyond just providing spare parts for the many types of U.S.-made military hardware that are still in inventory in Iran. The new parallel list of priorities includes some of the new-age military technologies that are proving to make a real difference on the battlefield.
“Iran’s weapons acquisition program is becoming more organized,” Stephen Bogni, acting chief of the Arms and Strategic Technology Investigations Unit of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, told the Washington Post newspaper. “They are looking for more varied and sophisticated technology: night-vision equipment, unmanned aircraft, missile technology and weapons of mass destruction.”
Knowledge of U.S. planning exercises and scenarios that have evaluated the possibility of using military force against Iran has fueled the Islamic Republic’s recent acquisition efforts. In early 2003, while much of the U.S. armed forces were preoccupied with the impending invasion of Iraq, the U.S. Army was engaged in an analysis of a war with Iran.
This planning exercise was called TIRANNT, Pentagon shorthand for “theater Iran near term.” It was based on a joint U.S. Army and Marine Corps invasion and factored in projected use by the Iranians of their ballistic missile force. U.S. and British planners also ran a Caspian Sea war-gaming exercise in parallel with this analysis. At the same time, President George W. Bush ordered the U.S. Air Force Strategic Command to draw up a plan for an attack against Iranian weapons of mass destruction installations.
But one of the problems with an attack on Iran is–in the opinion of a number of critics of such a move–that the scope of the operation could quickly spin out of control and become unmanageable. For instance, Col. Sam Gardiner, a retired USAF officer who formerly taught at the National War College, laid out the perils of launching a series of full-scale attacks against Iran in a paper he presented earlier this year in Berlin. Gardiner estimated that a strike on Iran could involve trying to hit as many as 400 different and diverse targets, and he detailed how planners draw up the “food chain” as to what targets should be hit and why it gets so complicated. “I don’t think a U.S. military planner would want to stop there [with just those 400 targets],” he stated. “Iran probably has two chemical-production plants. We would hit those. We would want to hit the medium-range ballistic missiles that have recently been moved closer to Iraq. There are fourteen airfields with sheltered aircraft; we’d want to get rid of that threat. We would want to hit the assets that could be used to threaten Gulf shipping. That means targeting the cruise-missile sites and the Iranian diesel submarines. Some of the facilities may be too difficult to target even with penetrating weapons. The U.S. will have to use special operations units.”
Iranian planners recognize that this is the situation that they could find themselves in, and so their motivation is to try to build up their missile program and improve the quality of their air defenses. The rationale is that having enough missiles in place to be a credible threat might deter a bombing campaign and force the U.S. and its allies to negotiate with Iran.
Backing off may not be an option for the U.S., either, if the standoff with Iran cannot be defused. And even if a solution presents itself, the Israeli military is likely to remain wary and predisposed to a surprise attack. So no matter what happens, Tehran’s attempts to gets its hands on advanced defense technology are likely to continue.