What does the U.S. intelligence community really know about the Russian-Iranian axis? On Feb. 5, John Michael McConnell, Director of National Intelligence presented his Annual Threat Assessment to the U.S. Senate Committee on Intelligence, which provided some insights.
McConnell's testimony represents the consensus opinion of 16 separate services, and expresses concerns on a broad range of issues, from the global terrorist threat to the Iranian nuclear program.
As the Sept. 11, 2001 tragedy demonstrated, the Intelligence Community sometimes errs on the side of underestimating the enemy. The Intelligence Assessment identifies Iran as a principal threat to the U.S. interests, but it downplays the role that Iran's diplomatic partners and military technology providers play in the real world.
Most of the data reported in the Threat Assessment is available in mass media, but the sum total presented in one report is scary. Granted, some of the juiciest pieces are kept under a veil of secrecy and are classified so as not to disclose "sources and methods." However, even the unclassified version should be sufficient to keep its consumers - Congressmen, staff, and the media - awake at night.
The assessment states that Iran is developing and deploying longer range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. However, the report fails to mention the close links between Iran and Russia on the development of the Iranian ballistic missile program. According to Britain's The Daily Telegraph, Russia has been supplying ballistic missile technology to Tehran since 2003, including missile production capabilities, and technical assistance by Russian engineers.
Iran is also continuing with efforts to develop its uranium enrichment capability, ostensibly for civilian purposes but with the potential for making nuclear weapons. McConnell's report estimates that Iran may achieve the capacity to produce enough highly enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon between 2010 and 2015.
While the intelligence community has a "high degree of certainty" that Iran stopped its secret work to enrich uranium for military purposes and to design a nuclear weapon in 2003, it does not know whether Tehran restarted these activities since. McConnell claims that there is no doubt Iran has the scientific know-how, the technical capacity, and the industrial capability to develop nuclear weapons in the future. A lot of this knowledge comes from Russia, China, North Korea, and possibly Pakistan.
Despite Moscow's rather obvious role as Iran's primary supplier of nuclear technology and expertise, and a principal diplomatic "godfather," the assessment does not clearly state that is Russia is emerging as Tehran's principal strategic partner. Meanwhile, Russia continues to build Iran's $1 billion light water nuclear reactor in Bushehr, and the U.S. State Department has accused Iran of using that reactor to gain access to technology that could be used to develop nuclear weapons.
Iran also has a chemical weapons program and is engaged in research on biological weapons. Sources of these technologies remain unspecified, while it is known that hundreds of Iranian scientists and engineers received their education in Russian military-engineering institutes, as well as in the West. Those who protested these educational programs in the 1990s were rebuffed on both sides of the Atlantic.
Tehran's development of a ballistic missile arsenal and its acquisition of anti-ship cruise missiles, especially based on Chinese technology, are intended to expand its influence and deterrence capabilities in the Persian Gulf, including the choke point of the Strait of Hormuz.
If Iran continues on its current course, it will be capable of closing the Strait and disrupting the flow of oil to international markets in case of a conflict. U.S. bases and naval forces in the region will be under Iranian threat. Yet another goal for Iran's arsenal is to "potentially intimidate regional allies into withholding support for U.S. policy."
Tehran's development of longer-range ballistic missiles with the capacity to reach most of Europe might also deter NATO countries from allowing U.S. forces to use bases on their territory for defense against Iran. A significant reason why Russia is so apparently eager to assist may have to do with Moscow's clearly-articulated assessment that NATO is a threat.
If Iran achieves the capacity to deliver nuclear weapons, this could "put the fear" into NATO countries currently hosting important U.S. bases, such as Romania, Italy, or Germany.
А refusal by NATO allies to provide aid to the United States in a future conflict could fracture the alliance's cohesion, an outcome that Moscow would welcome. Thus, Russia may be playing a Euro-centered geostrategic game using Iran as an important chess piece to threaten U.S. interests in the Gulf and Europe.
McConnell's assessment mentions the Kremlin's aims to dominate the main oil and gas land distribution networks to Europe and East Asia. Russia's energy policies are aimed at denying the West direct access to the large oil and gas resources of the Caspian region and Central Asia. Energy has become a sharp tool of Russian power in terms of its foreign policy and international economic relations.
The assessment omits an in-depth discussion of Russia and Iran sharing the common goal of challenging the current Western-oriented international security structure. By applying the old saw that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" and giving a helping hand to the Iranian military modernization, Russia can aim to boost a key strategic ally and trade partner in the Middle East. An Iran with weapons of mass destruction would be capable of deterring attacks and could embody a major challenge to the unipolar world system.
The assessment also does not offer an in-depth examination of Russia's aspirations to change the global economic architecture and do away with the Western-dominated post-Bretton Woods system, despite the fact that this is precisely what Russian President Vladimir Putin called for at the 2007 St. Petersburg economic summit. It is not accidental that Russia, Iran, Venezuela, and other energy producers are moving away from the U.S. dollar as the principal currency for settling energy accounts.
Russia, Iran and Venezuela also have similar views on using energy as a geopolitical tool. They have expressed their interest in establishing a "gas OPEC." If this entity comes into being, it would pose a challenge the established international economic system, currently dominated by Western industrialized countries.
Moscow plans to set up an experimental gas cartel with Iran in the CIS, which would be Russia-centered, since Gazprom has the largest gas reserves in the world. Key alternative energy suppliers like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan will probably remain within Russia's economic sphere of influence as their hydrocarbons are largely exported through Russia. Under this scenario, economies of Armenia, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan, which lack energy resources, are likely to be increasingly dominated by Russia.
Somehow, the assessment avoids the obvious conclusion that by re-emphasizing military and economic power and challenging the West, Moscow, aided and abetted by Tehran, is seeking to change the post-communist balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and in the world at large, and is challenging the American post-Cold War hegemony. Whether it will succeed or not is a different question.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is senior research fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in the Middle East Times