Iran tested a new air-defense system and stepped up its anti-West rhetoric Thursday on the eve of NATO's annual meeting in Lisbon. At the top of the military alliance's agenda are plans for a missile-defense network in Europe – primarily aimed at Iran’s growing ballistic missile capabilities – and the nine-year war in Afghanistan.
President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declared that NATO had no future, likened the array of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program to be no more bothersome than a “mosquito,” and warned against “thinking as aggressors.”
“We regard NATO decisionmakers as politically backward, and their decisions are of no significance to us, because they are incapable of playing a role in future developments,” Mr. Ahmadinejad declared. “Experience shows that NATO leaders have had a wrong interpretation of international events and all their decisions are based on false information.”
Besides the rhetoric, which comes as Iran and world powers prepare to sit down Dec. 5 to discuss Iran’s nuclear programs, the Islamic Republic also this week launched a five-day air defense exercise to showcase home-grown capabilities.
Iran has frequently made exaggerated and unverifiable claims of military prowess and self-sufficiency. But as pressure from outside grows about Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Iran’s economy increasingly feels the bite of sanctions, analysts say, the latest repeated claims of invincibility sound more political than potent.
Iran claims to have developed an air-defense system as effective as the Russian S-300, which it has sought to buy for years to protect its nuclear installations. Moscow canceled the deal in September after a fourth round of UN Security Council sanctions was placed on Iran.
Experts doubt that Iran has replicated the Russian S-300, which defends against aircraft and cruise and ballistic missiles, and has a range of 90 miles. The US and Israel, anxious that Iran in fact wants to build a bomb, have not ruled out military strikes; Iran says its atomic effort aims only to produce nuclear power.
“In terms of both of accuracy and distance, I would doubt very much whether Iran can produce anything nearing the ability of the S-300,” says Mark Fitzpatrick, an analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London, who edited a dossier on Iranian missile capabilities published last May.
“The S-300 is not just good because of its accuracy, but because of its reach,” says Mr. Fitzpatrick. “It’s not so easy to reverse-engineer a sophisticated system like this, particularly since Iran doesn’t have an S-300 to reverse-engineer.”
State TV showcases Mersad system
Iranian state television on Thursday showed a single Shahin missile being launched at an indeterminate target from a launch rack that normally carries three of the missiles. Officials said it was part of the Mersad (“Ambush” in Farsi) system.
“Mersad is completely built by Iranian experts,” PressTV correspondent Arash Khalatbari reported. “Experts here said that it is much more advanced than similar missiles in the same class – the Western missile systems in the same class.”
Previous phases of the drills were devoted to electronic warfare, where again Iran had demonstrated uncommon expertise, the correspondent said. “Managing electromagnetic waves, and hearing without being heard, and seeing without being seen, and destroying without being destroyed – that’s what they [the experts] said about it,” he reported.
Earlier PressTV reports of the exercises noted that spotters had been posted along border areas, and that six mock intrusions by enemy aircraft had been intercepted by scrambled Iranian jets.
One news story said the Iranian military had found “creative ways to make up for the shortcomings of radar systems.” Video images showed an array of basic radar antennae, and men in foxholes with binoculars, sometimes disguised with reeds like duck blinds, speaking on what appeared to be standard military radio sets.
“In the first stage, the soldier on post spots the plane,” the reporter announced. “In the second stage he communicates the location of the plane to the command post. And in the last stage, the plane is forced to land if it ignores the warnings.”
PressTV also reported that a “new kind of walkie-talkie” had been tested, along with an upgraded “ground-to-air shoulder-launched defensive missile.”
Iran’s bid for homemade air defenses goes back years. In June 2009, Iran began production of what the Iranian Defense minister called a “milestone in Iran’s anti-aircraft systems.” The Shahin [or “Hawk”] air-defense missile is believed by experts to have been reverse-engineered from the American-made Hawk, a missile with a 15-mile range sold to the pro-West Shah prior to the 1979 Islamic revolution.
Brig. Gen. Mostafa Mohammad-Najjar claimed in mid-2009 that the Iranian version had a range of 25 miles, and was “capable of tracing and targeting enemy planes and helicopters intelligently and at supersonic speed.”
Iranian generals stated this week that the new system is also an upgrade of the longer-range Soviet-era S-200, which relies on 1960s technology and, according to one report, was sold to Iran in the 1980s.
“We have developed the system by upgrading systems like the S-200, and we have tested it successfully using all our potential and experience,” Brig. Gen. Mohammad Hassan Mansourian, deputy commander of air defense forces, said on Thursday.
Talking up progress
Iranian generals have talked up their air-defense progress for months.
“The air-defense forces are present anywhere and anytime with full preparedness and are monitoring any kind of movement in the region and we will destroy any threat instantly and powerfully,” Gen. Seyed Reza Taheri, deputy commander of the Khatam ol-Anbia air-defense base, told Fars News Agency a year ago.
In April this year, senior Iranian officers said the Mersad system was capable of “destroying advanced airplanes in low and mid altitudes” and was “resistant to electronic warfare,” Fars reported.
In September, Iran claimed further that its new system could “definitely detect enemies’ stealth warplanes.” When the latest drills began on Tuesday, another commander said: “Missiles and powerful air defense systems … are ready to destroy all enemy aircraft.”
Those would represent significant improvements for a nation that has often relied on secret foreign help for key technological gains in its missile program, and has had difficulty with accuracy and guidance systems.
“The military utility of Iran’s ballistic missiles is severely limited because of their very poor accuracy,” the IISS assessment found last spring. “Iran’s ballistic missiles could be used as a political weapon to wage a terror campaign against adversary cities. While such attacks might trigger fear, the expected casualties would be low – probably less than a few hundred, even assuming that Iran unleashed its entire ballistic-missile arsenal….”
Claims of highly advanced air defenses should therefore be treated with skepticism, says Fitzpatrick of IISS, and are “primarily” bluster by Iran after Russia halted a sale of S-300s to Iran after heavy lobbying by the US and Israel. Moscow stated that the sale was not allowed under UN sanctions, though Iran contests that view.
“Iran was shocked and aggrieved that Russia pulled the plug in this way, actually canceling the contract rather than just delaying delivery,” says Fitzpatrick. “They had been counting on this air system, the only thing that could effectively defend against an Israeli or American attack; not that it would do that to a high degree, but it was the best they could have gotten. And without it, their nuclear facilities are sitting ducks.”
Adds Fitzpatrick: “Reacting defensively, they had to pretend it was no big deal. It’s a very big deal.”