Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies Program on Energy and Sustainable Development Stanford University


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Iran's Nuclear and Missile Potential: A Joint Threat Assessment by U.S. and Russian Technical Experts

Conference/Workshop Report

Authors
Siegfried S. Hecker - Co-Director of CISAC and Professor (Research), Department of Management Science and Engineering; FSI Senior Fellow
David Holloway - Raymond A. Spruance Professor of International History and FSI Senior Fellow; CISAC Faculty Member; Forum on Contemporary Europe Research Affiliate; CDDRL Affiliated Faculty

Published by
EastWest Institute, May, 2009


A confluence of events has presented the Russian Federation and the United States with an unusual opportunity to transform their relationship.

The unfortunate reality is that trust is at an exceedingly low level between the elites and publics of both nations. Building that trust requires a leap of faith that they can work together on the most difficult issues. The determination to drive such trust-building on a vexing issue was behind the decision of senior Americans and Russians brought together by the EastWest Institute in 2007 to explore if collaboration was possible on the issue of Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear program. Following a tough yet civil private debate in Moscow, the participants - including on the American side General (ret.) James L. Jones, Ambassador Henry Crumpton, and General (ret.) Lance Lord, and a senior Russian delegation led by Presidential Representative Ambassador Anatoly Safonov - agreed that EWI should convene leading scientists from both states to take up the Iran issue and make it the subject of the fi rst JTA - Joint Threat Assessment. It would be an attempt to see if the top scientists and experts of the two states could agree on the nature of the threat posed by Iran's nuclear and ballistic missile program. Our debate in Moscow demonstrated that there was no easy agreement on Iran's intentions. A great cloud of ‘smoke' hung over the policy communities of both nations - a mixing of emotions and unsubstantiated reports with facts and policies. There was no dialogue. Instead the issue generated independent monologues fraught with suspicion and distrust. The decision to move forward with a JTA was a risky one. There was no assurance that it could be done.

Indeed, most outside experts told us that the task was impossible. Relations between Russia and the United States had deteriorated to a nadir not seen in decades. Among the major causes for the severe decline were the rushed ballistic missile defense agreements between the United States and Poland and between the United States and the Czech Republic to deploy assets in these European countries to counter a potential Iranian nuclear and missile threat. The United States government viewed this as a defensive move. Was Iran developing a capacity to hit Europe? How long would it take? The Russian government countered that the ballistic missile defense deployment near its borders was surely directed against Russia - an offensive move. Russian leaders and experts dismissed the idea that Iran currently possessed an offensive ballistic missile program capable of striking Europe. The sixteen Americans and Russians who sat around that Track 2 table back in 2007 in Moscow could have stopped at that impasse - but they did not. They agreed that the heart of the issue did not start with either the United States or with Russia but rather with the need to decipher the threat - what were Iran's technical capabilities? Could the two sides analyze and come to an agreement on the nature of the threat through a joint threat assessment?

Russia and the United States have been in dispute over the timeframe involved for Iran to acquire nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles, on the means needed to prevent that from happening, and - in the worst case that it cannot be prevented - the military operational responses available to both sides to defend against Iran's potential use of nuclear armed missiles. It was agreed that only after capabilities are ascertained can productive political conversations about motives and policy responses follow. Therein lay the mandate for the two teams of scientists, who worked independently and in a series of joint meetings that more often than not lasted well into the night.

Though the Iranian nuclear program has been the subject of detailed forensic public analyses, much less detailed attention has been paid, in public at least, to the Iranian missile program. Claims and counterclaims abound and defy easy understanding by the non-specialist. This report aims to fi ll that gap by providing a detailed examination of Iranian nuclear and missile capabilities. When might Iran be capable of deploying nuclear warheads? Assuming that Iran can develop that capability, would the proposed missile defenses be able intercept Iranian missiles? What are the possibilities of U.S.-Russian cooperation in this area? These are the vital questions that this report examines and makes its assessments.