I’ve been working on an absolutely gigantic and totally inconclusive post about Iran-Venezuela ballistic missile cooperation. (Short version: They either are or they aren’t. That concludes my prepared remarks. Thank you.)
In the course of digging through that mess, I came across this very interesting nugget in the 721 report for 2010:
“Iran has marketed at least one ballistic missile system for export.”
Really? This is in contrast to previous years, where Iran was merely accused of marketing components that might be used in a ballistic missile guidance system. What does “market” mean? And who was the client?
As far as I can tell, this refers to Iran’s transfer of the Fateh-110 solid-fueled ballistic missile system to Syria. It is an interesting little story.
My initial instinct was to look over the list of 12 entities that the US sanctioned earlier this year. I doubt the US would sanction an entity for merely being offered a ballistic missile system, but I had a hunch that “marketed” meant a transfer had actually occurred. In any event, the sort of business relationship that results in the offer of a complete ballistic missile system would probably be built on lots of sanctionable behavior.
By this logic, Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center was a very good candidate. And, as it turned out, a quick search on “SSRC, Iran and missile” returns a leaked cable (NSFW!) that contains this nugget:
[W]e assess Syria’s acquisition of the Iranian Fateh-110 solid-propellant missile system has allowed Iran to emerge as a key foreign partner in Syria’s ballistic missile program.
That’s got to be the “at least one” — there is no other example that is so clean and unambiguous.
Why didn’t the preceding reports mention the Fateh-110 transfer? The cable clearly mentions successful flight tests in December 2007 and December 2008. In fact, the Fateh-110 isn’t listed in Syria’s inventory in the 2009 edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat either.
It is possible that the intelligence community was either uncertain about the transfer or that the intelligence was too sensitive for a either mere 721 report or NASIC slickee — until late 2009 when Israeli and US officials became very concerned that Syria might in turn provide the Fateh-110 to Hezbollah. Then gums started flapping all over the place.
In late 2009, General Yossi Baidatz and other Israeli officials told (Leaked cable! NSFW!) ASD/ISA Sandy Vershbow that “if the delivery [of Fateh 110 missiles to Hezbollah] were to occur, this would significantly alter Israel’s calculus. Under such a scenario, the looming question for Israeli policymakers then becomes: ‘to strike or not to strike.’”
Those warnings were duly passed along, ending up in public in the DEBKAfile — I know! I know! — which quoted unnamed US official saying that “the secret transfer of the mobile surface-to-surface Syrian-made Fateh-110 (range 250km) missile to Hizballah … was ‘very dangerous’ and ‘paved the way to war similar to Israel-Hizballah conflict of 2006.’”
Now, as it turns out, I am not sure Syria did transfer the Fateh-110 to Hezbollah. A lot of people cite the DEBKAfile report, but that’s hardly credible. There are two apparent confirmations: This article in Ha’aretz citing “Israeli defense officials” on a Fateh 110 transfer and another story in the New York Times in which a “Pentagon official” told Michael Gordon the Hezbollah inventory included “some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles … and 10 Scud-D missiles.” The problem is the Scud claim — other US officials have cast doubt on it, noting the intelligence is not very clear. I think the proper conclusion is that we don’t really know for sure about either missile yet. I observe that then-SECDEF Gates passed on a golden opportunity to give us a definitive answer earlier this year.
Regardless, the imbroglio seems to have loosened up talk about Iran’s transfer of the Fateh 110 to Syria.
The whole episode is interesting because it suggests that, for all the reasons that Josh ably notes in his magisterial paper (more) on North Korean missile exports, there is perhaps one more threat to North Korea’s market-share in illicit missiles: Competition from its erstwhile customer, Iran.
Update | 9:30 pm Josh observes he made this point about competition for North Korea’s market share on 38 North:
But if Burma is, in fact, the newest buyer of North Korean missile technology, it’s the exception within an overall trend of decline. Ironically, North Korea’s very achievements as a proliferator of missile technology may end up doing as much as anything to put it out of business. Under A.Q. Khan, Pakistan’s KRL is said to have marketed its own version of the North Korean Nodong missile, albeit without any known successes. According to the latest annual report to Congress, Iran has also begun marketing missiles. Syria, too, is becoming more independent as a missile producer, enough to become a proliferation concern itself. In fact, Syria already stands accused of transferring relatively advanced Scud-D missiles to Hezbollah, the armed group that now controls the government of Lebanon.
Taking into consideration these and other, better-established missile exporters, particularly Russia, there might even be more potential suppliers than buyers in the world market. The prospects for Pyongyang’s slice of the market, though once impressive, continue to diminish.