Iran, Iraq, N.Korea could be building arsenals for leverage
By John Diamond
February 14, 2000
WASHINGTON--U.S. intelligence now views Iran, Iraq and North Korea as striving to build long-range missiles and nuclear weapons for bluff and leverage rather than for an actual nuclear strike on the United States.
New intelligence assessments circulating in classified and unclassified form add political nuance to a view of so-called rogue states that has, for years, focused on technical capability.
The intelligence community now downplays the possibility of an irrational, unprovoked attack. Instead, intelligence analysts increasingly argue that these smaller adversaries pursue weapons of mass destruction for political power and prestige--not for acts tantamount to national suicide.
This newly emerging view challenges assumptions advanced by Republicans and Democrats that have driven the move to build a $13 billion national missile-defense system. Those assumptions hold that such a defense is required to protect U.S. citizens from erratic and provocative leaders who are not swayed by the certainty of a massive U.S. military response to aggression.
According to the intelligence community, Iran, Iraq and North Korea want to prevent larger, more powerful enemies, including the United States, from being tempted to intervene in their own regional disputes. In short, they want weapons of mass destruction for the same reasons that Russia and the United States built up their arms during the Cold War.
North Korea, viewed by the CIA as the greatest near-term threat to develop long-range missiles, already has used its increasing capability as leverage to negotiate with Washington for trade concessions. The CIA has no doubt that North Korea is well aware of the consequences following an actual attack on the United States.
"If North Korea launched, they'd probably view it as one of their last acts," said Robert Walpole, the CIA's top strategic weapons specialist.
"In many ways, such weapons are not envisioned at the outset as operational weapons of war," said Walpole, "but primarily as strategic weapons of deterrence and coercive diplomacy."
Indeed, North Korea may ultimately agree to abandon its missile program in exchange for concessions from Washington, a development that would raise new questions about the need for a national missile defense. Walpole no longer uses the term "rogue state."
"It has a lot of connotations that just don't necessarily apply fairly," he said.
Still, the rogue state label continues to drive the national missile-defense debate. A decision by President Clinton on building a national missile-defense system that will cost at least $13 billion is perhaps five months away.
All the major Republican presidential candidates support the costly missile shield, a favorite cause of the GOP ever since President Ronald Reagan unveiled his Star Wars idea in 1983. Democrats are reluctantly going along. Clinton has said he couldn't imagine halting the program if the United States develops the capability to shoot down long-range missiles.
Most of the debate in recent weeks has focused on whether the system will work, and on whether Russia will make good on its threat to abandon arms reduction promises if the U.S. deploys such a defense system. Another key question closely examined by U.S. intelligence is when North Korea, Iran and Iraq will obtain missiles of intercontinental range.
The question only now being addressed in any detail by the Clinton administration is what circumstances would cause one of these nations to attack the United States.
William Schneider Jr., a member of a special commission that two years ago warned of a rapidly emerging rogue-state missile threat, says Iran, Iraq and North Korea want ICBMs tipped with nuclear or chemical warheads to force Washington to hesitate before intervening in a regional conflict. They seek these weapons because they know they cannot defeat U.S. conventional forces head-to-head, as was so amply demonstrated in the Persian Gulf war.
"Their aspiration to achieve regional dominance may be frustrated if they cannot deter the potential intervention of extra-regional powers such as NATO or the United States," Schneider said. The long-range missiles these countries may one day field could be relatively crude and still pose a formidable threat.
"They need not be highly reliable, because their strategic value is derived primarily from the implicit or explicit threat of their use, not the near-certain outcome of such use," the CIA's Walpole said.
Iran, Iraq and North Korea already have short- and medium-range missiles.
None yet has nuclear weapons or ICBMs, but they are working to develop them. And all three could probably place a chemical warhead on one of their missiles to try to stem an overwhelming conventional assault by U.S.-led forces.
With U.S. forces deployed on the Korean Peninsula and in the Persian Gulf region, these countries already have the ability to threaten a lethal missile attack well before any of them are expected to acquire ICBMs. Iraq did so in the 1991 Persian Gulf war and refrained from unleashing its chemical weapons because the United States threatened retaliation.
"We call Iraq a rogue state led by a rogue leader, but there is every indication that traditional deterrence concepts worked during the gulf war," said Dan Kuehl, an air power expert at Washington's National Defense University.
Once these countries have the technical sophistication to launch an ICBM, they will also have the know-how to add decoys and other devices to the missiles that could defeat a limited U.S. interceptor system, the CIA says. The ultimate value of a national missile-defense system, then, may be in discouraging these countries from investing in long-range missiles in the first place.
"A lot of the value is deterrent. It is to keep the United States from being held hostage," said Anthony Cordesman, a Mideast expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
This "hostage" scenario comes up frequently in classified war games run by the Pentagon. In these simulations, the United States is somehow involved in a conventional war--and winning overwhelmingly--against Iran, Iraq or North Korea. One of these nations, backed into a corner, with U.S. troops on the doorstep of its capital, threatens a nuclear or chemical missile attack on the United States. The question then facing a president would be whether to press the ground attack and rely on missile defenses to shoot down any incoming warheads, or hold off.
"If one nuclear weapon gets through, you have more dead Americans than every other war put together," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based group that follows national security issues. A president "is not going to bet the country" on the certainty that a national missile-defense system will work, he said.
"The premise of the rogue state theory is that arms control is not possible, deterrence is not possible, and therefore active defense is necessary," Pike said.
The problem with the rogue state concept, said Richard Haass of the Brookings Institution, is that it overlooks differences between Iran, Iraq and North Korea, and ignores the effectiveness of aid and trade incentives that could lead North Korea to halt its missile program.
There have been halting, preliminary suggestions of an opening to Iran's somewhat less ideological regime. And Iraq, though probably the most hostile toward the U.S., is also furthest from developing long-range missiles. Still, Haass cautioned, "You can't rule out irrational behavior or loss of control."
Missile defense advocates say the system could defend against an accidental launch of a Russian missile, but the CIA views that possibility as highly unlikely.