Die Welt has a new report this month, however, recounting details like the visit of an Iranian engineering team to Venezuela in February, and the prospective site of the missile complex on the Paraguana peninsula off the northwestern coast. (English write-up based on the 13 May Die Welt article here.) I use the expression “missile complex” for a reason. Details in the Die Welt report indicate that what Iran and Venezuela are planning to construct is not just a base for a missile battery; it’s a complex of underground silos for the Shahab-3 medium-range missile.
The report refers to constructing missile silos 20 meters deep, and the need to provide for fueling the missiles underground, and for the release of toxic gases. These factors in combination mean that the plan is to deploy missiles in underground silos, from which they will be launched.
Counter-missile tactics for Venezuela’s potential targets – e.g., Colombia (or the US) – will therefore not be solely a matter of the “Scud-hunting” process readers may automatically think of: reconnaissance aircraft and satellites searching for mobile launchers. (The Shahab-3 is moved on a “TEL” – transporter-erector-launcher – that is more elaborate than a Scud launcher but allows mobility on a similar principle.) Mobile Shahab-3s could well be provided to Venezuela, but there will apparently be an underground launch complex as well. It is likely to be hardened and ingeniously designed.
Iran began using underground silos for the Shahab-3 in 2008, with the first silo complex near the city of Tabriz. That complex is designed quite simply, however. Reporting in 2009 revealed a more elaborately constructed – and hardened – complex at the Imam Ali base near Khorramabad. (The video simulation of the launch silos at Imam Ali is worth checking out.) Presumably the complex in Venezuela will be built based on the design of the one at Khorramabad, with adjustments for local terrain conditions.
When Iran tested an extended-range Shahab-3 in 2009, US and other defense analysts indicated the missile’s range was up to 2000km, an improvement over the 1600km demonstrated by the baseline Shahab-3. The difference that makes to the missile base in Venezuela is that using the Shahab-3 ER would put Miami in the threat envelope.
The base is to be jointly operated, according to the original reporting from Die Welt last year. Iran probably won’t hesitate to deploy newer missiles like the longer-range, solid-fueled Sejjil (in testing since 2008) when they become operational. The 13 May Die Welt article states that the missile-base agreement provides for Iran to be able to attack her enemies from the base – presumably referring to the US.
Meanwhile, Iran and Venezuela will jointly develop a medium-range missile, apparently for Venezuelan production.
Analysts were quick last fall to allude to 1962 and the Cuban missile crisis. But we don’t want President Obama negotiating as JFK did in 1962. JFK was maneuvered into giving up NATO’s new-generation missile deterrent in Turkey as the price of getting Soviet missiles out of Cuba, a reality that was owned up to by mainstream historians only in the 1990s. In the aftermath of the crisis, moreover, the only thing that left Cuba was the land-based missiles. The Soviets used the island as a military base, maintaining a listening post and a secretive ground-forces brigade, and bringing in strategic bombers and missile-equipped submarines, for the next 30 years.
It will not be a good outcome for Iran to acquire a bargaining chip, with a missile base in Venezuela, and use it to extort the US as the price of “removing the missiles” from it. That prospect is preventable now, without quarantines, standoffs, and brinkmanship. It would take some serious regional arm-twisting, but that’s what “smart power” is for.
Once the missiles are in Venezuela, however, the probability is high that we would have no way of verifying compliance with any agreement on their removal – even one disadvantageous to us. This problem, if not headed off at the pass now, will only get bigger.