22nd Feb 2024

Iran suicide bombers pose bigger threat than missiles, expert says

Iran's current capabilities do not justify the development of an extensive missile shield covering all Europe and the US, since Tehran poses more of a threat in the Gulf region and to Israel rather than Paris or Washington, a missile defence expert has said.

"Iran isn't really a threat to the US or Western Europe. Rather to Turkey, Israel and US forces based in the region. Possibly also to the very south-eastern corner of Europe - Greece, Romania, Bulgaria," Michael Elleman, a Bahrain-based expert with the Institute for International Security Studies in London told this website.

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  • Protecting cities from missile attacks by firing missiles could result in many casualties (Photo: Wikipedia)

Having jointly worked with US, European and Russian experts on an assessment of the missile threat to Europe, Elleman said the current deployment of warship-based interceptors in the Mediterranean was the best solution and the US should not continue with a bigger plan of putting land-based anti-ballistic missiles to cover the entire territory of Europe.

"What we've concluded in our study is that if Iran was able to target London or Paris, it would have to develop a longer-range system and to test that, they would have to do it in flight. And you can't hide that activity," he said.

Replacing the Bush-era project which would have deployed land-based counter-missiles in Poland and a radar facility in the Czech Republic, the 2009 plan announced by President Barack Obama has four stages: the already deployed ship-based interceptors and a radar in Turkey - provided Ankara and Washington strike a deal - followed by land-based interceptors in Romania in 2015.

These two phases would cover the threat posed by Iran's current and most likely capabilities in the near future. In phase three and four, however, the shield would extend to Poland and northern Europe, aiming to protect the entire Euro-Atlantic space from potential long-range ballistic missiles.

The "uncertainty" about what these last phases are about are still a major irritant for Russia, Elleman notes.

"Americans have a history of saying "we're going to do this" and then when they start doing it, it grows bigger and bigger. It's that uncertainty they're concerned with," he explains.

Joint mechanisms for working out possible common projects have so far yielded few results, despite having eased the tensions of the George W. Bush era, when Moscow was threatening to deploy its own missiles on the Polish border.

A "highly polarising topic" in US politics, the idea of having zero-risk anti-ballistic missile defence goes back to 1983, when US President Ronald Reagan made his famous "Star Wars" speech outlining for the first time the idea of an anti-ballistic shield covering the entire US territory.

But the tens of billions of US dollars that would eventually flow into this project, were it to be completed in all its phases, will eventually push someone to "ask the embarrassing question why we are paying these billions to protect Europe."

A self-declared "missile defence sceptic", Elleman argued that "the technical challenges are immense" for creating a shield to protect civilian areas, cities and industrial sites. "Anti-ballistic missiles work in war theatres, where casualties are expected. But it's much more complicated if debris fall on a city, or you can't hit all the incoming missiles."

Elleman argues that building strategic defences against something neither US and Europe are really sure about is a waste of time and money.

"The essential question to me is what is Iran capable of doing and what do we foresee it will be capable of in the near future. That should be the focus of the discussion, but it hasn't been to date."

Looking at the current Iranian capabilities, the expert noted that the country has "a very limited conventional army and no amphibious capabilities to invade, let's say, Bahrain or Saudi Arabia."

Ballistic missiles and rockets fired from small boats against US ships are the extent of their capability so far.

"But the actual damage they can do with a missile, provided it has no nuclear warhead on it, is quite narrow. There would be less than 1000 deaths if they launched their entire arsenal of missiles."

"They could do much more damage with suicide bombers than with missiles," Elleman said.

As for the nuclear threat, the expert said it was worrying that Iran was pursuing its nuclear programme, particularly since if they were to aquire the bomb, Saudi Arabia may put "all its money into getting one as well."

But he is not convinced that Tehran has yet taken the decision to build the bomb - an effort which would most likely take another year. "And then, if they have one bomb, what will they do with it?" he asked, noting that in order to be a nuclear power and have a real deterrent for neighbouring countries, Iran would need "a dozen" bombs which would take another several years to build.

"Being on the verge of acquiring the bomb may actually be enough of a deterrent. But then again, there are different factions within the Iranian regime and the more radical ones may push forward the decision to build the bomb."

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