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Iran Maneuvers: Of Missile Tests & "Salami Tactics"

This is the first in a series on Iran. The second, dated April 9th, is The Iran Stand-Off: What the Internet Community Can Do. The third, dated April 12th, is Iran Stand-off: The devil is in the details.


As I write this, news coverage of Iran's third missile test performed during their current military maneuvers is propagating outwards in the form of stories by the Associated Press and Reuters. There have been at least two previous tests since the beginning of the maneuvers:

  1. The testing of an alleged stealth, multiple warhead missile, tested on March 31st, and
  2. an underwater missile alleged to be very fast and difficult to see with sonar.

Chah Bahar Airport, IranFor the past four days, I've been following the news coverage of the  Iran military maneuvers, and taking notes. Hence my relative blog silence. This is a topic I approach with caution for a number of reasons. First, I was motivated to start this blog three years ago by the advent of the Iraq war and so the advent of a new war is something I would feel very strongly about. And so I wanted to better understand what I was looking at before jumping in. Second, all of the solutions that start Why don't we just . . . are inadequate to the task, no matter how you fill in the blank, whether it be with take out their nuclear facilities, or invade or give peace a chance.

I personally don't want anyone to be in possession of nuclear weapons, least of all a religious dictatorship. Our own possession of nuclear weapons -- and I phrase it this way, since as US citizens we are complicit in this -- while it must have some deterrent effect, also compromises our moral authority to demand that other countries forgo them. Surely, the US possesses enough nukes to turn the entire region into a plain of sea-green glass. But just at the moment, Iran seems unimpressed by our hoard.

"Salami Tactics"

Before I give the high points of the past four days of coverage, I wanted to remark on a pun made by Condaleeza Rice (or perhaps by her speech-writers) that no one seemed to get. In close chronological proximity to when a successful missile test is announced by a guy who's last name is Salami (Brigadier General Hossein Salami), Condaleeza Rice expresses dismay at Iran's "salami tactics" and everyone reacts with utmost seriousness. (Well, everyone except Pravda ("Condoleezza Rice believes USA may invade Iran because of its ‘salami tactics’"), which seems to have this riff on Rice going, the subtext of which is that the problem with Rice is that she needs to get laid more often.) CNN earnestly explained the salami concept:

Rice called Iran's nuclear strategy a "salami" tactic, referring to how Tehran continued to change its ambitions slice by slice.

"First it was just going to be conversion," she said. "Then it was just going to be a small scale R and D [research and development], then it was going to be about centrifuge production. So I don't see Iran particularly constrained by the fact that the IAEA continues to operate in Iran right now.

"If Iran makes that threat and carries through on it then we will have a better view of what Iran's intentions really are," she said.

But even Pravda didn't get beyond sexual innuendo and the implication that maybe she was saying the guy was a dick.

Certainly, the usage of "salami tactics" has a history. For example:

In Hungary the decisive moment, portending the end of the democratic prelude to Communist dictatorship, came in February 1947, when Béla Kovács general secretary of the Smallholders' party, was arrested by the Soviet authorities on charges of reactionary conspiracy. . . . But the country's real boss was now Mátyás Rákosi one of the outstanding figures of international communism and a self- confessed practitioner of so-called "salami tactics," which consisted of slicing up the Opposition piece by piece until all opposition was destroyed.

And another version of the same (John Horvath in 2000):

Half a century ago, in order to assume and consolidate power, the Communist Party in Hungary, led by the ultra-Stalinist Matyas Rakosi, adopted a strategy known as "salami tactics". This entailed a gradual process of threats and alliances as a means of overcoming opposition. Consequently, the communists were able to exert their influence and eventually dominate the political landscape -- slice by slice.

It's ironic that five decades later the same tactics are being used, this time not by a Moscow trained communist elite, but by a capitalist elite based in Washington. What the KGB succeeded in doing in Hungary and the rest of Central and Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War the FBI has now been doing in the post Cold War period.

Interesting how the discourse of the Cold Wars creeps in here. The phrase is picked up in the context of Iran by Gary Samore at the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations in November of 2005.

Using these salami tactics, Iran calculates that it can defeat Western efforts at the IAEA Board of Governors meeting to refer Iran to the UN Security Council.  So far, it appears that Iran’s gamble is working.  At the last IAEA Board of Governors meeting in September, the Western group had enough votes to refer Iran to the Security Council, but backed down when Russia threatened to vote against the resolution.  Instead, the Western group sponsored a resolution which formally found Iran in non-compliance with its safeguards agreement, which establishes the legal basis for referral, but stopped short of actually making the referral.  Russia and China abstained on the resolution.  Moscow argued against the resolution on the grounds that Iran would retaliate by suspending some IAEA inspections or resuming enrichment activities, and the Council was in a poor position to respond because there is no political support for tough sanctions.  In fact, the Europeans were sympathetic to these arguments and secretly relieved that Russia blocked referral.  Even for the US, delay serves Washington’s focus on efforts to stabilize Iraq and to destabilize Syria, which (if successful) will weaken Iran’s strategic position and improve Washington’s ability to intimidate Iran over the nuclear issue.  Thus, it appears unlikely that the IAEA will refer Iran to New York at the next IAEA meeting in Vienna on November 24.

In the meantime, Iran calculates that it has a window of opportunity to advance its nuclear program.  In particular, Iran is free to continue working to fix problems at its conversion facility and build up a stockpile of UF6 feed material.  More dangerously, Iran may decide at some point that it is strong enough to risk a resumption of some enrichment activities.  Following its usual salami tactics, for example, Iran might decide to resume some enrichment research and development or production of additional centrifuge components, while maintaining the suspension on the actual completion or operation of the pilot enrichment plant.

It comes up again in an interview with Joseph Cirincione, director of the Nonproliferation Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. in January of this year.

The Iranian government seems to have concluded that its extended negotiations with Europe are pointless and that it can slowly resume its enrichment program without suffering either UN sanctions or U.S. military strikes. It's not quite full speed ahead; it's more like a steady acceleration of the nuclear program. Iran is proceeding very carefully here. It's trying to avoid a direct confrontation and has adopted "salami tactics" -- that is, Iranian officials move an inch at a time towards resumption of the program and each inch, they say, doesn't violate any treaties or commitments. Each step in and of itself is not related to any weapons work and each time they're testing to see whether the Europeans will back down . . .

It seems to me that this discourse in the context of Iran is informed as much by the frustration of the analysts at the lack of a simple solution, as it is by the actual tactics if Iran. (And these tactics are familiar to anyone who's ever tried to get a kid to clean his room; there's nothing especially military about this concept. In fact, the invoking of the concept seems to me to reveal some of the possibly appropriate paternalism at work here.)

The Tactics of Salami

But let's get back to this guy Salami. He does actually have a reputation of sorts. From Iran Focus in November of 2005: Iran promotes top commander of suicide bombers

A top military commander who has been responsible for recruitment of suicide bombers in Iran’s armed forces was on Sunday promoted to the position of Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Brigadier General Hossein Salami was appointed as the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the IRGC while Brigadier General Ali Fazli was promoted the position of Director of Operations in the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

During an inauguration ceremony, the Commandant of the IRGC, Major General Rahim Safavi, said that the latest reshuffles in the IRGC meant that the elite military force was “on the path of expansion”.

Salami is best known for his efforts to recruit radical fanatics loyal to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei into Iran’s armed forces.

On July 4, 2004, Salami, who was IRGC’s Director of Operations at the time, called for the destruction of the United States during a ceremony to recruit suicide bombers that were willing to attack Western and Israeli targets.

“Now, America knows that Muslims with their desires for martyrdom have discovered a new technology and are capable of technological production. This has made [the U.S.] fear them”, Salami was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency ISNA. . . .

He said that the West and Israel were terrified of suicide operations. “Now, no part of the Islamic world is safe and secure for America, thus the U.S. cannot move forward in the region is currently trying to secure its present location”.

That's a little more interesting that metaphors made with lunch meat, yes? Let no one claim that an attack on Iran is necessary to reduce terrorism. And there's a little more to Salami's tactics than that. From Iran Focus in January of 2006, Firebrand strategist to head Iran’s Air Force:

Salami is known as the father of the IRGC’s “asymmetric warfare” doctrine, which he helped to develop in the months preceding the war in Iraq. At the time, Salami was Director of Operations in the IRGC command headquarters.

The military doctrine is based on two components as strategic tools in any military confrontation: the massive use of suicide operations to target U.S. and Western interests around the world, and the use of weapons of mass destruction.

On July 4, 2004, General Salami called for the destruction of the United States during a ceremony to recruit suicide bombers that were willing to attack Western and Israeli targets.

“Now, America knows that Muslims with their desires for martyrdom have discovered a new technology and are capable of technological production. This has made [the U.S.] fear them”, Salami was quoted as saying by the state-run news agency ISNA.

In his new position as commander of the IRGC’s Air force, General Salami will be in charge of the country’s ballistic missile development project, a key component of the asymmetric warfare doctrine. Missiles are important as means of delivery for such weapons.

SO. On March 31st, Iran tested a missile with "very advanced" features and Salami's name was all over the world, via the AP and Reuters, he said it was a "defensive" weapon. And Condaleeza Rice has just been talking about "salami tactics." A pun, perhaps, but a very dark and complex one.

The Logic of the Fireworks Display

The Iran military maneuvers have some of the dramatic logic of a fireworks display about them. First missile tested (presumably on schedule) on the 31st. Second successful test done on April 2nd. Third test on April 3rd. What did they do on April 1st? Was there an unsuccessful test of something? Or are they going to test a total of 4 things, spaced at 2 day intervals? If it does follow the fireworks display logic, the most impressive should be last. The maneuvers are supposed to continue until the 6th and are expected to involve more tests.

Overall, for something that seems calculated to be a in impressive display, the missile launches and maneuvers have a striking lack of visual information. (See also EagleSpeak on this point.) I have collected images relating to the maneuvers and test on Flickr HERE.

By contrast, there are large numbers of photos of the earthquake damage out there: Seemingly the press has been primed by the Pakistan earthquake to pay attention. But this series of earthquakes has killed about 70 people; the death toll of the Pakistan quake was a thousand times that. Ruined Iranian villages are probably not the lasting visual image Iran was hoping for with this display of military tech.

Pay No Attention to the Missiles Behind the Curtain

Another interesting aspect of the maneuvers is that until the first missile test, the Western press paid them virtually no attention. Certainly, the test are newsworthy, but the maneuvers all by themselves are more significant than a lot of what finds its way through the AP wire. (Reuters did run a short squib as did UPI.) Even on March 30th, the message seemed to be: If you attack Iran's nuclear facilities then Iran takes on Israel.

As nearly as I can tell, there was never any doubt that Iran had weapons systems capable of reaching Israel. The question was rather whether Israel's defense systems could stop them from reaching their targets. So why wasn't there more coverage of the maneuvers to start with? My feeling when noticing it was that to some extent it was out  of a desire to keep the vision of pre-emtive strikes and invasions tenable, something we might cheer for.

But really, there is no easy way out. There wasn't last week, and there isn't now.

So on to chronology. . . .

March 30th, 2006


From Aljazeera: Iran’s eager for peace, but beware of its nuclear might

Iran's announcement of staging the large-scale military maneuver, which will last till April 6 near the northern coasts of the Gulf, with over 17,000 soldiers and 1,500 naval vessels of various types and sizes joining the operation, came while UN Security Council discuss future measures over the Islamic Republic's right to pursue nuclear technology.

The UN five permanent members agreed on a statement that demands the Islamic Republic halt all activities related to uranium enrichment, setting the stage for the first action by the world body over fears that Tehran seeks producing nuclear weapons as claimed by Washington and Israel.

While U.S. and the European Union push the Security Council to adopt tough measures against Iran, Russia and China, which are afraid that harsh means against Tehran would run counterproductive, highly oppose the move. . . .

Dismissing efforts by the Bush administration that it is trying to build up international consensus against Tehran over its nuclear program, [Admiral Morteza] Saffari further stated that “It may seem that this country is trying to bring about international consensus and believes that it has been successful, but this is not the case. It is trying to force Iran into submission through its psychological warfare and its bullying propaganda”.

“We will resist and bear whatever costs that may entail”, Saffari said, noting that during the naval exercises unmanned airplanes will be used to “collect intelligence about the enemy” and anti-air missiles will be deployed to attack “enemy targets”.

From the Islamic Republic News Agency: Iran to launch massive naval wargame titled "Holy Prophet" on March 31 (pub date the 29th):

Iran is to launch a massive joint naval wargame titled "Holy Prophet (PBUH)", beginning on March 31 with shooting of a Shahab II Missile into the air with the message of "Peace and Friendship" for the regional countries, Persian Gulf, and Sea of Oman littoral states.

What is the nature of this "friendship"? Or is this a purely Orwellian usage?

In the UK, the Times Online did seem to get the general point: Defiant sabre-rattling

Rear-Admiral Muhammad Ibrahim Dehghan, the spokesman for the operation, said that the focus of the excercise would be the strategic Strait of Hormuz, at the mouth of the Gulf: “If the enemy wants to make the area insecure, he should rest assured that he will also suffer from the insecurity, since we know the location of his vessels.”

March 31st, 2006

The AP chimes in. AP: Iran says it has tested radar-dodging missile:

Iran successfully test-fired a missile that can avoid radar and hit several targets simultaneously using multiple warheads, the military said Friday.
Gen. Hossein Salami, the air force chief of the elite Revolutionary Guards, did not specify the missile's range, saying it depends on the weight of its warheads.

But state-run television described the weapon as "ballistic" — suggesting it's of comparable range to Iran's existing ballistic rocket, which can travel 1,250 miles and reach arch-foe Israel and U.S. bases in the Middle East.

"Today, a remarkable goal of the Islamic Republic of Iran's defense forces was realized with the successful test-firing of a new missile with greater technical and tactical capabilities than those previously produced," Salami said on state-run television.

It showed a clip of the launch of what it called the Fajr-3, with "fajr" meaning "victory" in Farsi.

"It can avoid anti-missile missiles and strike the target," Salami said.

He said the missile would carry a multiple warhead, and each warhead would be capable of hitting its target precisely.

Plus stories from Reuters, Iran Focus, and a longer version of the AP story with this endearingly capitalistic passage:

Meanwhile, former President Hashemi Rafsanjani said Iran is willing to sell the weapons it produces at competitive prices.

Addressing tens of thousands of worshippers at Friday prayers in Tehran University, Rafsanjani said the country's 1980-88 war with Iraq had made it self-reliant in armaments.

"Today, our military requirements -- from jet fighters to bullets -- can be produced inside the country," he said.

"We can provide low-priced weapons to many countries," he added.

And then there was an earthquake that leveled three villages. Meanwhile, the Strategy Page suggests that the Iranians want us to bomb them. And ThreatsWatch publishes a piece on how the lack of specifics on the missile tested is leading to "wild speculation."


April 1st, 2006

No new tests seem to have taken place on April 1st. (Or perhaps something was tested, but without the desired results.) The New York Times publishes its story on the first test, though it contains little that wasn't in the wire stories. More stories about the first test continue to appear. By evening there are competing stories about whether of not there are secret meetings in the UK  to plan strikes against Iran (the Telegraph & the BBC).

April 2nd, 2006

The Washington Post runs a widely quoted story by Dana Priest, Attacking Iran May Trigger Terrorism

As tensions increase between the United States and Iran, U.S. intelligence and terrorism experts say they believe Iran would respond to U.S. military strikes on its nuclear sites by deploying its intelligence operatives and Hezbollah teams to carry out terrorist attacks worldwide.

Iran would mount attacks against U.S. targets inside Iraq, where Iranian intelligence agents are already plentiful, predicted these experts. There is also a growing consensus that Iran's agents would target civilians in the United States, Europe and elsewhere, they said.

U.S. officials would not discuss what evidence they have indicating Iran would undertake terrorist action, but the matter "is consuming a lot of time" throughout the U.S. intelligence apparatus, one senior official said. "It's a huge issue," another said.

A story in the Korea Times remarks,

Washington has difficulty concentrating on North Korea's nuclear issue as it has more urgent tasks stemming from Iran and Iraq, Chun Yung-woo, Seoul's top envoy to the six-party talks, said in Seoul on Sunday.

"Washington's top-level officials have other high-priority issues such as those from Iran and Iraq," he said. "So it might be difficult for them to focus on North Korea. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they forgot the North Korean nuclear issue."

IN the late morning (EDT), the Associated Press reports a second missile test:

Iran conducted its second major test of a new missile within days on Sunday, firing a high-speed torpedo it said no submarine or warship can escape at a time of increased tensions with the U.S. over its nuclear program.

The tests came during war games that Iran's elite Revolutionary Guards have been holding in the Persian Gulf and the Arabian Sea since Friday..

On the maneuvers' first day, Iran said it successfully tested the Fajr-3 missile, which can avoid radar and hit several targets simultaneously using multiple warheads..

The new torpedo, called the "Hoot," or "whale," could raise concerns over Iran's power in the Gulf, a vital corridor for the world's oil supplies and where the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet is based. During Iran's war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iranian ships attacked oil tankers in the Gulf, and Iran and the U.S. military engaged in limited clashes..

Iran's state television stopped its normal programs to break news of the torpedo test, showing it being launched from a ship into the Gulf waters, then hitting its target, a derelict ship..

Gen. Ali Fadavi, deputy head of the Revolutionary Guards' navy, said the ships that fire the Iranian-made Hoot had radar-evading technology and that the torpedo - moving at 223 miles per hour - was too fast to elude..

"It has a very powerful warhead designed to hit big submarines. Even if enemy warship sensors identify the missile, no warship can escape from this missile because of its high speed," Fadavi told state television..

The Hoot's speed would make it about three or four times faster than a normal torpedo and as fast as the world's fastest known underwater missile, the Russian-made VA-111 Shkval, developed in 1995. It was not immediately known if the Hoot was based on the Shkval.

Reuters chimes in shortly thereafter, and later there are reports by IRNA and Iran Focus (which has footage of the test).


Which brings us to today, April 3rd, 2006

IRNA published some early-morning sabre-rattling: Iran firmly responds to any attack: Military official; plus a video of the first test was made public, again released by Iran Focus. The New York Times gets around to reporting on the second test, as does the Chicago Tribune. And the maneuvers and missile tests are featured on ABC's Good Morning America, during the course of which Richard Clarke remarks that Iran's terrorism networks make "al Qaeda look like a Kindergarten" but pointedly refrains from remarking on what these missiles might be for (at least in the clip I saw).

Time for the next test! Shortly before noon, Eastern Time, Reuters reported a third test: Iran test fires new torpedo in shipping zone.

Iran test fired a new torpedo in the Strait of Hormuz off its south coast, the world's main nexus for shipping oil, state television reported on Monday.

Iran rarely gives enough details of its military hardware for analysts to determine whether Tehran is making genuine advances or simply producing defiant propaganda while pressure ratchets up on its nuclear program.

Although Iran can draw on huge manpower, its naval and air force technology is largely dismissed as outmoded.

"Revolutionary Guard naval forces a few minutes ago test fired a powerful torpedo in the Strait of Hormuz. This torpedo is capable of destroying enemy warships and submarines at any depth and moving at any speed," state television said.

The test comes in the middle of Gulf wargames that started on Friday. Iran earlier in the wargames said it had tested a radar-evading missile and an underwater missile that can outpace enemy warships.

And from the AP: Iran Says It Has Tested Another Torpedo

The torpedo can target submarines at any depth and is powerful enough to "break a heavy warship" in two, a spokesman for Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Gen. Mohammad Ebrahim Dehghani, told state television. He did not announce the name of the new torpedo or give details on its speed or range.

On Sunday, Iran announced it had tested a different torpedo, the new high-speed "Hoot," which means "whale." It moves at up to 223 mph, and Iran said it was too fast for any enemy ship to elude.

Not long after that, the AP released this story: Blix: Iran Years Away From Nuclear Bomb

OSLO, Norway - Former U.N. chief weapons inspector Hans Blix said Monday that Iran is a least five years away from developing a nuclear bomb, leaving time to peacefully negotiate a settlement.

Blix, attending an energy conference in western Norway, said he doubted the U.S. would resort to invading Iran.

"But there is a chance that the U.S. will use bombs or missiles against several sites in Iran," he was quoted by Norwegian news agency NTB as saying. "Then, the reactions would be strong, and would contribute to increased terrorism."

Iran's WargamesAND, most recently, Reuters released an expanded version of their story, complete with a link to a video having to do with the third test. I think someone is getting the hang of this game. And even Scientific American has ventured a comment on the proceedings.

I just wish the stakes weren't so high.


I wish I had an easy answer, that I could finish a sentence that begins Why don't we just . . . The only right way to end the sentence right now seems to me  . . . be very very careful.

UPDATE, 4/4/06: Several more tests have been conducted this morning. Here are this morning's links:

See also Defensetech: Iran's Kooky, Incendiary Arsenal.

2nd UPDATE, 4/4/06: More links.