Iran in Latin America: Threat or Axis of Annoyance?

Senior Fellow Douglas Farah's analysis of the debate over the level of threat posed by Iran's expanding diplomatic, trade and military presence in Latin America, and its stated ambition to continue to broaden these ties.read more

Chinese Naval Modernization: Altering the Balance of Power

Richard Fisher details China's naval modernization program and the potential impacts on U.S. interests in the Western Pacific.read more

China Sows The Whirlwind: Implications of Hezbollah’s Iranian-Chinese Weapons

emailEmail this article
printPrint this article

by Richard Fisher, Jr.
Published on July 26th, 2006
ARTICLES

Israel has been surprised and dismayed in the last few weeks by the unexpectedly high quality of Hezbollah munitions, most notably rockets and missiles. While some of these are indigenous, a serious search for the origin of the improvements looks to lead to China—and, to a degree still difficult to assess, to Israel itself, which has shared with China a wide range of sensitive military technologies.

Iran’s ability to produce thousands of shorter-range "Katyusha" size or slightly larger artillery-size rockets that its proxy Hezbollah has used to rain down on Israel since July 12, 2006 is largely owed to Russian and North Korean technology transfers, Chinese technologies are probably involved as well.

Without a doubt, however, the July 14 near-catastrophic attack against the modern and stealthy Israeli corvette Hanit would not have been possible without the C-802//Noor anti-ship missile, the means to produce which were sold by China to Iran in the mid-1990s. The transfer should have triggered U.S. sanctions of the PRC under the 1992 Gore-McCain Act (Iran-Iraq Arms Nonproliferation Act), but was ignored by the Clinton-Gore administration -- despite testimony from former U.S. Navy 5th Fleet commander Admiral Redd, echoed by State’s Deputy Assistant Secretary Einhorn, that the missiles presented "a 360-degree threat" to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf, and House Resolution 105-304 (October 6, 1997) "Urging the Executive branch to take action regarding the acquisition by Iran of C-802 cruise missiles."[1]

This highly capable anti-ship missile is probably only one of many systems, the transfers of which show how Beijing has opened a genuine Pandora’s Box of proliferation possibilities in the Middle East.

Iran’s "box" of Chinese-assisted weapons now includes the Shahab series of medium range ballistic missiles, potential families of solid-fueled missiles, potential long-range land-attack cruise missiles, short-range anti-ship and man-launched anti-aircraft missiles, optically-guided missiles, deadly fast-rising naval mines and very-fast missile-armed attack ships. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that China has aided and enabled Iran’s nuclear weapons program

Through Hezbollah, Iran has only unleashed a small taste of its Chinese-aided arsenal. But its willingness to share very sophisticated weapons like the C-802 should provide warning that Iran is capable of doing much more.

A broad pattern

China has long been associated with the nuclear and missile programs of Pakistan, Iran and North Korea, and has provided all three with conventional weapons. But Beijing is rarely held responsible when these states either threaten or actually attack their neighbors.

Quite the opposite. In Washington the conventional wisdom is that, as a responsible international stakeholder, China is doing what she can to restrain the development by these and other states of high-technology weapons and weapons of mass destruction.

Yet one can reasonably conclude that Beijing believes her security interests are enhanced by helping Pakistan tie down Chinese rival India, North Korea to threaten Chinese rival Japan and to help Iran – with whom Beijing has inked over $200 billion in energy deals in the past two years -- to challenge the ever-fragile pro-Western consensus in the Middle East. By pretending to be willing to help control these states—in return for American concessions—Beijing furthermore has acquired leverage over Washington.

Weapons partially of Chinese origin also enhance the aid both Pakistan and Iran provide to tolerated or directly sponsored terrorist and sub-state groups in order to indirectly attack adversaries with less risk of retaliation. Pakistan has done so through the A.Q. Khan network, and Iran through its direct support of Hezbollah.

Hezbollah’s current leader Hassan Nasrallah was an early graduate of Iranian training camps.[2] In the mid-1990s reports emerged of Iran’s efforts to arm Hezbollah via Syria and Turkey.[3] Since Israel’s withdrawal from Southern Lebanon in 2000, Hezbollah has armed and prepared for renewed conflict. It has constructed scores of deep underground bunkers, fortified defenses in Southern Lebanon, sent 3,000 troops to be trained in Iran, to include 50 pilots, and has armed itself with an estimated 11,500 missiles, mainly short-range "Katyusha" types from Iran.[4] While for several years there have been reports that Hezbollah had longer range Iranian artillery rockets like the 75-km range Fadjr-5 and the 160km range Zelzal, there was no warning that Iran had given Hezbollah sophisticated guided missiles like the C-802/Noor.

C-802 Surprise

On July 14 at about 8pm local time, about 16km off the coast of Lebanon, the Israeli SAAR-5 class corvette Hanit suffered considerable damage and the loss of four crew members after being attacked by what Israeli sources identified as a C-802 anti-ship cruise missile (ASM), apparently fired by Hezbollah forces. It appears that Israeli intelligence was not aware that Hezbollah had such missiles.[5] As the Hanit’s crew was not expecting such an attack, major defensive systems like its Barak-1 and Phalanx anti-missile systems were not active, and the crew reportedly only had 20 seconds warning to realize and then respond to the missile.[6] The C-802 apparently did not strike the Hanit, but exploded above it with enough force to create a hole in the stern helicopter flight deck, damaging the underlying ship control systems.[7] This would appear to confirm earlier Chinese illustrations that the 165kg warhead of this missile consists of many shaped-charges designed to project explosive energy through a greater proportion of a ship’s structure. Had the missile scored a direct hit there would have been far greater damage and loss of life on the Hanit. In addition, a second C-802 was launched but did not strike the Israeli ship, instead finding a Cambodian-registered freighter and killing 11 Egyptian crewmen.

 
 
C-802/Noor: This Chinese-designed, Iranian-made missile is believed to have been used on July 14 to attack the Israeli corvette Hanit, causing the death of four of its crew. Credit: Internet Sources

What is not known is when and how Iran managed to convey its C-802 anti-ship missiles to Hezbollah forces. But in the mid-1990s China began enabling Iran to co-produce the 40km range C-801 rocket-propelled ASM, with one Iranian code-name Tondar, and the 120km range turbojet-propelled C-802 ASM, Iranian code-named Noor. The Noor has been displayed publicly and Iran may even have a longer 200km range version of this missile. An air-launched version of this missile is carried by Iranian Air Force Sukhoi Su-24 and McDonnell Douglas F-4 fighter bombers. Iran tested an air-launched version of the C-801 in 1997.[8] In late March 2006 during the naval exercise Holy Prophet, an Iranian forces Russian-build Mil Mi-17 helicopter launched a Noor ASM. Given Iran’s training of Hezbollah pilots, it might be expected that Iran could transfer C-802 armed helicopters to the terrorist group.

Tactical Precision Options: C-701 and TL Series

In the flurry of initial reports, especially given the relatively small amount of damage done to the Hanit, it was reasonable to conclude that Hezbollah had not fired a C-802 but perhaps the smaller and 15-20km range Chinese C-701 missile, also believed to be manufactured in Iran. During the Holy Prophet exercise Iran had publicly fired a new radar-guided version of the C-701. This missile was originally marketed with an optical seeker. In 2004 it was revealed that China’s Hongdu aircraft company and Iran had cooperated to produce two other types of short-range missiles. The JJ/TL-10A and JJ/TL-10B are respectively, TV and radar-guided versions of a 4-18km range anti-ship missile. The KJ/TL-6B is a larger 35km range radar-guided anti-ship missile.[9]

 
 
Iranian C-701: This Chinese missile, now believe to be made in Iran, was seen being fired during the early 2006 Holy Prophet exercises. Credit: Internet Sources

The smaller size of these missiles enables greater flexibility; they can be more easily concealed and launched from ground, ship or helicopter platforms. As the C-701 has been marketed with a modern millimeter-wave radar, it has an all-weather strike potential. In addition, Iran, and potentially Hezbollah, have the option of using optically-guided C-701 or JJ/TL-6B missiles to undertake precision-strike missions. This is particularly critical for Israel, which has long been reforming its armed forces, especially its Army, to incorporate greater use of information technologies which enables shorter decision cycles, and the reduction and centralization of command and control nodes. With these Chinese-designed missiles Hezbollah may in the future be able to better target critical Israeli information nodes, thus negating their benefits.

 
 
 
JJ/TL-6A/B: This is another Chinese-designed missile now believed to be made in Iran. The optically guided version could be used by Hezbollah for precision strikes in Northern Israel. Credit: RD Fisher

Artillery Rockets With Greater Precision

On July 23 Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz said that Hezbollah has fired about 2,200 rockets into Israel.[10] Save for the two C-802 missiles fired at the Hanit, all other missiles, despite their destructive and psychological impact, are nonetheless relatively simple non-precision guided projectiles. Even the longer-range Fadjr-5 and Zelzal rockets, with their potential even to reach Tel Aviv, are non-precision missiles with destructiveness dependent upon chance. Still, anyone who thinks of the havoc wrought by the V-1s and V-2s against England sixty years ago must be concerned even by such relatively simple systems.

But what if Iran were to obtain the ability to give these missiles, or even longer-range solid-fuel missiles, the near-pinpoint precision of navigation satellite guidance? Potential Chinese-Iranian cooperation could yield missiles that would allow Hezbollah to target with precision critical Israeli military targets, and even political targets like the Knesset. According to one report in 1997 China supplied Iran with solid fuel rocket motor technology that it then applied to its 210km range Fateh/Zelzal 2 short-range ballistic missile.[11] China is currently marketing the 240km range WS-2, an artillery rocket that has been upgraded with satellite navigation guidance systems. And in 2004 China began marketing the larger 150km range B-611, a cooperative program with Turkey that may also yield a 250km range version. The B-611 uses a stealthy shape to counter missile-defenses while also utilizing navigation-satellite guidance. Instead of buying these missiles, Iran could also opt to simply purchase Chinese guidance and stealth shaping technologies to apply to its own artillery and SRBM programs.

 
 
WS-2 and B-611: These navigation satellite guided missiles do not violate Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) guidelines, but could nonetheless provide technologies that would give far more destructive power to Iran’s and then Hezbollah’s long-range artillery rockets.

Longer Range Cruise Missiles

Iran’s surprise provision to Hezbollah of C-802 cruise missiles raises the prospect of Iran’s potential future provision of even longer-range cruise and ballistic missiles. For a group like Hezbollah such missiles have the advantage of being easier to conceal, an ability to launch from ground and ship platforms, while avoiding the vulnerability of requiring open fueling like Iran’s SCUD or Shahab liquid-fuel ballistic missiles. In 2002 Iran, China and Pakistan were able to obtain Soviet-built Raduga Kh-55 long-range land attack cruise missiles (LACM) from Ukraine. Iran reportedly received twelve while China was able to obtain six and two for Pakistan. This technology apparently helped Pakistan to test its Babur LACM in 2005, and according to an Indian analyst, it also aided Iran’s development of a similar LACM, called the Project 111 or Ghadr.[12] China, which has been researching and developing advanced LACMs since the 1970s, may have played a role, either directly or indirectly, in the Iranian and Pakistani LACMs. At a minimum, the speed at which Pakistan was able to field the Babur suggests the high likelihood of Chinese help, consistent with previous Chinese assistance for Pakistan’s Shaheen and Ghauri ballistic missiles. Reports that Turkey has approached Pakistan for Babur technology[13] suggests that competition for sales is not above these LACM co-developers, raising the prospect that North Korea has received this technology from Iran, Pakistan or both. And once Iran perfects this technology then it too will have the option of giving it to its Hezbollah proxy and others.

 
 
Pakistan’s Babur: This cruise missile may be similar to Iran’s version, reportedly called the Ghadr. Credit: Internet source

Perhaps a more immediate "cruise missile" threat might come from Iranian small unmanned aircraft (UAV). Hezbollah’s 2004 use of Iranian-made UAVs to penetrate Israeli airspace proved shocking to Israelis. And in the initial flurry of reports it was mistakenly believed that the Hanit had been hit by an explosive-armed UAV.[14] For Iran, China is but one potential source for UAV technologies, which increasingly rely on many dual use systems produced around the world.[15]

But it is curious, to say the least, that in 2006 Iran revealed a new UAV that bears a striking resemblance to the Israeli Aircraft Industries Harpy anti-radar drone. Israel sold the Harpy to China in the early 1990s, and it was Israel’s intention to respond to a Chinese request to upgrade these UAVs in late 2004 that sparked a crisis in U.S.-Israeli military-political relations. While there are no official statements that would confirm that China used Israeli technology to help the new Iranian drone, its configuration at least suggests this possibility. But what cannot be denied is that Iran has another potential weapon with which to arm Hezbollah—one that can more readily target radar and other electronic devices upon which the Israeli armed forces are becoming more dependent.

 
 
 
Iran’s new anti-radar drone: Shows a similarity to the Israeli Harpy anti-radar UAV. Hezbollah could use such a weapon to directly attack Israel’s information-technology dependent military forces. Credit: Internet Sources

Deadly Naval Weapons

Hezbollah’s potential Chinese-Iranian arsenal also includes deadly naval weapons. Since the mid-1990s Iran has been reported to have modern Chinese naval mines. One mine that has long caused some concern is the Chinese EM-52 rocket-propelled fast-rising mine. When the mine detects its target, it fires a missile with a large warhead. Such mines are designed to severely damage or sink large warships like aircraft carriers. With such mines Hezbollah could threaten ships now evacuating refugees from Lebanon. Or should American or European navies become engaged in strikes against Hezbollah, it would be able to retaliate by covertly deploying these mines near U.S. or European naval facilities.

 
 
China’s EM-52 Fast-Rising Mine: Hezbollah could destroy large refugee ships or large U.S. naval warships with this mine, believed to have been sold to Iran in the mid-1990s. Credit: Chinese Internet

Will China Also Reap The Whirlwind ?

So far China’s practice of proxy warfare has allowed it to project power and build political influence while avoiding responsibility and retaliation. To be sure, India is building longer-range nuclear armed missiles that can reach Beijing while Japan accelerates its military and missile defense cooperation with the United States, but neither would today consider attacking China. By the same token, there are few to no voices in Israel who accuse China having a hand in Hezbollah’s ability to target Israelis or the looming ability of Iran to pose the greatest threat to the existence of the Jewish state. Until the Clinton and Bush Administrations strong-armed Israel into ending its sale of military technology to China, there were many in the Israeli establishment who openly supported such sales for both economic and strategic reasons.[16] It was even believed by some that selling such military technology to China would prevent it from selling some ballistic missiles to its neighbors.[17] The use of Chinese weapons against the Hanit now exposes the fallacy of such notions; China very likely lacks the ability, even if it had the desire, to halt Iran’s proliferation of deadly Chinese weapons technologies.

Since about the late 1980s successive American administrations have sought to convince China not to sell nuclear and missile technologies to rogue or terror supporting states. The United States has levied scores of sanctions against Chinese companies selling missile and weapons of mass destruction technologies to Iran. However it is not apparent that China intends to stop such sales and Beijing seems to have little care when Pakistan A.Q. Khan traffics in Chinese nuclear weapons technology or Iran gives its missiles to Hezbollah, which then uses them to kill Israelis. Pakistan’s unwillingness or inability to safeguard its Chinese nuclear weapons technology may be matched by a similar unwillingness by Iran, as suggested by its transfer of Chinese C-802 ASMs to Hezbollah.

It is thus legitimate to pose the question: When will U.S. and other policy makers enforce a higher price for China’s proliferation of such weapons; before or after they become victims to Chinese nuclear or missile technologies that have fallen into the hands of terrorists? And must Chinese leaders experience similar education before they realize the whirlwind they sow they also can reap?

As for Israel, which has done so much to improve Chinese military capabilities, her policy of assisting China’s military programs, even against strong U.S. opposition, has many origins: a desire for markets to sustain the immense Israeli defense industry, a sense that opening up new diplomatic relationships can reduce reliance on the U.S., and so forth. But perhaps most important has been a sense that Beijing faced a Muslim threat (which she most certainly does, both within and without, from Xinjiang to the states of Central Asia where she is now actively seeking political influence and oil) just as Israel does, and that therefore the Chinese would avoid sharing sensitive technologies with potential Islamic adversaries.

That calculation seems to have proved incorrect. The evidence of technological transfers and cooperation, along with the massive investment in land routes to Iran far beyond the range of carrier-based aircraft, suggests a strategic decision—misguided, perhaps, but a decision nonetheless.

China’s proliferation activities have received little attention and scarcely any effective sanctions. If anything, Washington and other interested powers have fantasized that China would actually solve the problems that she was in fact helping to create in North Korea, Iran, Pakistan, and elsewhere.

American (and Israeli) calculation has always been that their weapons were so much better than those of their adversaries as to render positive outcomes certain. We have now had some unpleasant surprises. More may follow in the form of enhanced Hezbollah anti-armor capabilities. As the current fighting in the Middle East lurches forward along its uncertain and perilous course, it will be more than interesting to see how much China has done to turn the military balance in a direction unfavorable to Israel. If Islamists become dominant along China’s Inner Asian borders, as is quite possible, we may even see Chinese weapons being used against China herself.


[1] Public Law 105-304

[2] Robin Wright, “Inside the Mind of Hezbollah,” The Washington Post, Outlook, July 16, 2006, p. B1.

[3] “Trucks from Iran were smuggling arms,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, January 31, 1996.

[4] Ali Nouri Zadeh, “Iran Provider of Hezbollah's Weaponry- Source,” Asharq Al-Awsat Exclusive, July 16, 2006; Abraham Rabinovich, “Hezbollah trained for six years, dug deep bunkers,” The Washington Times, July 21, 2006.

[5] Alon Ben-David, “Israeli Navy caught out by Hizbullah hit on ship,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, July 26, 2006; Amnon Barzilai, “Navy probe blames faulty intelligence for missile ship hit, The Israeli warship's crew had only twenty seconds in which to identify the threat and respond,” Globes, July 20, 2006.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ed Blanche, “Iran shows off new hardware,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 29, 1999.

[9] Robert Hewson, “China aids Iran’s tactical missile programme,” Jane’s Defence Weekly, November 17, 2004.

[10] “Peretz Says Hizballah Still Has Long-Range Rockets; Fires Raging in North,” Jerusalem Voice of Israel Network B, July 23, 2006.

[11] “Fateh A-110,” Jane’s Strategic Weapon Systems, June 23, 2006.

[12] Prasun K. Sengupta, “Dr. Khan’s Second Wal-Mart,” Force, April, 2006.

[13] See Turkish magazine Haftalik, No. 136, 2005.

[14] “Hezbollah ‘air power” first flew in 2004,” Associated Press, July 14, 2006; Stephen Farrell, “Unmanned plane that crippled Israeli ship,” The Times Online, July 15, 2006.

[15] A recent report notes that Iran’s Mohajer class UAVs use “Iran, Russian and Chinese technology,” see, Riad Kahwaji and Barbara Opall-Rome, “Proxy War Fuels Mideast Missile Crisis,” Defense News, July 24, 2006, p. 1.

[16] For a summation of the pro-sales arguments from late in the last decade, see Yitzhak Shichor, “Mountains out of Molehills: Arms Transfers In Sino-Middle East Relations," Middle East Review of International Affairs, Fall, 2000.

[17] Some officials implied that sales to China had helped prevent the sale of missiles to Syria, but this hope has long been undermined by China’s sale of ballistic and cruise missile technologies to Iran, see, Barbara Opall, “Israel Denies Charges On Tech Sales To China,” Defense News, July 21-27, 1997, p. 56.

back to top ^

Powered by eResources