Israel Asks Ukraine to Demand Iran Return Illegally-Sold Cruise Missiles

TEL AVIV, Israel -- Israel has asked the government of Ukraine to demand that Iran return 12 long-range cruise missiles purchased during the tenure of the previous Ukrainian government via arms dealers whom the current government claims were acting illegally.

The issue was raised during Ukrainian Defense Minister Anatoliy Hrytsenko's visit to Israel last week.

Ukraine's Kh-55 Cruise Missile

However, Ukraine has not yet responded to Israel's request, and it seems doubtful that Iran would agree to return the missiles in any case.

The missiles in question, known as the Kh-55 in their Russian/Ukrainian version and as AS-15 Kent in the NATO version, have a range of 2,000 to 3,000 kilometers, depending on the weight of the warhead (lighter warheads enable a longer range). That is far longer than the 1,300-kilometer range of Iran's surface-to-surface Shihab-3 missiles.

In addition, a cruise missile can strike its target from any direction, since the ship that launches it is mobile. The Shihab-3, in contrast, could only be launched at Israel from the northeast, where Iran's territory lies.

On the flip side, cruise missiles are slower than ground-based missiles, and therefore easier for a fighter jet to down in flight.

The Kh-55 was developed in the 1980s by Russian experts, but the Soviet Union decided to have it in manufactured in Ukraine. Later, however, a U.S.-Soviet arms control agreement dictated the destruction of all medium-range missiles on both sides, which should have included the Kh-55. Thus the missiles' very existence constitutes a major treaty violation, and when the Americans learned several months ago about the sale to Iran, they consequently began an investigation. It later emerged that eight of the missiles were also sold to China.

A parallel Ukrainian investigation, which was first reported a few months ago by Britain's Financial Times, found that the sale was arranged via a fictitious company established for that purpose on Cyprus, and that the export papers falsely declared the missiles' destination to be the Russian defense ministry. The Ukrainian prosecution also said that a Russian company had promised to supply spare parts for the Iranian missiles.

The Ukrainians told Israel that the warheads had been dismantled before the missiles were sold to Iran, but that is cold comfort, since Iran can easily make new warheads.

The real concern is the guidance system, which enables the missile to strike its target with great accuracy. Moreover, NATO believed that the Soviets were able to arm the Kh-55 with nuclear warheads.

The sub rosa purchase of cruise missiles from Ukraine demonstrates the enormous effort that Iran is investing in improving its missile capabilities. Iran is also working on the Shihab-4 surface-to-surface missile, which would have a range of over 2,000 kilometers. In addition, it made a major breakthrough on the Shihab-3 several weeks ago when it succeeded in making a solid fuel engine for the missile. Earlier versions had used liquid fuel, which requires a much longer launch time and therefore leaves the missile more vulnerable to preventive air strikes.

Source: Haaretz