Central Asia is a major area of concern for US intelligence agencies, according to an annual threat assessment presented recently by Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell.
McConnell discussed the Annual Threat Assessment -- a document representing the consensus view of 16 US intelligence agencies that covers all global security threats facing Washington -- with US senators on February 5. While Iraq remains an enduring source of concern, the reviving Islamic radical/terrorist threat in Afghanistan and in the tribal areas of Pakistan topped the list of security worries.
"We have seen an influx of new Western recruits into the tribal areas since mid-2006," McConnell told members of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "We assess that al Qaeda's homeland plotting is likely to continue to focus on prominent political, economic and infrastructure targets designed to produce mass casualties, visually dramatic destruction, significant economic aftershocks, and/or fear among the population."
The Assessment warns that Islamic activism may grow in Central Asia as a result of mounting social and economic discontent. In Uzbekistan, a weaker economy and rising prices for commodities are a potential source of trouble for President Islam Karimov's authoritarian-minded administration. While Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan remain stable, Turkmenistan is beginning to open up after years of self-imposed isolation, and it has made improvements in human rights. Yet, unfortunately the Assessment disregards both regime fragility and growing external meddling in the region.
On Russia, the Threat Assessment drops plentiful hints that US-Russian relations stand to become more confrontational in the coming year. It mentions the Kremlin's aims to dominate the main oil and gas land distribution networks to Europe and East Asia. Energy has become an instrument of Russian power in terms of its foreign policy and international economic relations, the threat assessment states.
The Report mentions the gradual resurgence of Russia's military forces in terms of better training, more units with higher rates of readiness, military exercises conducted more frequently, and a higher number of strategic bomber patrols over the Arctic, Atlantic, and Pacific Oceans.
The Assessment does not dwell at length on Russia's aspirations to alter the global economic architecture, and to do away with the Western-dominated post-Bretton Woods system. Russian leader Vladimir Putin called for just that in the 2007 St. Petersburg economic summit. Russia, Iran, Venezuela and other energy producers are moving away from the US dollar as the principal currency of settling energy accounts.
Meanwhile, the Threat Assessment views Iran with caution, in particular the country's nuclear program. In a report released February 22, the International Atomic Energy Agency expressed concern about Iran's ability to build nuclear weapons. The Threat Assessment states that Iran is developing and deploying longer range ballistic missiles with the capability to carry a nuclear warhead. The report does not mention, however, the close links between Iran and Russia regarding the development of the Iranian ballistic missile program. According to the London Daily Telegraph, Russia since 2003 has been supplying ballistic missile technology, including missile production capabilities, and technical assistance by Russian engineers.
Iran is also continuing efforts to enhance its ability to enrich uranium, ostensibly for civilian purposes but with the potential for making nuclear weapons. McConnell has reported that Iran may achieve the technical capability to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon within a few years.
While the intelligence community is certain that Iran stopped in 2003 its secret work to design a nuclear weapon and to enrich uranium for military purposes, it can't be certain if Iran has restarted these activities. But there is no doubt that Iran has the scientific know-how, the technical capacity, and the industrial capability to develop nuclear weapons at some future point, McConnell said. A lot of this know-how came from Russia.
Moscow, for example, is building for Iran a $1-billion nuclear reactor in Bushehr. The US State Department has accused Iran of using the Bushehr project as a cover for a weapons program. There are also media reports that Iran is either negotiating the purchase of, or has already acquired S-300 long-range surface-to-air (SAM) missile systems. These SAM systems would be deployed to defend the Bushehr nuclear power plant and other key sites like the Natanz nuclear enrichment facility, analysts believe.
Iran also has a chemical weapons program, and it is engaged in research on biological weapons. Teheran's development of a ballistic missile arsenal and its acquisition of anti-ship cruise missiles are intended to serve as a strategic deterrent in the Persian Gulf, especially at the Strait of Hormuz. Iran would be capable of closing the Strait, and thereby cause considerable disruption to oil exports, in the event of a conflict. In addition, US bases and naval forces in the region would face a serious tactical threat. Iran's arsenal could also be used to intimidate its neighbors into "withholding support for US policy."
Tehran's development of longer-range ballistic missiles with the capacity to reach Europe might also to deter NATO countries from permitting US military forces to use bases on their territory during a potential US-Iranian clash. A significant reason why Russia might be assisting Iran's ballistic missile and nuclear programs could be to support Tehran's deterrence capability, thereby intimidating NATO countries that host US bases.
Russia and Iran also have similar views on using energy as a geopolitical tool, with both expressing interest in establishing a natural gas cartel, along the lines of OPEC. Such an entity would aim to challenge the established international economic system, dominated by Western industrialized countries.
While the Threat Assessment is sober-minded on many points, it avoids one obvious conclusion involving Russia's strategic intentions; by re-emphasizing military and economic power, and challenging the West, Moscow, aided and abetted by Teheran, is seeking to change the post-Communist balance of power in Europe, the Middle East, and in the world at large, and is challenging American post-Cold War hegemony. Whether it will succeed or not is a different question. It's also up in the air whether American policy makers sufficiently comprehend the Kremlin's capabilities and intentions, and, if they do, whether they can muster the political will that can help frustrate Russian plans.
Ariel Cohen, Ph.D, is Senior Research Fellow in the Russian and Eurasian Studies and International Energy Security at the Heritage Foundation. Lajos Szaszdi, Ph.D., has contributed to the production of this article.