How vulnerable are NYC’s underwater subway tunnels to flooding?Ashley Fetters New York City is full of peculiar phenomena—rickety fire escapes; 100-year-old subway tunnels; air conditioners propped perilously into window frames—that can strike fear into the heart of even the toughest city denizen. But should they? Every month, writer Ashley Fetters will be exploring—and debunking—these New York-specific fears, letting you know what you should actually worry about, and what anxieties you can simply let slip away. The 25-minute subway commute from Crown Heights to the Financial District on the 2/3 line is, in my experience, a surprisingly peaceful start to the workday—save for one 3,100-foot stretch between the Clark Street and Wall Street stations, where for three minutes I sit wondering what the probability is that I will soon die a torturous, claustrophobic drowning death right here in this subway car. The Clark Street Tunnel, opened in 1916, is one of approximately a dozen tunnels that escort MTA passengers from one borough to the next underwater—and just about all of them, with the exception of the 1989 addition of the 63rd Street F train tunnel, were constructed between 1900 and 1936. Each day, thousands of New Yorkers venture across the East River and back again through these tubes buried deep in the riverbed, some of which are nearing or even past their 100th birthdays. Are they wrong to ponder their own mortality while picturing one of these watery catacombs suddenly springing a leak? Mostly yes, they are, says Michael Horodniceanu, the former president of MTA Capital Construction and current principal of Urban Advisory Group. First, it’s important to remember that the subway tunnel is built under the riverbed, not just in the river—so what immediately surrounds the tunnel isn’t water but some 25 feet of soil. “There’s a lot of dirt on top of it,” Horodniceanu says. “It’s well into the bed of the bottom of the channel.” And second, as Angus Kress Gillespie, author of Crossing Under the Hudson: The Story of the Holland and Lincoln Tunnels, points out, New York’s underwater subway tunnels are designed to withstand some leaking. And withstand it they do: Pumps placed below the floor of the tunnel, he says, are always running, always diverting water seepage into the sewers. (Horodniceanu says the amount of water these pumps divert into the sewer system each day numbers in the thousands of gallons.) Additionally, MTA crews routinely repair the grouting and caulking, and often inject a substance into the walls that creates a waterproof membrane outside the tunnel—which keeps water out of the tunnel and relieves any water pressure acting on its walls. New tunnels, Horodniceanu points out, are even built with an outside waterproofing membrane that works like an umbrella: Water goes around it, it falls to the sides, and then it gets channeled into a pumping station and pumped out. Of course, the classic New York nightmare scenario isn’t just a cute little trickle finding its way in. The anxiety daydream usually involves something sinister, or seismic. The good news, however, is that while an earthquake or explosion would indeed be bad for many reasons, it likely wouldn’t result in the frantic flooding horror scene that plays out in some commuters’ imaginations. The Montague Tube, which sustained severe damage during Hurricane Sandy. MTA New York City Transit / Marc A. Hermann Horodniceanu assures me that tunnels built more recently are “built to withstand a seismic event.” The older tunnels, however—like, um, the Clark Street Tunnel—“were not seismically retrofitted, let me put it that way,” Horodniceanu says. “But the way they were built is in such a way that I do not believe an earthquake would affect them.” They aren’t deep enough in the ground, anyway, he says, to be too intensely affected by a seismic event. (The MTA did not respond to a request for comment.) One of the only real threats to tunnel infrastructure, Horodniceanu adds, is extreme weather. Hurricane Sandy, for example, caused flooding in the tunnels, which “created problems with the infrastructure.” He continues, “The tunnels have to be rebuilt as a result of saltwater corroding the infrastructure.” Still, he points out, hurricanes don’t exactly happen with no warning. So while Hurricane Sandy did cause major trauma to the tunnels, train traffic could be stopped with ample time to keep passengers out of harm’s way. In 2012, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed all the MTA’s mass transit services to shut down at 7 p.m. the night before Hurricane Sandy was expected to hit New York City. And Gillespie, for his part, doubts even an explosion would result in sudden, dangerous flooding. A subway tunnel is not a closed system, he points out; it’s like a pipe that’s open at both ends. “The force of a blast would go forwards and backwards out the exit,” he says. So the subway-train version of that terrifying Holland Tunnel flood scene in Sylvester Stallone’s Daylight is … unrealistic, right? “Yeah,” Gillespie laughs. “Yeah. It is.” Got a weird New York anxiety that you want explored? E-mail email@example.com, and we may include it in a future column.
How China Became a Nuclear Weapons State: With its first nuclear test on October 16, 1964, China joined the other victorious allies of World War II in the nuclear club, both cementing and unsettling the postwar order. Hard experience of the American nuclear threat during the Korean War and the divorce from the Soviet Union, propelled China towards the bomb in ways familiar to those observing North Korea’s current quest. Mao Zedong himself said in 1956, “…if we don’t want to be bullied, we have to have this thing.”
But China for all its size has made itself a limited nuclear power. It has demonstrated its ability to build very big bombs but chose to test and make few of them. The size of China’s arsenal is a highly guarded state secret, but estimates put it in the several hundreds, not thousands. Beijing can hold armies and cities at risk, but not make the rubble bounce several times over.
During the palmy days of the 1950s, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics shared technical, industrial and military knowledge and material with its new communist sibling. However, by the early 1960s the relationship was on the rocks, inflamed in part by Soviet alarm at Mao’s erratic behavior and Chinese irritation over the USSR’s support of India. Without Moscow’s promised bomb prototype and fissionable material the Chinese had to do it themselves.
The first Chinese nuclear device, code-named “596” for “June 1959” when it began, was like the Soviet Union’s and Britain’s first bombs, in that it was a close copy of the “Fat Man” implosion bomb dropped on Nagasaki. Its yield – 22 kilotons – also closely matched the others but its fuel was pure Uranium-235 rather than plutonium. The CIA knew of China’s upcoming test from its new Corona spy satellites and the State Department sought to reduce the impact of the test by announcing it in advance.
Nonetheless the advent of China as the world’s fifth nuclear power caused an uproar. Taiwan wanted U.S. backing for either a preemptive strike or its own nukes. (Neither came.) U.S. analysts had missed China’s U-235 production and wondered what else they’d missed. Diplomats began exploring non-proliferation talks with the Soviets. But doubts still floated about China’s nuclear status. Sure, they now had the bomb, but could they fight with it?
Mao was determined to prove it. On May 14, 1965, less than six months after the first test a PLAAF H-6 bomber dropped a fully-weaponized version of the 596 at the Lop Nur Test Site in Xinjiang. The third test a year later in 1966 tested the first “boosted” design fortified with Lithium-6 fusion fuel. It yielded an impressive 250 kilotons. But China still got the “Rodney Dangerfield” treatment from foreign defense thinkers.
So on October 27, 1966 a DF-2 intermediate-range ballistic missile flew 550 miles over populated parts of China to Lop Nur where its 12-kiloton warhead detonated 180 feet over the Gobi Desert. It was the second all-up nuclear missile test ever conducted after the U.S. Frigate Bird test of 1962, and it quieted doubts about China’s nukes.
Even as the Cultural Revolution began roiling China the nuclear tests continued; a month after the missile test a 300-kiloton boosted-fission explosion showcased their design of a hydrogen bomb. Six months later on June 17, 1967, only two and a half years after its first nuclear test, China tested an air-deliverable thermonuclear weapon.
The three-stage device used a fission primary (an A-bomb) to heat and compress a second stage of lithium-6 deuteride powder. A third stage was a heavy shell of uranium-238, which held the explosion together for just long enough for the hydrogen in the lithium compound to undergo nuclear fusion. The resulting burst of neutrons caused the U-238 shell to fission and explode.
The bomb yielded 3.3 megatons – big by any measure, big enough to destroy Tokyo or Los Angeles or Moscow. China ran the race to the H-bomb faster than any nation before or since that we know of.
In 1967, China’s attempt at using plutonium in a bomb fizzled, but it was successful in another test in December of 1968. This 3.0 megaton shot, and others with yields of 3-3.4 megatons, were also tested in 1969, 1972 and 1973. In addition, all of these tests were for fitting a large warhead on the DF-3 ICBM. They represent all but the largest Chinese tests. After all of this work, China conducted its biggest test, a 4.0 megaton blast, in November 1976. That test proved the capability of the DF-5 ICBM’s warhead.
One H-bomb test nearly went horribly wrong. When test pilot Yang Guoxiang lined up his Q-5A fighter-bomber for its drop maneuver and pulled the weapon release, the bomb failed to drop. After three attempts Yang returned to base with a live hydrogen bomb slung beneath his plane. The whole airbase – all 10,000 crew – sheltered in underground tunnels while a lonely Yang carefully climbed out of his cockpit and awaited assistance. All ended well this time and Yang later successfully carried out his mission.
China’s last big blast, a one-megaton warhead test in October 1980, ended the era of atmospheric testing. No nuclear-weapons state has tested above ground since. But nuclear testing never ends, really, not when they were conducted not far from populated areas. As with natives to the Pacific atolls and Russian steppes, the Gobi Desert and its peoples will bear the long-term impact of radiation from those nuclear tests for a long time.
Steve Weintz, a frequent contributor to many publications such as WarIsBoring, is a writer, filmmaker, artist and animator.
The original Great Game was played out in the 19th Century, between Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, an ever-shifting military, economic, and geopolitical competition, which often took the form of proxy wars, with the great powers backing local forces, to fight one another. Today, the region is host to an even larger and more complex Great Game, with implications for the fate of the modern world, as it is being played out between several of the world’s largest, nuclear-capable, armies: the United States, India, Russia, China, and Pakistan.The Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party publication reported that “China does not have allies, but has friends with partnership diplomacy.” This is especially applicable to Russia, China’s largest, most powerful would-be-ally. Although the two giants have some cooperation agreements in place, and they sometimes work together on issues of mutual interest, their cooperation is extremely limited. The imbalance in their wealth means that China would have to fund their joint projects. However, Beijing does not seem prepared to start writing the necessary checks. China’s vision for a China-led world-order would relegate Russia to second fiddle on a China-dominated planet. This seems a proposition Vladimir Putin would never accept.
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Shortly after his Inauguration, Joe Biden appointed Rob Malley to be his special envoy for Iran. Malley, who is fifty-eight, grew up in France and was in the same high-school class in Paris as Secretary of State Antony Blinken. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Law School, won a Rhodes Scholarship, and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Byron White. Ruth Bader Ginsburg officiated at his wedding.
Malley has long experience with the Middle East. His father was a French journalist known for his support of anti-colonialist movements. Working on the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration, Malley participated in the Camp David peace talks. After they collapsed, in 2000, he broke with the conventional analysis that the summit had failed because of Yasir Arafat’s intransigence. Malley published detailed insider accounts about how the Israelis shared the blame, for making proposals difficult for Arafat to accept. Critics declared Malley rabidly anti-Israel. Former colleagues publicly called the attacks on Malley “unfair, inappropriate, and wrong.” After Clinton left office, Malley worked on Iran at the International Crisis Group, which tracks global conflicts. As part of his job, he met with Iranian officials and travelled to Tehran.
During the Obama Administration, he was on the team that produced the Iran nuclear deal, in 2015. The agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was the most significant nonproliferation pact in more than a quarter century. Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia were equal partners, but the United States had a virtual veto, and Iran knew it. During two years of tortuous talks, the Iranians often met the Americans in hotel hallways to thrash out issues. Malley, who deliberates with the intensity of a lawyer but is soft-spoken in person, was on a first-name basis with his Iranian counterparts. They exchanged family stories, cell-phone numbers, and e-mail addresses.
The agreement survived for only two years. Influenced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel and by Republican hawks, President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018. He also imposed more than a thousand sanctions on Iran. They targeted the Supreme Leader, the Foreign Minister, judges, generals, scientists, banks, oil facilities, a shipping line, an airline, charities, and allies, such as the President of Venezuela, for doing business with Tehran. Trump also designated the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the country’s most powerful military branch, as a terrorist group—an action that the U.S. had never taken against another nation’s military, even the Nazi Wehrmacht.
During the Trump years, Malley was appointed president of the International Crisis Group. He kept in touch with some of his Iranian contacts. But when he became Biden’s envoy the Iranian diplomats he’d known for decades refused to meet with him. During talks in Vienna this past spring, the Americans stayed at the Hotel Imperial. The Iranians were eight blocks away, at the InterContinental. Enrique Mora, a Spanish diplomat for the European Union, carried proposals back and forth. Delegations from the other five nations consulted at a third hotel.
Malley compared proxy talks to a Woody Allen story, “The Gossage-Vardebedian Papers.” In it, two men play chess by mail. A letter goes “missing.” Moves are lost. Both players claim that they are winning. Infuriated, they stop playing before the game is finished. The Russian envoy, Mikhail Ulyanov, described the Vienna process as one of the strangest in modern diplomacy. “The aim isn’t to update an agreement or elaborate a new one,” he tweeted. “The goal is to restore a nearly ruined deal piece by piece. Was there a similar exercise in the history of international relations? I can not recollect anything like that. Can you?”
The bizarre diplomacy, Malley told me, took on unprecedented urgency in November. “We’ve seen Iran’s nuclear program expand, and we’ve seen Tehran become more belligerent, more bellicose in its regional activities,” he said. “They are miscalculating and playing with fire.”
The stakes extend well beyond Iran. The world’s nuclear order, already perilous, is now at risk of unravelling. Nuclear pacts hammered out in the last century are dated or fraying, as the U.S., Russia, and China modernize their arsenals. The Pentagon estimates that China could have at least a thousand bombs by 2030. The talks with Tehran are designed to prevent a tenth nation—the latest was North Korea, in 2006—from getting the bomb.
In the Middle East, Israel has had a nuclear weapon since the late nineteen-sixties. Saudi officials have also threatened to pursue the bomb if Iran obtains one. “The Iranian nuclear crisis can’t be viewed in a vacuum,” Kelsey Davenport, of the Arms Control Association, told me. “The broader nuclear order is in chaos.” The collapse of the talks with Iran—Biden’s first major diplomatic foray—would have consequences worldwide.
Both Washington and Tehran are violating the deal. A year after Trump abandoned the accord and launched his “maximum pressure” campaign, Tehran began breaching its obligations. It installed IR-6 centrifuges—which are much faster than the IR-1s allowed by the deal—and developed even more efficient models, including the IR-9. Centrifuges are tall tubes that enrich a gaseous form of uranium. They spin at supersonic speeds several thousand times faster than the force of gravity. Iran also increased enrichment from under four-per-cent purity—the limit in the agreement, and a level used for peaceful nuclear energy or medical research—to sixty per cent. “Only countries making bombs are reaching this level,” Rafael Grossi, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in May. Weapons grade is ninety per cent, which, for Israeli officials, is a decisive juncture. “We don’t want to reach a point where we will have to ask ourselves how Iran was allowed to enrich to ninety per cent,” Zohar Palti, the former director of intelligence at Mossad, who is now at the Israeli Ministry of Defense, told me. The so-called “breakout” time for Iran to produce enough fuel for a bomb has plummeted, from more than a year to as little as three weeks. “It’s really short, and unacceptably short,” a senior Administration official said. “Every day they spin centrifuges, and, for every day they stockpile uranium, the breakout time continues to shrink.” Additional steps—including weaponizing the enriched uranium, marrying it to a warhead, and then integrating it with a delivery system, such as a missile—are required to field a bomb.
Israel has tried to slow Iran’s progress. In late 2020, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the father of Iran’s nuclear program, was assassinated as he drove with his wife and bodyguards to a weekend home. From more than a thousand miles away, the killer used artificial intelligence and a satellite connection to trigger a machine gun mounted on a parked pickup truck, spraying Fakhrizadeh with bullets. Tehran retaliated with a law that limited international inspections by blocking access to surveillance footage at nuclear sites. Experts fear that Iran may be considering a “sneak-out”—a covert path to a bomb. Tracking Iran’s facilities has become like “flying in a heavily clouded sky,” Grossi said.
The first six rounds of diplomacy this spring, Malley told me, made “real progress.” In June, he presented a nuclear package that included ending most of Trump’s sanctions. “The collective sense of everybody—obviously the Europeans, the Russians and Chinese, but also the Iranian delegation at the time—was that we could see the outlines of a deal,” he said. “If each side was prepared to make the necessary compromises, we could get there.”“It’s cardio day for me and external-obliques day for Joan.”Cartoon by Julia Suits
The talks paused that month, after Iran’s Presidential election. Hassan Rouhani, the previous President and a reformist, had won in 2013 and 2017 on a platform of engaging with the United States. But Trump’s sanctions sabotaged the economic benefits promised by the nuclear accord, so in 2021 a majority of Iranians didn’t bother to vote. Ebrahim Raisi, a rigid ideologue and the head of the judiciary, was elected. The U.S. had already sanctioned Raisi, noting his role on a “death commission” that ordered the execution, in 1988, of some five thousand dissidents. At his Inauguration, in August, Raisi pledged, “All the parameters of national power will be strengthened.”
Malley had left his suits at the hotel in Vienna, expecting talks to resume before long. But five months passed, and Iran’s nuclear program advanced further. Malley eventually had his suits shipped home. By the time diplomacy resumed, in late November, Malley told me, Iran’s program had “blown through” the limits imposed by the J.C.P.O.A. “As they’re making these advances, they are gradually emptying the deal of the nonproliferation benefits for which we bargained,” he said. The Biden Administration has pushed back. “We’re not going to agree to a worse deal because Iran has built up its nuclear program,” Malley added. At some point soon, trying to revive the deal would “be tantamount to trying to revive a dead corpse.” The U.S. and its allies might then “have to address a runaway Iranian nuclear program.” Without a return to the deal, a senior State Department official said, it is “more than plausible, possible, and maybe even probable” that Iran will try to become a threshold nuclear state.
The wild card is Israel. In September, at the U.N. General Assembly, the new Israeli Prime Minister, Naftali Bennett, charged that Iran’s nuclear program had “hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance. Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.” Israel is due to soon begin training for possible military strikes on Iran. During a visit to Washington in December, Defense Minister Benny Gantz urged the Biden Administration to hold joint military exercises with Israel. “The problem with Iran’s nuclear program is that, for the time being, there is no diplomatic mechanism to make them stop,” Palti told me. “There is no deterrent. Iran is no longer afraid. We need to give them the stop sign.” U.S. officials counter that Israeli operations have often provoked Tehran and set back diplomacy.
Iran can still reverse technological advances if a deal is reached. Its knowledge, however, is irreversible. “Iran’s nuclear program hit new milestones over the past year,” Kelsey Davenport said. “As it masters these new capabilities, it will change our understanding about how the country may pursue nuclear weapons down the road.” Even if the Biden Administration does broker a return to the accord, Republicans have vowed to scuttle it. In October, Senator Ted Cruz, of Texas, tweeted, “Unless any deal w/ Iran is ratified by the Senate as a treaty—which Biden knows will NOT happen—it is a 100% certainty that any future Republican president will tear it up. Again.”
As the nuclear talks foundered earlier this year, I flew to the Al Asad Airbase, in Iraq’s remote western desert, with Kenneth (Frank) McKenzie, Jr., a Marine general from Alabama, who heads U.S. military operations across the Middle East and South Asia. It was part of an extended tour of Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Qatar, and Lebanon. In the cavernous cabin of a C-17, he sat alone in a room-size container draped with an American flag. McKenzie’s military experience with Iran has been perilous and bloody. When he was a young officer, two hundred and forty-one marines were killed in the 1983 suicide bombing of U.S. peacekeepers in Beirut. It was the largest loss of marine lives in a single day since the battle of Iwo Jima, in the Second World War. The Reagan Administration blamed Iran and its then nascent proxies in Hezbollah. Almost four decades later, McKenzie told me that Tehran’s nuclear capabilities were far from the only danger it now poses.
Under Trump, hostilities between the United States and Iran escalated. They peaked in 2020, when Trump ordered the assassination of General Qassem Suleimani, the revered head of Iran’s Quds Force, the élite wing of the Revolutionary Guard. As Suleimani arrived in Baghdad to meet local allies, McKenzie called in an M-9 Reaper drone to fire four Hellfire missiles at the General’s convoy. Suleimani and nine others were shredded. His severed hand was identified by the large red-stone ring often photographed on his wedding finger.
Five days later, Iran fired eleven ballistic missiles—each carrying at least a thousand-pound warhead—at Al Asad Airbase. U.S. intelligence had tracked Iran’s deployment of the missiles, giving the Americans a few hours to evacuate their warplanes and half of their personnel. Lieutenant Colonel Staci Coleman, the commander of an air expeditionary squad, had to decide which of her crew of a hundred and sixty should leave and who was “emotionally equipped” to stay. “I was deciding who would live and who would die,” she later told military investigators. “I honestly thought anyone remaining behind would perish.” Many of the service members leaving Al Asad anxiously hugged the ones staying. No American military personnel had been killed by an enemy air strike since 1953, during the Korean War.
The first salvo struck around 1 A.M. Master Sergeant Janet Liliu recounted to investigators, “What happened in the bunkers, well, no words can describe the atmosphere. I wasn’t ready to die, but I tried to prepare myself with every announcement of an incoming missile.” The bombardment dragged on for hours; it was the largest ballistic-missile attack ever by any nation on American troops. No Americans died, but a hundred and ten suffered traumatic brain injuries. Trump dismissed the suffering at Al Asad. “I heard they had headaches,” he told reporters. Two years later, many of those at Al Asad are still experiencing profound memory, vision, and hearing losses. One died by suicide in October. Eighty have been awarded Purple Hearts.
The lesson of Al Asad, McKenzie told me, is that Iran’s missiles have become a more immediate threat than its nuclear program. For decades, Iran’s rockets and missiles were wildly inaccurate. At Al Asad, “they hit pretty much where they wanted to hit,” McKenzie said. Now they “can strike effectively across the breadth and depth of the Middle East. They could strike with accuracy, and they could strike with volume.”
Iran’s advances have impressed both allies and enemies. After the 1979 revolution, the young theocracy purged the Shah’s military and rebuilt it almost from scratch, despite waves of economic sanctions. Iran fought a ruinous eight-year war with Iraq in the nineteen-eighties that further depleted its armory. Its Air Force is still weak, its ships and tanks are mediocre, and its military is not capable of invading another country and holding territory.
Instead, the regime has concentrated on developing missiles with longer reach, precision accuracy, and greater destructive power. Iran is now one of the world’s top missile producers. Its arsenal is the largest and most diverse in the Middle East, the Defense Intelligence Agency reported. “Iran has proven that it is using its ballistic-missile program as a means to coerce or intimidate its neighbors,” Malley told me. Iran can fire more missiles than its adversaries—including the United States and Israel—can shoot down or destroy. Tehran has achieved what McKenzie calls “overmatch”—a level of capability in which a country has weaponry that makes it extremely difficult to check or defeat. “Iran’s strategic capacity is now enormous,” McKenzie said. “They’ve got overmatch in the theatre—the ability to overwhelm.”
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a brigadier general and a former sniper who heads Iran’s Aerospace Force, is known for incendiary bravado. In 2019, he boasted, “Everybody should know that all American bases and their vessels in a distance of up to two thousand kilometres are within the range of our missiles. We have constantly prepared ourselves for a full-fledged war.” Hajizadeh succeeded General Hassan Moghaddam, who founded Iran’s missile and drone programs, and who died in 2011, with sixteen others, in a mysterious explosion. They had been working on a missile capable of hitting Israel.
Israelis call Hajizadeh the new Suleimani. McKenzie called him reckless. In 2019, Hajizadeh’s forces downed a U.S. reconnaissance drone over the Persian Gulf. He also orchestrated the missile strikes on Al Asad. Hours after that attack, his forces shot down a Ukrainian Boeing 737 passenger plane, with a hundred and seventy-six people on board, as it took off from Tehran’s international airport. Everyone perished. For three days, Iran refused to accept blame until, under pressure, Hajizadeh went on television to admit it.
Iran now has the largest known underground complexes in the Middle East housing nuclear and missile programs. Most of the tunnels are in the west, facing Israel, or on the southern coast, across from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf sheikhdoms. This fall, satellite imagery tracked new underground construction near Bakhtaran, the most extensive complex. The tunnels, carved out of rock, descend more than sixteen hundred feet underground. Some complexes reportedly stretch for miles. Iran calls them “missile cities.”
In 2020, the Revolutionary Guard marked the anniversary of the U.S. Embassy takeover by releasing a video of Hajizadeh inspecting a subterranean missile arsenal. As suspenseful music plays in the background, he and two other Revolutionary Guard commanders march through a tunnel lined with rows of missiles stacked on top of one another. A recording of General Suleimani echoes in the background: “You start this war, but we create the end of it.” An underground railroad ferries Emad missiles for rapid successive launches. Emads have a range of a thousand miles and can carry a conventional or a nuclear warhead.
Iran’s missile program “is much more advanced than Pakistan’s,” Uzi Rubin, the first head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, told me. Experts compare Iran with North Korea, which helped seed Tehran’s program in the nineteen-eighties. Some of Iran’s missiles are superior to Pyongyang’s, Jeffrey Lewis, of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, told me. Experts believe that North Korea may now be importing Iranian missile technology.
The Islamic Republic has thousands of ballistic missiles, according to U.S. intelligence assessments. They can reach as far as thirteen hundred miles in any direction—deep into India and China to the east; high into Russia to the north; to Greece and other parts of Europe to the west; and as far south as Ethiopia, in the Horn of Africa. About a hundred missiles could reach Israel.
Iran also has hundreds of cruise missiles that can be fired from land or ships, fly at low altitude, and attack from multiple directions. They are harder for radar or satellites to detect, because, unlike ballistic missiles, their motors do not burn brightly on ignition. Cruise missiles have altered the balance of power across the Persian Gulf. In 2019, Iran unleashed cruise missiles and drones on two oil installations in Saudi Arabia, temporarily cutting off half of the oil production in the world’s largest supplier.
The Biden Administration has hoped to use progress on the nuclear deal to eventually broaden diplomacy and include Iran’s neighbors in talks on reducing regional tensions. “Even if we can revive the J.C.P.O.A., those problems are going to continue to poison the region and risk destabilizing it,” Malley told me. “If they continue, the response will be robust.”
It may be too late. Tehran has shown no willingness to barter over its missiles as it has with its nuclear program. “Once you have spent the money to build the facilities and train people and deliver missiles to the military units that were built around these missiles, you have an enormous constituency that wants to keep them,” Jeffrey Lewis said. “I don’t think there’s any hope of limiting Iran’s missile program.” President Raisi told reporters after his election, “Regional issues or the missile issue are non-negotiable.”
From Al Asad, I flew with McKenzie to Syria in a convoy of Osprey helicopter gunships. Airmen were positioned at machine guns from an open ramp in the rear as we crossed the border. Our first stop was at Green Village, a former compound for oil-field workers on the Euphrates River. I was last there in 2019, for the final military campaign against the Islamic State. A small contingent of U.S. forces has been deployed in northeast Syria since late 2015 to aid and advise a Kurdish-led militia fighting ISIS. Officially, their mission is to contain ISIS remnants. Unofficially, they are also supposed to prevent Iran from gaining access to strategic border crossings from Iraq.
Abu Kamal, a once sleepy desert outpost, is sixty miles southeast of Green Village. ISISjihadis seized it in 2014, and it became their main border-crossing point between Syria and Iraq. In 2017, three Iranian-backed Shiite militias and the Syrian Army captured it. Iran’s proxies have since absorbed—politically and militarily—much of the territory ruled by the Islamic State, including areas liberated by the Iraqi Army and the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. “The best thing that ever happened to Iran was the U.S. coalition taking out ISIS,” a senior American military official told me.
Iran now uses Abu Kamal as a strategic hub for smuggling missiles and technology to its militia surrogates. The matériel includes kits used to upgrade rockets. By adding G.P.S. navigation, so-called “dumb” rockets, which are hard to control and rarely hit the target, can be converted into guided missiles that have a longer range and greater accuracy. The U.S. and the region “are worried by the degree to which Iran has been providing, sharing sophisticated weapons to its proxies,” Malley told me.“Wow! Fresh vacuum tracks? For me?”Cartoon by William Haefeli
Under Suleimani, Iran expanded its “axis of resistance” with six core militias, including Hezbollah, in Lebanon; the Houthis, in Yemen; and Hamas and Islamic Jihad, in the Palestinian territories. In the nineteen-eighties and nineties, the resistance coalition carried out amateurish, albeit deadly, operations, such as suicide bombings and hostage seizures. Its forces today are coördinated and well armed, and project power region-wide. “Most countries look at what’s available and try to establish partnerships with what’s there. Iran created a network of regional proxies from scratch—its own alliance system,” Michael Eisenstadt, at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told me. “It’s the most cohesive alliance system in the region.”
The United States military is still vastly more powerful than anything built or imagined in Iran. Yet Iran has proved to be an increasingly shrewd rival. It has trained a generation of foreign engineers and scientists to assemble weaponry. It has dispatched stateless dhows loaded with missile parts for Houthi rebels, who have fired missiles at military and civilian targets in Saudi Arabia. It has provided the older “dumb” rocket technology to Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The majority of the “precision project” kits crossing at Abu Kamal go to Lebanon, where Hezbollah upgrades its short-range rockets and missiles to hit more accurately and to penetrate more deeply inside Israel. Hezbollah is now estimated to have at least fourteen thousand missiles and more than a hundred thousand rockets, most courtesy of Iran. “They have the ability to strike very precisely into Israel in a way they’ve not enjoyed in the past,” McKenzie told me.
The difference between Iran’s reach in 2016 and in 2021 is “simply remarkable,” a senior naval intelligence officer told me. Distributing missile technology is strategically cost-efficient. Missiles are a small fraction of the price of the defense systems needed to protect against them. Iran spends between two and three billion dollars a year to support the resistance coalition, according to the State Department. Yet its defense budget is also a fraction of what Saudi Arabia, an important U.S. ally, spends annually.
Iran now has enormous reach in several directions from afar. “If you can imagine a ring anywhere in Iraq that goes out, let’s say, seven hundred kilometres, draw your circle,” a senior intelligence official with Central Command explained. “Do the same thing in Yemen. Draw your circle. You quickly see the range and capability that Iran has provided. You can push it all the way to Syria, because, if they have it in Iraq, they probably have the ability also in Syria. What’s important,” he added, “is that the rings are now interlocking.”
Iran is gambling that it can harass the United States into eventually withdrawing from the entire Middle East, as it did from Afghanistan. Its actions across the region will have to be addressed in the not too distant future, Malley said. “If not, it will be a perpetual diversion from the U.S. shift to China,” and “a cauldron always being one step or misstep away from a much more dangerous conflagration.”
Seven American Presidents have failed to contain Iran’s political influence and military leverage. Distrust has only deepened since Iranian students seized the U.S. Embassy four decades ago and held fifty-two Americans for fourteen months. “Each side sees the other as so devious, malign, and mendacious,” John Limbert, a former hostage, told me. “Any proposal from the other—especially one presented as a concession—becomes another means to cheat and deceive.”
Rather than back down under Trump’s pressure, Tehran accelerated its nuclear and missile programs. Options, such as sanctions, are exhausted, the senior State Department official said. “That has clearly not produced the result that we all would have wanted.”
Besides diplomacy, President Biden has few preventive tools, and military action is not an attractive or effective long-term option. Five weeks after he took office, the U.S. tried to disrupt a nexus of Iranian proliferation. Two American F-15s dropped seven five-hundred-pound bombs on Abu Kamal. The air strike was in retaliation for a rocket attack, by an Iranian proxy, on a military base used by American forces in Iraq. The American bombs had little impact. “Without being able to crater the place, you’re not going to stop the flow,” the senior intelligence official with Central Command told me. “In fact, I think they were back up and running pretty quickly.” Israel has launched dozens of air strikes in or near Abu Kamal and hundreds more on Iranian targets in Syria. Weaponry still flows across the border.
Biden has also tried intimidation. In October, an American B-1B bomber flew from South Dakota to the periphery of Iran. Fighter jets from Egypt, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain escorted it across the Middle East. Since November, 2020, the United States has dispatched seven missions of B-52 bombers—nicknamed BUFFs, or “big ugly fat fuckers,” for their size and shape—around Iran. Even senior officials wonder about the efficacy of such tactics. The naval intelligence officer said, “I think to disrupt is easy, but sustained pressure to change behavior? That requires a decision to develop some capability on the ground in areas that, I think we’ve said, we’re just not that interested in, from a national-priority perspective.” U.S. officials concede that the flights do more to reassure allies in the region than to scare Iran.
Tehran seems undaunted. In October, it launched a drone attack on Al-Tanf, a military outpost in Syria where two hundred Americans have been based. Al-Tanf’s wider strategic value is its position on the vital highway between Baghdad and Damascus—and the route to Lebanon and the Mediterranean. Unofficially, the U.S. goal is again to hinder the transfer of Iranian weapons and influence. A Hezbollah news site described the Iranian attack on Al-Tanf as “a new phase in the confrontation” to force America out of the Middle East.
Iran’s surrogates in Iraq have taken on bigger targets, too. On November 7th, three quadcopter drones attacked the home of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Mustafa al-Kadhimi. Several guards were injured. The strike followed a parliamentary election in October, when Iranian-backed parties lost dozens of seats and claimed voter fraud. In a television interview, McKenzie accused Iran’s allies of “criminal” acts against a head of state. “What we have seen are groups linked to Iran that see that they cannot legally cling to power, and now they are resorting to violence to achieve their goals,” he said. The attack was initially tied to two Shiite militias—Kata’ib Hezbollah and Asa’ib Ahl al Haq. Both have engaged in weapons transfers at Abu Kamal.
In September, I met twice with the new Iranian Foreign Minister, Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, when he attended the U.N. General Assembly in New York. For years, he was considered Suleimani’s man in the Foreign Ministry. He noted that the United States had walked away from the nuclear agreement and imposed massive sanctions. “If the wall of mistrust can be reduced, then there may be some commonalities, but it’s such a high wall,” he said. “When we’re forbidden to access our own money for life-saving vaccines, can there be even a trace of trust between the two countries?” To prove American good will, Amir-Abdollahian said, Biden must first lift sanctions and help free billions of dollars of Iranian assets frozen in other countries, such as South Korea. “If we reach an agreement, it can be used to make further progress,” he said. “If it fails, we have already said that we do not tie the future of the country to the J.C.P.O.A.”
Malley proposed that the two countries agree to return simultaneously to the accord, and then decide on a sequence of steps. The Administration does not want to reward Iran without proof that it is reversing its nuclear advances, reverting to older centrifuges, reducing its uranium stockpile, and allowing full inspections. Working with five world powers, the U.S. may somehow manage to restore the nuclear deal. Iran does face unprecedented challenges at home and from the outside world. The original revolutionaries are dying out, and their grandchildren are more into social media than ideology. In 2021, sporadic protests erupted as more than three hundred cities dealt with shortages of water and electricity; demonstrators also took to the streets to complain about low or unpaid wages. But if diplomacy stalls and Iran continues to accelerate its nuclear program, the senior Administration official warned, the U.S. could face a nuclear crisis in the first quarter of 2022.
McKenzie has analyzed how a conflict with Iran might play out. “If they attack out of the blue, it would be a bloody war,” he told me. “We would be hurt very badly. We would win in the long run. But it would take a year.” Or potentially more, as the United States has learned in Afghanistan and Iraq. And a full-scale military campaign by Israel or the U.S. would almost certainly trigger a regional war on multiple fronts. Iran is better armed and its military and political powerbrokers more hard-line than at any time in its modern history. The nuclear deal could be just the beginning—and the easier part of the Iran challenge for an eighth American President. ♦
Saudi Arabia is building its own ballistic missiles with the help of China, according to United States intelligence assessments and satellite images.
The assessment of U.S. intelligence agencies is that the kingdom, which is long thought to have acquired missiles from Beijing, is now manufacturing its own, according to a source familiar with the matter and a U.S. official.
Satellite images obtained by NBC News also suggest that Saudi Arabia is producing ballistic missiles at a site west of the capital, Riyadh, according to researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, in California.
“The key piece of evidence is that the facility is operating a ‘burn pit’ to dispose of solid-propellant leftover from the production of ballistic missiles,” wrote Jeffrey Lewis and David Schmerler of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute.
They added that the site “appears to have been constructed with Chinese assistance.”
The news was first reported by CNN on Thursday. The images were provided by commercial imaging company Planet Labs PBC.
The development could shift security calculations in the Middle East and further complicate the Biden administration’s efforts to coax Iran back into its nuclear deal with world powers. It could also add another layer of complexity to Washington’s relations with Beijing.
Iran and Saudi Arabia are regional foes and there will be concern that Riyadh’s manufacturing of ballistic missiles could alter Tehran’s calculations on its possible agreements in talks aimed at reviving the 2015 accord. The new development comes days before the talks, which have struggled to make any headway, are expected to resume in Vienna, and may make Iran even more unlikely to give up its own ballistic missiles.
“If Iran were to enter into negotiations over its missile programme, it would be unlikely to accept limits that did not also apply to other countries,” wrote Mark Fitzpatrick, an associate fellow at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, in an article about Saudi Arabia’s ballistic missile program published by the institute in August.
Fitzpatrick, a former State Department official, said at the time that other than a general desire to keep pace with Iran, Riyadh’s motivations for acquiring ballistic missiles were not entirely clear. Unlike Tehran, however, Saudi Arabia is not known to have initiated any work to develop a nuclear warhead for its missiles, he added.
Ballistic missiles are rocket-propelled weapons that can carry conventional explosives as well as nuclear warheads.
Nevertheless, the fact that Saudi Arabia is now known to be manufacturing its own ballistic missiles will spark concerns of a ramped-up arms race in a highly tense region that is already riven with conflict.
The Saudi Ministry of Media did not respond to requests for comment.
Britain on Friday condemned a launch of ballistic missiles by Iran in war games conducted this week.
“These actions are a threat to regional and international security and we call on Iran to immediately cease its activities,” the Foreign Office said in a statement.
In 2018, former President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the nuclear accord and re-imposed crippling sanctions on Iran. Tehran has since reduced its compliance with the deal, announcing that it would enrich uranium to up to 60 percent purity — significantly closer to the amount needed to make an atomic bomb.
In the past, Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, has been clear that if Tehran develops a nuclear bomb, Riyadh will also do so.
“Saudi Arabia does not want to acquire any nuclear bomb, but without a doubt if Iran developed a nuclear bomb, we will follow suit as soon as possible,” he told CBS in 2018.
The crown prince is attempting to transform Saudi Arabia from an oil-dependent nation into an economic powerhouse that is more accepted in the West.
The Saudis have long been U.S. allies and enjoyed a close relationship with the Trump administration, but those efforts to overhaul the country’s image were tainted by the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.
Meanwhile, the continued close military relationship between Saudi Arabia and China will also probably be of concern to the Biden administration as it tries to manage a complex and fraught relationship with Beijing, criticizing its human rights record while also cooperating with Chinese leaders on major global threats like climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The White House did not immediately return a request for comment.
Asked to respond to these fresh indications it was aiding Saudi Arabia’s push to produce ballistic missiles, China said it has always opposed the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery, and implements strict export controls on missiles and related technologies, according to a statement from its Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“China and Saudi Arabia are comprehensive strategic partners,” the ministry said. “Such cooperation does not violate any international law and does not involve the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
It added that Beijing has always opposed unilateral sanctions and “will continue to take necessary measures to resolutely safeguard its own rights and interests.”
Saudi Arabia has been known to have purchased missiles from China in the past but has never built its own, the source familiar with the matter and the U.S. official confirmed.
Gaza terror factions began a large-scale drill amid high tensions in the West Bank and unconfirmed reports that mediation efforts with Israel had failed.
The so-called “military” wings of several Palestinian factions on Sunday said they have launched a large-scale, joint maneuver in the Gaza Strip.
The announcement came amid growing tensions in the West Bank and calls by Hamas and other Gaza-based factions for stepping up attacks against Israel.
It also came in wake of unconfirmed reports that Egyptian mediation efforts to prevent an all-out military confrontation between the Palestinian groups and Israel have failed.
The maneuver, the second of its kind in the past year, aims to “raise military readiness” for a possible confrontation with Israel and increase coordination between the factions, according to the “Joint Room of the Palestinian Resistance Factions,” which includes most of the armed groups in the Gaza Strip.
The maneuver will continue for several days at training sites, it said in a statement. At least 12 groups were taking part in the exercise, Palestinian sources said.
Hamas political bureau chief Khaled Mashaal. (credit: REUTERS)
Earlier this month, Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades, the so-called “military” wing of Hamas, held a military exercise called Shield of Jerusalem. The drill was held to mark the 34th anniversary of the founding of Hamas.
Late last year, the Gaza-based groups held a similar joint exercise in the Gaza Strip to exchange expertise and enhance combat preparedness.
Sunday’s joint maneuver came one week after the armed wings of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) said they had reached an agreement to “strengthen the resistance” against Israel and increase coordination between the two terrorist groups.
Hamas and PIJ praised the growing attacks against Israelis in the West Bank and Jerusalem, saying they came in response to “settler terrorism and crimes of the Zionist occupation soldiers.”
The groups also expressed full support for “all forms” of attacks against Israel.
Over the past two weeks, senior Hamas and PIJ officials held a series of meetings in the Gaza Strip and Lebanon to discuss preparations for a possible military confrontation with Israel.Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal and PIJ Secretary-General Ziyad al-Nakhalah, who met in Beirut two weeks ago, issued a joint statement in which they agreed on the “importance of strengthening the resistance, especially in the West Bank, and emphasized their adherence to the option of resistance as the only way to confront the occupation, liberate the land and restore [Palestinian] rights.”
Mustafa al-Sawwaf, a Hamas-affiliated political analyst, said the meetings and the joint maneuver aim to send a warning to Israel that the terrorist groups are ready to “repel any aggression on the Gaza Strip.”
“This could be the last warning before the explosion,” he told the Quds News Network, adding that the warning was also directed toward the Egyptians, who have been acting as mediators to avoid another war in the Gaza Strip.
Mohammed Abu Askar, a senior Hamas official in the Gaza Strip, said the joint exercise was aimed at sending a message to Israel that the Palestinian factions are ready for a military confrontation.
Another Hamas official, Zaher Jabarin, said the West Bank is witnessing a “massive popular uprising.” The Palestinians are ready to make “sacrifices until they achieve victory,” he said.
The Palestinian Authority, meanwhile, said the Palestinians “will not allow the continued aggressions of the occupation and its settlers” in the West Bank.
PA presidential spokesperson Nabil Abu Rudaineh accused Israel of “playing with fire,” adding that the situation in the West Bank has become “unacceptable and intolerable.”
The Palestinians “possess all the means to defend their rights, and their capabilities and determination should not be underestimated,” he said.
Abu Rudeineh said more than 250 Palestinians were injured in violent clashes with soldiers and settlers in the northern West Bank over the past 24 hours.
He also criticized the international community for remaining “silent in the face of these repeated crimes.”
Hussein al-Sheikh, head of the PA’s General Authority of Civil Affairs and a member of the Fatah Central Committee, called on the international community to provide immediate protection for the Palestinians, “who are being killed and are having their homes and lands burned by organized racist gangs.”
The PA Foreign Affairs Ministry said it was “astonished” by the failure of the international community to speak out against the “violence” by the IDF and settlers.
The clashes that erupted in the village of Burka in the northern West Bank over the past two days prove that international protection for the Palestinians has become a necessity, the ministry said.
Reacting to a recent meeting between newly formed Iraqi Islamic Resistance groups, a report on a British trans-regional website described the meeting as “rare” and stressed that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and Shaykh Akram al-Kaabi have now become key figures seeking to shape Iraq’s security contours.
AhlulBayt News Agency (ABNA): Reacting to a recent meeting between newly formed Iraqi Islamic Resistance groups, a report on a British trans-regional website described the meeting as “rare” and stressed that Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr and Shaykh Akram al-Kaabi have now become key figures seeking to shape Iraq’s security contours.
According to the Communication and Media Affairs Centre of al-Nujaba in Iran, in a report published on the British website Middle East Eye, Egyptian analyst Tamer Badawi named the leader of the Sadrist Movement and the secretary-general of the al-Nujaba Islamic Resistance Movement as the main winners of the Iraqi elections.
Pointing out that the October elections had led to a shift in the balance of power in Iraq, the website wrote, “Sayyid Muqtada al-Sadr, as the leader of the majority that holds the most seats in parliament, and Shaykh Akram al-Kaabi, the leader of an Islamic Resistance movement that, with a distinct approach from its counterparts, has avoided factional divides; There are now two key figures seeking to shape Iraq’s security contours.”
While acknowledging the differences of opinion and different strategies of al-Sadr and al-Kaabi, both of whom are prominent students and heirs of the martyred Ayatollah Sayyid Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the author noted, “Of course, the secretary-general of the al-Nujaba Movement has a noticeable closeness to the leadership of the Islamic Republic of Iran and the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and defines his movement as transnational; But at the same time, it may lead to short-term and fragile convergence in domestic politics with the Sadrists, who see themselves as a local movement.”
Middle East Eye emphasized that although Akram al-Kaabi, like other commanders of the Iraqi Resistance, does not engage in explicit sabre-rattling against Mustafa al-Kadhimi (the caretaker prime minister), he is hostile to him, and said, “Following the assassinations of [martyrs] Qasem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the secretary-general of al-Nujaba Movement brought together a group of Iraqi Resistance leaders to discuss taking action against the United States. Muqtada al-Sadr was among the attendees.”
In another part of his analytical article, Tamer Badawi states, “al-Kaabi’s approach was to keep the al-Nujaba Movement away from the political margins after the elections; A measure that gave them more capacity to more capacity to plan and mobilize against foreign targets. When other groups condemned al-Kadhimi over allegations of vote-rigging, the al-Nujaba Movement focused on issuing threats against the Turkish military deployed in Iraq’s north.”
The British online news outlet described the release of a video of the recent meeting of the commanders of eight anti-American Resistance groups in Iraq with the secretary-general of the al-Nujaba Movement as an “unusual televised appearance” and wrote, “In December, al-Kaabi could be seen amid the flags of various surrogate groups that have emerged over recent months as offshoots of Resistance factions. The significance of Kaabi linking those surrogates to his group lies in the fact that larger groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah, a top-tier ally of Iran, and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq never disclosed their relationship with the groups that claimed credit for the deadly attacks on US-led forces in Iraq.”
Middle East Eye described the secretary-general’s remarks during the meeting as “a response to Muqtada al-Sadr’s call for the disarmament of the Resistance groups” and continued, “Implicitly criticized dragging the Resistance factions into the ongoing political discord following Iraq’s elections, Shaykh Akram al-Kaabi warned that this would harm their collective militant capacity to mobilize against the United States.”
At the end of the report, Badawi reiterated the position of the secretary-general of the al-Nujaba Movement as “the point of intersection between the Iraqi Resistance groups and al-Sadr” and noted, “And while al-Kaabi is among the few leaders who continued to seek constructive relations with al-Sadr, his main goal is to enlarge his [jihadi] organization and play a greater role in shaping anti-American actions in Iraq in Iraq and even Syria.”