Editions : April-July 2016


Iran’s ballistic missile program is progressing at an alarming pace. As far back as December 2012, the Congressional Research Service Reports said Iran had the “largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East” and was “expanding the scale, reach and sophistication of its ballistic missiles, many of which are inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload.” In less than a generation, Tehran managed to transform itself from a “nonplayer” to a “significant missile power.”

While the 2015 nuclear deal framework with world powers has stalled any plan on Iran’s part to develop nuclear weapons, the deal has not stalled Tehran’s ballistic missile development program. In fact, as Iran progressed with this program, many analysts argued in favor of including the program within the nuclear deal. Despite United Nations sanctions, Iran was able to advance its ballistic missile development program. As if to prove a point, as the nuclear deal neared the finish line, Iran was test-firing ballistic missiles – to send a message that it considers this capability as a part of its conventional military arsenal, which would not be negotiated away along with its nuclear program.

At present, Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal includes short-range missiles with a distance of up to 620 miles. In 2009, the Obama administration revealed that Iran was developing shorter-range missiles more rapidly than previously projected, compared to its longer-range missile programs. Tehran also possesses medium-range missiles that can travel between 620 and 1,860 miles, and intermediate-range missiles ranging from 1,860 to 3,400 miles. In addition – and alarmingly – Iran is not only focusing on liquid-fuel propelled ballistic missiles, but also solid-fuel propelled ones.

The development program

The Iranians are reported to have developed advanced missile technologies through the country’s Aerospace Industries Organization, and also through scientific committees, research centers and available industries. Iran’s liquid-fuelled technology is mainly derived from North Korea’s Scud-category missile system, while its solid-fuelled missiles are derived from the Chinese military.

Iran is also diverting surface-to-surface missiles for antiship use. Numerous reports confirm that Tehran’s new antiship ballistic missile, the solid-fuelled Khalij Fars, is based on Iran’s Fateh-110 missile system. That solid-fuel propelled missile is known as the “Persian Gulf” and is reported to be the most advanced and important missile in the Iran Navy’s inventory. There is a simple reason for that: it might be able to reach US military bases in the Persian Gulf. This missile has a range of 186 miles, and is reported to move vertically after launch, traverse at supersonic speeds and then find targets through smart programing and lock-in. Electro-optical fibers enable the missile to home in on an enemy ship’s infrared signature. Iran is also reported to have developed the 500-mile range Qiam missile, which is also reported to be capable of targeting US bases in the Gulf region. In 2012, the United States raised concerns about the vulnerability of its Navy ships in the region. The Qiam has a wingless design that gives it greater speed and the capability to be fired from multiple launchers.

The Iranian authorities have claimed that the Fateh A-110 is among the most accurate missiles in the world. Whether this is true or not, the missile’s accuracy is linked to two delta control fins at its nose and four in front of the rear wings. The missile also reportedly can maneuver in its terminal phase (when gravity pulls the missile’s warhead back down and into the target area) and has stabilizers for directional stability. It is also believed that Iran possesses the solid-fuelled, road mobile Tondar-68 ballistic missile, which is the Chinese version of the M-11 short-range ballistic missile. Iran developed the Ghadr-101 missile, also called the Samen, with a range of nearly 500 miles and derived from the Chinese M-9 missile.

Among its medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran’s Ghadr and Ashura both have ranges of up to 1,240 miles, while the Shahab-3 has a range of between 745 and 1,180 miles. The Shahab’s accuracy has been improved with assistance from China and Russia. It is believed that Iran first acquired the North Korean Nodong missile and, with Russian assistance, modified it into Shahab-3. The Shahab-4 was a three-stage missile, unlike the Shahab-1, 2 and 3. The missile is derived from the North Korean Nodong missile system. In 1998, reports confirmed that the Shahab-4 would not be used for military purposes, but would be used to carry satellites into space.

In 2015, Iran test-fired Emad, a precision-guided medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile. The missile has a range of more than 1,000 miles and a payload capacity of 1,650 pounds. Emad is liquid fuelled but has improved accuracy. This is extremely important if Iran is to deliver a conventional payload. The missile also reportedly carries thrusters for course correction. Reports suggest that this missile is an improved version of the liquid-fuelled Shahab missiles.

Maneuverability is achieved by steering warheads that can perform last-minute maneuvering, even at the terminal phase. According to Hossein Dehghan, Iran’s defense minister, Emad is the country’s first missile that can be guided and controlled until it hits its target. Its survivability is enhanced by road mobility, with the help of a mobile transporter and launcher.

Among its intermediate-range ballistic missile systems, Iran possesses the Musudan, which is reported to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This indicates that Iran is working hard to develop sophisticated missile systems, especially ones that can evade missile defense systems. It is also reported to be developing multiple re-entry vehicles to evade ballistic missile defenses. The booster in the Shahab-4 separates after launching, not only increasing the accuracy of the missile but also enabling it to evade a missile defense system. The new Emad missile is reported to be fitted with maneuverable re-entry vehicles to evade enemy defense systems.

In addition, Iran has developed tunnels and shelters in coastal areas to store Scuds and other missiles in hardened sites, to reduce their vulnerability to air attack.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, Iran has been accused of pursuing “high explosives tests with nuclear weapon applications; neutron initiation and detonator experiments; research and development work to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile, along with arming, firing and fusing mechanisms.” A tri-conic re-entry vehicle would enable Iranian missiles to effectively deliver both conventional and nuclear warheads.

Though a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention, Iran is developing bottleneck warheads, instead of cone-shaped warheads, to create a slower re-entry so its military is able to deliver chemical and biological agents. This probably bears resonance to what Ali Hashemi Rafsanjani, Iran’s former president, said in 1988: “Chemical and biological weapons are a poor man’s atomic bombs and can be easily produced.” He further stressed that international laws dealing with the use of chemical and biological weapons are “only scraps of paper.”

Relevance of ballistic missiles

Iran’s ballistic missile development program is unhindered by any part of the nuclear deal that it has with the United States and other powers. “Iran has never stopped its missile program and has no intention to do so,” one Iranian official, speaking on background, told Reuters back in 2014. He emphasized that its missile capability gives Iran an “upper hand” in the region.

Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies states that the ballistic missiles “represent one of Iran’s few capabilities to deter, attack, intimidate regional rivals and boost military morale and national pride.” Iranian leaders claim their missile capability is defensive in nature, and is for deterrence and coercive diplomacy. Mohsen Rezaei, a member of Iran’s Expediency Discernment Council, views the country’s ballistic missile capability as an important factor in its negotiations on its nuclear program. Iran claims that in order to place “all options on the table” against states that are “discourteous,” it must concentrate on developing ballistic missiles.

Ballistic missiles would be a currency of power and deterrence for Iran to safeguard its regional interests. In November 2008, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran’s president at the time, said: “The Iranian nation defends its honor, and whichever power that wants to stand against the movement of the Iranian nation, the Iranian nation will crush it under its foot and slap it in the mouth.” Iran views missiles as inextricably linked to its global status, and hence is not keen on giving up its program. Iran also maintains that its missile development program is solely for “scientific, surveillance or defensive purposes.” Of course, with the test-firing of such sophisticated missile systems, Tehran wants to display to the world its technological prowess. Although it really does not need long-range ballistic missile capability to deter its adversaries in West Asia, given the country’s geography any launches would take place from deep inside the country, making the weapons less susceptible to enemy attack.

The future

Iran has not developed a submarine-launched ballistic or cruise missile yet. In fact, reports suggest that none of its current submarines, which are diesel-powered, are capable of firing ballistic or cruise missiles. However, according to reports, North Korea is working toward making its diesel-powered submarines capable of launching missiles. Given their past cooperation in missile technology, it is possible that North Korea will provide technical assistance to Iran to develop submarine-launched missiles. This would be yet another concern for the United States and other countries that negotiated the nuclear treaty.


Debalina Ghoshal is a research associate at the Delhi Policy Group in India.

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