In February, Iran conducted tests of its Soumar cruise missile. This is the latest development following its March 2015 declaration that it had developed the long-range cruise missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers, named after the Iranian town which was destroyed by Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq war.
This advanced surface-to-surface missile is capable of hitting targets with “high precision” and greater accuracy than its predecessors, with modern navigation and propulsion systems. The range can be increased to 3,000 kms with external fuel tanks. Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan, the Iranian Defense Minister, views this development as “crucial” and “effective” steps “toward increasing the country’s defense and deterrence might.”
Despite the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Iran to restrict the development of ballistic missiles, Tehran has continued to develop and modernize its ballistic arsenals. However, the likeliness of US and Israeli ballistic missile defense capable of intercepting Iranian missiles may be the reason why Tehran has retained the cruise missile option as a component of its deterrence.
This is because, due to their relatively low flight altitude, it is sometimes difficult to detect cruise missiles even at subsonic speeds. Iran’s missile development trends - developing solid fuelled ballistic missiles, bottlenecked warheads and multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs) - suggest that it is pursuing a missile program capable of defeating the defense systems of its adversaries. Thus, cruise missiles could be a credible counter measure against enemy defense systems.
The Soumar is reported to be capable of targeting Middle Eastern and southern European countries. Thought to resemble the Soviet era Kh-55 cruise missile, it was bought from Ukraine and reverse engineered in Iran. It can be launched from sea and land, and is able to perform pop-up maneuvers during flight, which further enhances the credibility of the system. It could also be one of the variants of the ‘Meshkat’ cruise missile, which the Iranians have concentrated on for a while.
In 2014, during the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) nuclear negotiation process, it was suggested Iran’s ballistic missile program be included as a component of the process. However, the JPA and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did not cover the issue of ballistic and cruise missiles, and this was a concern as Iran’s missiles were nuclear capable. Tehran also declared that there would be no efforts on its side to include any issues pertaining to its defense capabilities, including ballistic missiles, as a part of the nuclear deal.
It also argued that missiles are a component of its conventional deterrence. Though reports cannot confirm the missile is nuclear capable, the likelihood is there as the original Kh-55 had the capability to carry a payload of 200 kilotons, sufficient for a nuclear payload.
Iran could also use these cruise missiles to deliver chemical warheads or chemical sub-munitions as cruise missiles are the best delivery system for them (as compared to ballistic missiles). Even though Tehran is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), the threat cannot be eschewed.
UNSC resolutions 1696 of 2006, 1737 of 2006, 1747 of 2006, 1803 of 2008, and 1929 of 2010, concentrated on prohibiting the development of nuclear capable ballistic missiles by passing proliferation resistant resolutions and by sanctioning companies and individuals involved in the manufacture and development of ballistic missiles and nuclear infrastructure.
Under Resolution 1747 of March 2007, the Cruise Missile Industry Group in Iran was also under sanction. Qods Aeronautics Industries, which produces unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), was also sanctioned under Resolution 1747. Resolution 2231 of 2015, which prohibits Iran from developing nuclear capable ballistic missiles, but there are no provisions to ban the development and production of cruise missiles.
Developing a sophisticated missile system despite the sanctions is Iran’s clear-cut message to the UN Security Council’s five permanent members plus Germany (P5+1) that no amount of political pressure can prevent it from developing a credible deterrence for its armed forces, which Iran argues is to strengthen its conventional capability.
Debalina Ghoshal is a Research fellow at the Centre for Human Security Studies, Hyderabad.