The Islamic Republic of Iran has numerous programs for the development and deployment of ballistic missiles and long-range artillery rockets, and—with approximately 1,000 short and long-range missiles—currently possesses the largest number of deployed ballistic missiles in the Middle East. While the Shah of Iran initiated a rudimentary missile program in the 1970s, the Iran-Iraq war precipitated the beginning of large-scale Iranian investment in ballistic missiles. Since the late 1980s, Iran has actively sought to develop an indigenous missile production program, relying heavily on missile components imported from North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s to establish this capability. Iran is outside of international regimes to prevent missile proliferation, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), and has instead commonly been an object of international efforts to limit the spread of sensitive dual-use missile technology. Despite these control efforts, Tehran has continued to utilize a number of foreign suppliers to develop a missile production infrastructure. To date, Iran claims to have developed four different liquid-propelled ballistic missile systems, (the Shahab-1, Shahab-2, Shahab-3, and Ghadr-1 Kavoshgar Satellite Launch Vehicle), though many outside experts contest the degree to which these missiles were truly "indigenous" products.
While the purpose of Iran's nuclear program is unclear and remains hotly disputed, many nonproliferation analysts are especially concerned that Iran's development of more advanced long-range ballistic missiles may be motivated by the desire to establish a nuclear weapons delivery capability.
Table 1 shows the design characteristics of Iran's ballistic and cruise missile inventory. Nearly all of Iran's deployed ballistic missiles utilize liquid fuels, inertial guidance systems, and are based on Russian Scud technology. Iran continues to work on developing longer range, multiple stage, and solid-fueled missiles.
Iran did not possess the technological or industrial infrastructure to develop missiles or missile components until the late 1980s. After the onset of the "War of the Cities" during the Iran-Iraq War, Iran realized that its missile capabilities were vastly inferior to Baghdad's. While Tehran was unable to make major improvements to its missile inventory until the Iran-Iraq war ended, due to the war's immense drain on its resources, Iran did take interim steps to aid its war effort by importing a number of Scud missiles from Libya in 1985. In the late 1980s, Tehran reached out to North Korea for missile technologies and components. The two sides concluded a $500 million arms agreement that included DPRK assistance with the construction of a missile production facility in Sirjan, Iran.
Estimates about Iran's indigenous technical capabilities vary, and significant divides exist within the expert community on this subject. Experts' opinions on the subject also seem to correlate heavily with their opinions regarding whether the United States should invest in an extensive ballistic missile defense system—those who argue that Iran is close to possessing an ICBM capability generally favor missile defense. Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel's missile defense program, David Montague, the retired president of the Missile Systems Division at Lockheed Martin, and Stanford University's Dean Wilkening believe that recent Iranian missile tests have demonstrated Iran's ability to overcome many of the problems associated with the development and production of an IRBM and ICBM. Other experts, including Stanford's David Holloway and MIT's Theodore Postol, believe that Iran will have trouble overcoming many of the technical issues associated with ICBMs. Postol asserts, for example, that Iran could develop in the next "six to eight years a ballistic missile capable of delivering a 1,000kg nuclear warhead to a range of 2,000km."
Such a capability would enable Iran to target Israel and U.S. bases throughout the Persian Gulf. However, the road-mobile Shahab-3 is vulnerable to an opponent's disarming strike, in that it requires numerous support vehicles for propellant transport and several hours launch preparation time. Deployment of solid-fueled missiles would enable Tehran to overcome this weakness of the Shahab-3, representing a leap in Iranian technical capabilities, as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps could store such missiles in mountain tunnel complexes and launch them on short notice. Iran's solid-fueled Sejil is currently in the development and testing phases, and its range is reportedly comparable to that of the liquid-propelled Shahab-3. Referring to an Iranian test of the Sejil, Doug Richardson, editor of Jane's Missiles and Rockets asserted, "Television and press imagery of the launch showed that the Sejil missile is similar in general appearance to the liquid-propellant Shahab 3, complete with Shabab 3-style cruciform tail surfaces and a triconic 'bottle-nose' payload section similar to that seen on the Shahab 3A."
The Sejil also possesses range and payload characteristics similar to Iran's Safir Satellite Launch Vehicle (SLV), whose first stage design is based on North Korea's No-Dong missile. Iran's successful launch of the small communications satellite Omid in February 2009, using the two-stage solid-propelled Safir SLV, demonstrates its technical progress in the exploitation of solid-fuel technologies. Iran successfully test launched the Safir SLV again in February 2010. The Safir rocket has been of interest to U.S. intelligence because its guidance and engine technologies are dual-use. Specifically, a study published by the EastWest Institute, carried out by a group of U.S. and Russian experts concluded that the Safir's staging technology would be critical to Iran's potential development of longer-range ballistic missiles. However, the authors found that, "The Safir upper stage is not likely to be suitable for carrying a nuclear warhead of roughly 1,000kg weight because the thrust of its rocket motor may be too low and because its structure may not be strong enough to support such a heavy payload during flight." David Montague, Uzi Rubin and Dean Wilkening challenged this conclusion, asserting that a ballistic missile based on the Safir could "carry a 1,000kg warhead to a range of approximately 2,000km to 2,500km" if Iran made substantial modifications to the second stage of the missile (e.g. more efficient rocket engines).
Despite the Safir's technical limitations, Iran has now demonstrated its ability to produce a multi-staged rocket. The EastWest Institute asserts, "The Safir SLV can be regarded as a step in the development of staging technology, which is critical for the construction of two- and three-stage ballistic missiles and space launch vehicles." If Iran were to convert the Safir SLV into a ballistic missile it would likely be able to carry a 500kg warhead 3,000km, a 1,000kg warhead approximately 2,000km, and a 1,500kg warhead 1,600km. Longer range missiles would offer a number of tactical advantages to the Iranian military, including the ability to deploy the missiles in the eastern part of the country, which would decrease their vulnerability to preemptive attacks.
Iran is also known to have imported 18 Kh-55 cruise missiles from Ukraine in 2001. The Kh-55 has a range of 3,000 kilometers, enabling it to reach targets as far away as Israel. Iran has also been developing an indigenous cruise missile variant known as the Raad, reportedly based on the Chinese Silkworm airframe. The Raad's range would enable IRGC commanders to strike naval vessels operating in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz. Moreover, the Chinese Silkworm can carry a 500kg warhead, indicating that a similarly designed Raad derivative could hypothetically carry a well-designed nuclear warhead up to a range of 105km. The Raad's limited range is not ideally suited for a nuclear delivery role. Despite their limitations, deploying cruise missiles such as the Raad provides the IRGC with a number of tactical advantages, including diversifying its delivery capabilities and enabling it to rely less heavily on its relatively weak air force. Iranian cruise missiles would also be less vulnerable to interception than ballistic missiles by potential adversaries' missile defense systems, because of their lower and shorter flight trajectory.
Recent Developments and Current Status
Iran's determination to possess a robust and indigenously sustainable missile program is a direct result of its unique regime politics. Iranian leaders bolster support for their own political continuity by portraying much of the rest of the world as enemies to Iran, and seeking to rally the population around nationalist causes such as programs to increase Tehran's military power. The Clerical Elite view Iran's asymmetric military assets as the most vital dimension of Tehran's national security policy, and place great importance on indigenous weapons production. Ayatollah Khamenei's push for indigenous missile capabilities is likely rooted in his understanding of the four key tenets of the Islamic Revolution: (1) Justice, (2) Self-Sufficiency, (3) Independence and, (4) Islamic Piety. Khamenei believes that technology can insulate Iran from foreign domination and contribute to its economic and political independence, a position evident in such nationalist rhetoric as the following excerpt from a February 2010 speech to Iran's Air Force Staff:
This country with its great capabilities in missile technology, biology, nuclear and laser technology - which you have heard about - and various other areas is the same country that had to import the most basic weapons at the beginning of the Revolution. Our country had to borrow from different countries. We had to buy the most basic things from abroad, and they refused to sell them to us. We had to pay several times more than the real price, and we had nothing of our own. The same Army, the same Armed Forces, and the same Air Force have now made these achievements. And the same academic, scientific, and technological units have now achieved this position.
Currently, Iran is pursuing almost all of the technologies associated with ballistic missiles, focusing particularly on efforts to increase the range and payload of the missiles in its deployed arsenal. IISS's 2010 study points out that Iran, "is deemed to have the capacity to modify existing missiles, to produce indigenously a large percentage of the necessary components to go into a missile, including the airframe and propellant tanks, create new systems by integrating available sub-systems and components, test new configurations, and fix the design or manufacturing flaws discovered during the development of new systems." However, Tehran's missile program remains dependent on foreign suppliers and expertise in key respects, including in the development and production of liquid and solid-fueled engines, and navigation and guidance systems. Tehran's reliance on imported guidance systems means that "Iran's missiles armed with conventional warheads will very likely remain too inaccurate to be militarily effective."
Additionally, Iran has steadily ramped up its investment in cruise missile technologies. One core component of Iran's asymmetric military strategy has been the procurement, production, and deployment of coastal defense cruise missiles, addressed as an issue of U.S. concern in the April 2010 congressionally directed Unclassified Report on Military Power of Iran. In the event of any conflict with the United States, Iran would likely use C801/802 cruise missiles to attack American warships in the Persian Gulf and close the Strait of Hormuz.
Iran's rapidly improving missile capabilities have prompted concern from international actors such as the United States, and from Iran's regional neighbors. The United States has responded to Iran's missile program by implementing a number of unilateral sanctions and continuing to develop and test various components of a proposed ABM shield. In particular, the Iran Sanctions Act is meant to prevent Iran from acquiring missile, nuclear, and conventional weapons technology from foreign suppliers. The Obama administration is also working with other members of the UN Security Council to pass a new sanctions resolution aimed at IRGC front companies. Israel has responded to Iran's weapons programs by improving its Arrow Missile Defense system and working closely with the United States to prevent Iranian acquisition of sensitive missile technology. The media frequently reports on the possibility, supported by regular vaguely threatening statements from Israeli leaders, that Israel will feel compelled by Iran's activities to unilaterally bomb Iranian nuclear facilities. Iran's Arab neighbors are also feeling pressured by its weapons programs and are improving their own capabilities in response. For example, the United Arab Emirates has signed a $3.3 billion dollar agreement with Raytheon and Lockheed Martin to purchase Patriot missile interceptors and radar.
Despite efforts by the international community to stall Iranian missile development, Tehran's ballistic and cruise missile capabilities continue to grow. Iranian engineers have extended the range of Iran's missiles from 600km in the late 1980s, to at least 1,500km today. However, Iran has not yet developed a long-range ICBM, a failure underscoring that such missiles are considerably more challenging to develop than assumed by the Rumsfeld Commission's 1998 report on the ballistic missile threat to the United States.
Iran's cruise missile program will increase the variety of delivery systems available in its strategic portfolio. Iran's development of increasingly sophisticated missiles worries analysts concerned that such missiles could be intended as delivery vehicles should Iran decide to develop nuclear weapons. The IAEA has repeatedly asked Tehran to clarify allegations concerning "Iran's undisclosed activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile."
According to the IAEA Director General's report submitted to the Board on 23 November 2010, Iran has accumulated an estimated 3,183kg of low enriched uranium. An exchange of letters and additional information from Iran provided a satisfactory explanation for the inconsistency.
Construction of the Fordow FEP continues, but the Agency has been refused access to related documentation and design information. Additionally, after the IAEA requested the design information of a newly planned uranium enrichment facility, Iran answered in August 2010 that it will be provided in "due time."
Iran has maintained that the intelligence documents provided to the IAEA are forgeries and has refused to discuss these issues with IAEA inspectors. Agency inspectors were able to confirm the non-diversion of declared nuclear material, but added that Iran should be more forthcoming with information about the origin of its nuclear program in order to confirm that all nuclear activity in Iran is peaceful.
Iran requested that the IAEA convey this message to the P5+1.
On 17 May 2010, Brazil, Turkey and Iran issued a joint statement in which Iran agreed to export half of its LEU stock (1,200kg) to Turkey as a confidence building measure, in return for 120kg of 20% enriched uranium for use in its medical research reactor. In June 2010, the UN Security Council approved another set of sanctions under UNSCR 1929, primarily aimed at Iran's nuclear-related investments and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. In October 2010, the P5+1 extended another invitation to Iran to discuss its nuclear program, but did not accept Iran's request for Turkey or Brazil to attend. Talks resumed on 6 December 2010 in Geneva, during which the P5+1 requested assurances that the Iranian nuclear program remains peaceful and Iran requested that international sanctions be lifted.