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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Beyond Iraq: Missile Proliferation in the Middle East

Filed under: Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Israeli Security, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, The Middle East
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 2, No. 22     March 25, 2003

  • Beyond the Iraqi missile threat to Israel in the 1990s, missile threats to Israel have emerged from Iran, Lebanon, Syria, and Libya. Yet many of the New Middle East missile powers are determined to project their power toward Europe.

  • Missile suppliers in the Middle East include North Korea, China, and Russian and Indian companies. Suppliers have found ways of evading the Missile Technology Control Regime!!

  • Iran’s 2,000 km range Shihab-4 will reach targets beyond Israel. Iran’s missile program is a matter of national pride that will be unaffected by regime change. The Iranians are determined to develop missiles of even longer range.

  • In about ten years, Libya will have 50-100 missiles that can threaten Israel.


Who are the Suppliers?

Who are the suppliers of missiles in the Middle East?

North Korea continues to view the selling of missiles as an export commodity. Missiles are their only dollar-earning export item.

Russian companies – not the Russian government – continue to support Iran with missile technology. Although the Russian government tries to curb this trade, the proliferation goes on.

China continues to sell missile technology. China is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), but says it adheres to it. Chinese policy is not to sell complete missile systems, but some technologies sold by China are also considered MTCR-sensitive. The Chinese allow themselves more leeway in the export of what is called “banned technology” in the West. China lately issued its own missile export laws which are somewhat different from the MTCR.

Indian companies – not the Indian government – exported missile-related technology to Iraq and, currently, the Pakistanis are also becoming active in proliferation to the Middle East.


Who are the Users?

Who are the users? Iran is continuing to develop the 1,200 km-range Shihab-3 missile, which is adapted from the North Korean Nodong. Iran says it is operational, and there have been tests from time to time, sometimes successful and sometimes not. Less known is the fact that the Iranians continue firing the Shihab-1 into Iraq from time to time.

The Shihab-4, 2,000 km-range missile program was unveiled in a recent interview by Gen. Ahmed Wahid, head of the Iranian missile program. At the time he made three important statements:

  1. The Shihab program is aimed to balance the alleged Israeli Jericho missile threat.
  2. Iran will continue to develop missiles of longer ranges.
  3. Iran is going into space. This may sound innocent, but it is important to understand that any space launcher is a potential intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach anywhere on earth.

Another ominous development is the deployment of missiles in Lebanon. These are not Category 1- weapons of mass destruction missiles, but Category 2 missiles of shorter range, deployed by Iran in southern Lebanon.

Iraq is developing a 150 km-range missile that has all the current technologies of long-range ballistic missiles. We now know of at least six instances when these missiles reached over 150 km “by mistake.”

Syria has the largest stockpile of ballistic missiles in the region today; in fact, Syria is investing most of its military budget in its missile arsenal at the expense of its air force and its ground forces. Syria has established production lines and is producing the Scud C, a 550 km-range missile.

The Syrians have also acquired a 700 km-range missile that we call the Scud D. When Syria fired such a missile two years ago, Israel was able to observe the enemy missile launch for the first time with its own Green Pine radar, part of the Arrow system. The Syrians have also improved their Scud B warheads and have tested them. Israel tracked a test of an improved warhead for the Scud B, probably with chemical agents.

Egypt is very quiet. It has a small arsenal of Scud B and Scud C missiles. Lately, however, there have been reports in the media of Egyptians buying – or trying to buy – Nodong technology from North Korea.

Libya is very active now in acquiring long-range missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Apparently, Libya is buying Nodong missiles from North Korea with a range of 1,200-1,300 km, which can strike Israel.

There are also signs of secondary proliferation: Iran is now an exporter. This is very natural once a nation has established an industrial infrastructure. The Iranians are reported to be trying to sell missiles to African countries. They are selling technologies and missile components to Syria, and they are deploying missiles in Lebanon.


The Threat of Long-Range Missiles

In the future we will see a trend toward longer-range missiles, driven by a number of motivations:

  1. Projecting power toward Israel.
  2. Projecting power toward Europe. A hypothetical Iranian Shihab-4 missile with a 2,000 km range could reach parts of Eastern Europe. The motivation of power projection becomes obvious since Iran does not need a missile with such a range in order to reach Israel.
  3. Fear of Israel’s preemptive capabilities.

Libya cannot hit Israel now; they only have Scud-B missiles with a 300 km range. The Egyptians have the Scud-C and can hit Israel from south of the Nile Delta. The Syrians can hit Israel from mid-Syria with the Scud-C. The Iranians have a 1,300 km missile that can reach Israel from western Iran.

Everyone is buying longer-range missiles. The Syrians went for the Scud D, the Libyans and Egyptians opted for the Nodong, and the Iranians went for the 2,000 km Shihab-4. There is a clear trend toward extending the ranges of missiles so that they can be deployed beyond Israel’s preemptive range.

Russian aid to Iran might decrease because the Russian government is attempting to reduce this trade, but Iran could be compensated by North Korea. Now North Korea is going into the nuclear business and might start selling nuclear weapons.

Iran has passed the point of no return. The Iranians cannot be stopped anymore. They have their indigenous capability now and they will continue with their programs regardless of what the international community thinks. Iran will continue to develop missiles because their missile industry has nothing to do with the degree of radicalism of the regime. For Iran it is a matter of pride. Iran’s missile program has become a national program that will be unaffected by any regime change.


Order of Battle

Syria has the largest stockpile, with about 500 missiles altogether, including Scud-B (300 km) and Scud-C (550 km). The SS-21 missile is a very accurate, Russian-made, solid propellant, battlefield weapon with a range of about 100 km. In Israeli terms this is a strategic weapon because, if deployed north of the Golan Heights, it can hit most of northern Israel.

In about ten years, Libya will have 50-100 missiles that can threaten Israel.

Iraq will remain a big question mark, even if Saddam falls. Iraq has the infrastructure and the experts who know how to make missiles. They may now have a stockpile of perhaps fifty missiles, but in the future, Iraq could produce hundreds of missiles and not just because they have Israel in mind. Iran remains Iraq’s historical enemy – these two enemies have been fighting each other in the Mesopotamian Valley for the past three thousand years under different names, such as the Persians and the Babylonians.


Launch Capability the Key Measure

The number of missiles stockpiled is not the key measure of enemy threat. Rather, it is the number the enemy can actually fire in war. In 1988, in what was known as the war of the cities, the Iraqis fired about 190 missiles into four Iranian cities – Teheran, Shiraz, Qom, and Isfehan – over four months. In the Gulf War, Iraq managed to fire about 80 missiles in four weeks. Thus, actual firepower is defined not by the number of missiles but by launch capability, which depends on a whole supply structure including launchers and manpower.

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Uzi Rubin is former head of Israel’s Arrow-Homa Anti-Missile Defense Program. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on 27 January 2003. See also his recent Jerusalem Issue Brief, “Meeting the ‘Depth Threat’ from Iraq: The Origins of Israel’s Arrow System”;