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

New Developments in Iran’s Missile Capabilities: Implications Beyond the Middle East

Filed under: Iran, Israeli Security, Nuclear Warfare
Publication: Jerusalem Issue Briefs

Vol. 9, No. 7    August 25, 2009

Click here to down the PowerPoint presentation that accompanied the briefing.

  • Iran is vigorously pursuing several missile and space programs at an almost feverish pace with impressive achievements. The Iranians have upgraded their ballistic missiles to become satellite launchers. To orbit a satellite is a highly sophisticated endeavor. It requires proficiency in stage separation and advanced guidance and control systems to insert the satellite into a stable, desired trajectory. They took the Shahab, extended it a bit, added a new lightweight second stage, and now they have the Safir space launch vehicle. The very capability to build a two-stage satellite launcher, rather than the usual three-stage rockets for space-lift vehicles, is quit remarkable by itself – an impressive engineering achievement.
  • In spite of the Missile Technology Control Regime and in the face of sanctions, Iran has succeeded in acquiring the needed infrastructure and to raise a cadre of proficient scientists and engineers backed by academic research institutes. Iranian missile technology now seems to be more advanced than that of North Korea.
  • The solid-propellant Sejil missile signifies a technological and strategic breakthrough. This missile already poses a threat to a number of European Union countries. Based on its demonstrated achievements in solid propulsion and staging, Iran will face no significant hurdle in upscaling the Sejil into a compact, survivable intermediate-range ballistic missile. A range of 3,600 km. will be sufficient to put most of the EU under threat.
  • Contrary to a recent report by U.S. and Russian scientists published by the EastWest Institute in Washington, D.C., the solid-propellant technology demonstrated by the Sejil gives the Iranian a key for longer-range missiles that could be deployed in a survivable manner from Western Iran. The report claims that it will take the Iranians just six years to develop a nuclear warhead that could be carried by a ballistic missile. By that time the Iranians might already have the appropriate missiles to carry such warheads. The West would do well to start preparing its defenses right now.

Iran Invests in Nuclear and Missile Technology

The cumulative weight of Iranian missile development achievements in the last two years puts Iran’s programs into a context which might be wider than the Middle East. Up to now, the Iranian programs could fit only a local scenario. However, recent developments may show not necessarily the intention but at least the capability of the Iranians to extend their missile program to potential targets beyond the Middle East.

The Iranians love to show their hardware in parades. They have two armed forces: the army and the Pasdaran, the Revolutionary Guard. The army holds its parade on April 22 every year, while the Pasdaran holds its parade in December. During the big parade the army held in 2008, they displayed guns and artillery, all of which had been purchased before 1979 during the time of the Shah. They showed a modern tank that they make in small numbers, but most were Soviet T55s, a tank from the 1950s. Obviously they are not investing much money in ground forces or in new armament.

During the air show, some 220 planes flew above Tehran, but, again, they were F5s made in America and bought during the Shah’s time, Mirage F1s, and Iraqi aircraft which were flown to Iran during the Gulf War. There were F4 Phantoms, F14 Tomcats, and MIG 21s. The most modern fighter aircraft they flew was a MIG 29 from 1992.

So we see that the money is not being invested in the ground forces or in the air force. Where is the money going? It goes into nuclear technologies and missiles. They can make all the excuses in the world that everything is for peaceful purposes, but the fact is that Iran’s biggest budgets are going to nuclear technology and missile technology.

Iran’s Engineers Become More Advanced than North Koreans

In 1988 the Iranians had only Scud B and Scud C missiles. Ten years later they had their first operational Shahab III. The Iranians bought the Shahab, which has a range of 1,300 km., from North Korea, including the production line. We now see the Iranians building underground silos for the Shahab, to make it more survivable.

The Iranians are also now capable of taking an unguided rocket like the Zalzal – that Hizbullah also has – and turning it into a guided rocket with a range of 200 kilometers. This is an original Iranian project; we don’t see it anywhere else.

They have also upgraded their ballistic missiles to become satellite launchers. To orbit a satellite is a very complicated project. There are missile stages, and a careful guidance and control system to insert the satellite into a stable, desired trajectory. They took the Shahab, extended it a bit, added more propellant, and now they have the Safir space launch vehicle. They launched it twice and the second time it was successful; for a while they had a test satellite in orbit. They built a two-stage satellite launcher with a very elegant upper stage, incomparable to anything we know – an impressive engineering achievement.

Up to now, North Korea has been the fountainhead of technology to Iran. In the 1990s and the early 2000s we saw the North Korean No-dong missile appearing in Iran, as well as the Shahab II and Shahab III, which in North Korea are called the Wassong V and Wassong VI. The Scud is a North Korean invention which was also exported to Iran. But looking at April’s North Korean satellite launch attempt, they used a satellite launcher that looks nothing like what we see in Iran. It was completely different, much bigger and heavier, and with three stages.

This means that the connection between Iranian and North Korean technology is not that tight anymore, and the pupils are now the teachers. The Iranians have reached a level of proficiency which has disconnected them from North Korea and in some cases they are more advanced than the North Koreans. The Iranians are now going to deploy a missile which is nothing like what the North Koreans have, so a connection may now be the other way around. Start watching Iran not as a market for North Korean merchandise but as an exporter of Iranian missile technologies.

Iranian Breakthrough: A Solid Fuel Missile

On May 19, 2009, the EastWest Institute issued a report entitled Iran’s Nuclear and Missile Potential: A Joint Threat Assessment by U.S. and Russian Technical Experts, claiming that “There is no reliable information at the present on the state of Iran’s efforts to develop solid propellant rocket motors.” The next day, on May 20, the Iranians successfully fired a solid fuel Sejil rocket. Solid propellant leaves a trail of particles behind, while liquid propellant has transparent flames that don’t leave any trail, so video reports of the launch are quite revealing.

What is also impressive here is the pace of development. In 2005 we heard for the first time about the coming of the Sejil. The first flight occurred thirty months after the end of development of the solid propellant motors. Iran’s space program is even more impressive.

They have the engineers to understand what they are doing. They have the system engineers to engineer fixes and they have the program managers to run the whole program. They have demonstrated the ability to manufacture a 14-ton solid propellant rocket motor, and they have the infrastructure they need. To build such a rocket you need big, expensive installations. They are not available for sale, they are controlled by the Missile Technology Control Regime, but Iran has managed to acquire them. All of this infrastructure is in Iran. Another point on the proficiency of their engineers: I received a list of Iranian technical publications from the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, all of them dealing with big solid propellant rocket motors.

The Iranians conducted six major tests of multi-stage missiles in eighteen months by two different teams from two different test ranges with all the instrumentation and flight control guidance system telemetry. When there is a challenge, they overcome the challenge.

Europe Coming into Iranian Missile Range

The Iranian defense minister has spoken of two missiles: the Kadr I that goes 2,000 km. and the Sejil that goes more than 2,000 km. Why is 2,000 km. significant? Less than 2,000 km. does not threaten Europe. Beyond that you are starting to threaten Europe.

Two weeks after the EastWest Institute report came out, Ted Postol of MIT, one of its authors, published an addendum to the report. Based on data he presented, our calculations show that the Sejil has an actual range of about 2,500 km. Such a range could reach Warsaw and, indeed, six European Union countries: Poland, Slovakia, Rumania, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Greece. The Tabriz launch area in Iran is as big as Azerbeijan, bigger than Israel and half of Jordan. It’s about 50,000 sq. km., full of mountains, valleys, and canyons. You can hide thousands of ballistic missiles there with a very high probability of survival. So the capability to make a survivable missile that can threaten Europe now exists in Iran.

Iran is vigorously pursuing several missile programs and a space program at a feverish rate. No one else, except the Chinese perhaps, is working at such a speed. In spite of all the sanctions, the Iranians have managed to acquire all the needed infrastructure to make advanced missiles and develop a technology cadre. They are building up technological universities. They have been in the business for twenty years.

The solid propellant Sejil is the watershed breakthrough. The Iranians have the technology right now to produce an intermediate range ballistic missile that can threaten Europe. Whether they do it or not involves the question of intention, but they are capable of doing it. The EastWest Institute report estimates that it will take Iran about six years to fit a nuclear warhead on a missile. If this is true, then the time to start missile defense in Europe is now. The fact that the Iranians are building that capability is something that should be brought to public view.

The distance from Iran to Israel remains the same no matter what missiles the Iranians develop. From an Israeli anti-missile defense perspective, the threat remains more or less the same, whether it’s a Shahab III or a Sejil. But while the implications of Iran’s continued missile development are not so great from an Israeli point of view, they may be quite significant for those who live beyond the Middle East.

*     *     *

Uzi Rubin has been involved in Israeli military research, development, and engineering programs for almost forty years. Between 1991 and 1999 he served as head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, and in that capacity he oversaw the development of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system. He was awarded the Israel Defense Prize in 1996. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation to the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on August 6, 2009.