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Is an Iranian Missile Threat Imminent?

Bharath Gopalaswamy

Over the past decade, Iran has made modest, steady, and gradual advances in its missile development. Iran appears to be pursuing advancement of its strategic missile capabilities “with incremental increases in range and payload technology.”1 Since the 1980s, Iran has been developing its capabilities through international cooperation, purchases, and indigenous development.

The U.S. National Intelligence Council in 2001 stated that Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of hitting targets in the United States by 2015. These estimates have been further endorsed by various other U.S. government agencies, which argue that “Iran could have long-range missiles capable of reaching the U.S. and much of Europe before 2015.”2 This argument is used to justify the proposed U.S. missile defense assets in Europe that would protect the U.S. and its allies against long-range ballistic missile threats. The proposed missile defense system would consist of radars and interceptors based in Czech Republic and Poland, respectively, deployed around 2012.3However, this paper argues that Iran may not pose a significant missile threat to the United States and its allies by 2015 due to the following reasons:

  • Iran still faces significant technical hurdles with regard to technologies such as staging, guidance systems, and aerodynamics.
  • Indigenous development of an Iranian ICBM is not very likely and it would have to heavily rely upon international transfers and purchases.
  • ICBM development requires rigorous testing under different conditions to ensure high reliability.

Given the current status of the Iran program, it is therefore quite unlikely that an ICBM could be fielded by the year 2015 without external assistance and a considerable amount of technology transfer from external sources, mostly from North Korea.

Only if these factors change, the pace of the Iranian missile program will also change.

Iran’s Missile Programs

Iran desired to acquire ballistic missiles during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. At that time, Tehran found itself ill-prepared to retaliate against Baghdad’s missile attacks. Hence, in order to protect itself, it strove for self-reliance in missile technology and production.

Iran focused on importing and producing Scud-B (300 kilometer range) and Scud-C (600 kilometer range) missiles from North Korea, Libya, Syria, and China. Iran’s first Scud B’s were delivered by Libya in 1985. Subsequently, Iran also indigenously built and assembled Scuds.4

Shahab-3_schwarze Trajektorien.jpg

Figure 1: Range of Shahab-3


From the early 1990s, Iran’s focus shifted towards the development of the intermediate range Shahab-3 and Shahab-4 missiles. Shahab-3 is a single-stage missile, weighing 16 metric tons, and is liquid fueled. Shahab-3 is based on North Korea’s NoDong missile. There were reportedly ten tests from 1998–2006. It has a range of 1,300 kilometers with a 750 kg payload. This range provides the missile with the capability to hit key targets in Saudi Arabia and Turkey as shown in Figure 1.5 This figure has been obtained by computer simulations6 based on publicly available technical data. The launch site chosen here is Emamshar on the eastern border of Iran. Shahab-3 is also capable of striking key targets in Israel if the missile is launched from sites in western Iran.

Although the Shahab-4 has been characterized by Iran as a space launch vehicle, it could be used as a technical base for intermediate- and intercontinental-range missiles. The Shahab-4 was originally thought to be based on Soviet R-12 (SS-4 Sandal) technology obtained from Russia. Later reports said that the Shahab-4 was based on the North Korean TaepoDong-I technology. The TaepoDong-I in turn is based on a NoDong-derived first stage and a Scud-derived second stage. The TaepoDong-I was first tested in August 1998 and neither North Korea nor Iran are known to have deployed this missile. The current status seems to be unclear, and it could well have been terminated according to some sources.7 Based on openly available technical data, the results of a computer simulation for Shahab-4 are presented in Figure 2. This figure shows that, if the missile was successfully developed, it would allow Iran to target Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey from launch sites anywhere in Iran.

Another Iranian project is the one- to two-stage solid-fueled Ghadr series of missiles. Solid rocket motors possess several advantages over liquid rocket engines, which make them ideal for military applications. These advantages include their high density and low volume, nearly indefinite storage life, instant ignition without fuelling operations, and high reliability. The Ghadr missile also has a “baby bottle” style nose for extra aerodynamic efficiency. In May 2005, Iran announced at a parade that Ghadr had a range of 1,800 kilometers. This range is sufficient to put the U.S. bases in the Middle-East and Israel under threat. In September 2007, Iran paraded the Ghadr missile with a slogan from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reading, “The Iranian nation is ready to bring any oppressive power to its knees.”8 However, it is difficult to conclude from open sources if this missile has a solid motor as claimed in May 2005.

Shahab-4_schwarze Trajektorien.jpg

Figure 2: Range of Shahab-4

Iran recently also announced that it had manufactured a new, solid-fueled missile named Ashoura. Ashoura reportedly has a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers. Iran is expected to flight test this missile in the near future. However, very little is known about other technical features of this missile.

Iran’s Space Program

Iran announced the creation of its national space program in 1998.9 Coincidentally, the announcement came on the heels of Iran’s first tests of the Shahab-3 missile. Some analysts speculate that Iran’s space program is now a cover for Iran’s development of longer-range missiles like the IRSL-X-2 and Shahab-6. Tehran claims these two rockets are exclusively for satellite launches, but as put by one expert, “a satellite launcher is basically a covert intercontinental missile.”10 Iran tested its first sub-orbital rocket in February 2007. The rocket reached an altitude of 150 kilometers before falling back to Earth and deploying a parachute for recovery. Iran claimed that the rocket was intended for research and is part of its goal of launching Iranian manufactured satellites on Iranian manufactured rockets. It is estimated that the rocket’s operational range with the same payload against a ground target might be approximately 300 kilometers.

Iranian officials often discuss space and missile developments simultaneously, perhaps indicating the parallel nature of the programs. They have openly admitted that the Shahab missile system has been used as the basis for developing Iran’s space launch vehicle (SLV).11 In fact, Nasser Maleki, Deputy Director of Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), openly acknowledged that the technology used for building a space launch vehicle could also be used to manufacture missiles.12 Other reports suggest that Iran is trying to acquire an SLV based on North Korea’s TaepoDong-2. However, North Korea’s TaepoDong-2 only flight test failed in July 2006 and no further tests of this system have been reported since then.

Hence, as of 2007, Iran has only flight tested its NoDong variant Shahab-3, which has a range of 1,300 kilometers. Iran is keen on improving its solid fuel technology, possibly using the Ghadr and Ashoura missiles. Iran may also be disguising its ballistic missile program as a program to build space launch vehicles in order to confuse intentions,
legitimize international purchases and avoid public scrutiny.

External Assistance and Collaborations

The current level of sophistication of the Iranian missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive assistance from North Korea, Russia and China. Iran received outside assistance for both its space and missile programs from Russia, and China,13 and has collaborated with North Korea on its missile program.14 Russia, China, and North Korea have helped the advancement of the Iranian missile program in the following ways:

  • Russia: Russia has allegedly transferred guidance and propulsion systems and their components, high-strength steels and special alloys, as well as manufacturing and testing equipment. Specialists from two Russian defense firms are also known to have visited Iran, and Iranian students received training in missile technologies at Russian institutes.15 Russia has helped Iran with wind-tunnel testing of missile nose cones.16
  • North Korea: In November 1999, Iran imported twelve NoDong missile motors from North Korea. In 2001, Iran purchased missile airframes, rocket motors, and ballistic launchers from North Korea. And in 2002, Iran procured Scud engine clustering and stage-adding technology from North Korea.17 Payload spin up demonstrated by the TaepoDong-118 third stage solid propellant rocket motor appears in both Iran’s Shahab-3 and Pakistan’s Ghauri-2.18 In 2005, North Korea reportedly transferred NoDong-B missiles. On January 17, 2006, the flight test of NoDong-1 for North Korea was attended by members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corp who also reportedly attended North Korea’s July 12, 2006, TaepoDong-2 missile test.19 The North Koreans also helped Iran develop a series of missile test facilities located around the Shahroud region.20 The North Korean’s helped Iran to develop a testing range and accompanying tracking system in Tabas.21
  • China: In 1987, Chinese engineers built a second missile production plant, located in Semnan. Also in 1987, China built Iran’s Bandar Abbas facility, which is useful for testing, assembling, manufacturing, and upgrading of Chinese built cruise missiles.22

The level of sophistication of Iran’s ballistic missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive assistance from abroad, notably from North Korea, Russia and China. While North Korea furnished the basic hardware for liquid-fueled rocket propulsion, Russia supplied materials, equipment, and training. China supplied help with guidance and solid-fueled rocket propulsion. Like India, North Korea, and Pakistan, Iran is not a signatory to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). While Iran’s missile program initially benefited from foreign technology, such technology transfer from MTCR members such as Russia or adherents such as China has been substantially curbed in recent years, although North Korean transfers may be continuing.23

North Korea Ballistic Missile Program

Figure 3: Nort Korea’s ballistic missile program24

Iran’s Indigenous Ballistic Missile

If Iran cannot obtain the TaepodDong-2 or major subsystems from North Korea or other external partners such as Russia and China, it would have to build its intercontinental-range missiles independently. In order to do so, it would need a well developed infrastructure.

The Shahid Hemat Industrial Group (SHIG) is a key organization in the missile program. It is directly responsible for developing and producing the Shahab-3 missile. SHIG has hosted a number of Chinese and North Korean experts who have worked on Iran’s missile program.25

The Lavizan Technical and Engineering Complex is comprised of assembly facilities and metallurgy plants. According to GlobalSecurity.Org, in 1996, Sanam College (a Defence Industries Organization entity) and the Baltic State Technological University in Saint Petersburg, Russia, jointly developed the Persepolis research center to focus on the design of solid fuel rocket boosters.

In February 2003, Iran opened a solid fuel production facility, of which the location and details were not disclosed. According to then-Defense Minister Shamkhani, the solid fuel can be used for any kind of missile.26

These well-developed infrastructures could enable Iran to research, test and develop more powerful, intercontinental-range missiles. However, it is unclear when Iran could develop such missiles. Iran would have to perfect many critical technologies for producing an intercontinental ballistic missile and a delay in any one would delay the entire intercontinental-range program, according to some sources.27 Some of the key technologies to be perfected are:

  • Staging: While many short-to-medium range rockets/missiles are single-staged, almost all intercontinental, long-range missiles (greater than 5,000 km) have multiple stages. In addition, optimization of the system must be developed.
  • Improving Accuracy: The flight-tested Shahab-3 is believed to use an outdated Chinese navigation system with a circle error probability of 3,000 meters. However, there have been attempts to upgrade or replace this system.28 Longer-range missiles using this guidance system would be even less accurate since accuracy decreases with range. Most ballistic missiles employ inertial navigation systems (INS), which allow guidance without resorting to external sensing or measurement. During the boost phase, the missile makes flight corrections based on guidance system inputs to actuators (or other devices) controlling various thrust vectoring modalities. There are some reports that suggest that the Shahab-3 guidance systems have been enhanced with the addition of a Global Positioning System (GPS).29 Such a system would also more accurately establish the missile’s position at launch, thus potentially improving its circular error probability to 190 meters.30 However, many in the analytical community doubt the use of GPS guidance in Iranian missiles.
  • Improved Aerodynamics: Rockets and missiles can have high catastrophic failure rates. One of the causes for failures is instability, which arises from the fact that the only control available is derived from vector thrust mechanisms such that the loss or major variance in thrust normally results in a destroyed vehicle. Limited stability is achievable through the addition of air foils when in atmospheric conditions and by spin stabilization (gyroscopic effect) when in space.

Iran currently possesses the second largest ballistic missile inventory in the developing world after the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (probably several hundred Scud-type missiles and an estimated 100 NoDong type missiles, with that inventory still growing). It is currently capable of employing ballistic missiles and/or long-range artillery rockets against its regional neighbors, Israel, and Western forces deployed in the region. Iran’s ballistic missile development has steadily proceeded since the early 1990s. Given favorable conditions, some assessments are that Iran is on track to extend the range of its ballistic missile capabilities to cover Southern Europe, North Africa, and South Asia by 2012 and possibly the continental United States by 2015–2020.

However, these estimates are subject to change dependent upon a host of technical, international, and domestic factors that cannot be accurately predicted. This estimate is also supported by the Rumsfeld Commission report of 1998, which observed that “a nation with a well-developed, Scud-based ballistic missile infrastructure would be able to achieve first flight of a long-range missile, up to and including intercontinental range (greater than 5,500 kilometers), within about five years of deciding to do so.” One source notes that this estimate has been true for some countries but not others,31 for example the Indian Agni-3 missile, an intermediate range ballistic missile. India began its pursuit of the Agni-3 in 2001. The missile was first tested unsuccessfully in 2006 and successfully in April 2007. On the other hand, Brazil is yet to successfully fly its 40-metric ton space launch vehicle, despite a decade of work.

Some Conclusions

As mentioned earlier, the level of sophistication of Iran’s ballistic missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive assistance from abroad, notably from North Korea, Russia, and China. Given the state of current infrastructure, Iran’s technical capabilities, and favorable conditions, Iran could possibly test a medium-range missile in the near future, most likely within this decade. And a intercontinental ballistic missile could still take longer without external assistance, mainly from North Korea. However, if North Korea successfully tests such a system and transfers it to Iran, it could considerably affect this estimate.

Assuming Iran decides to pursue its long-range option to deliver weapons of mass destruction indigenously, it still must cross a number of technical hurdles such as flight stability and control, guidance, and stage separation systems. Furthermore, a challenge for Iran lies in reducing the risk of launch failure to as low as 2–5%. This is because there is a tremendous amount of cost involved in developing long-range systems. Hence, the risk of launch failure has to be as small as possible in order to make sure that these systems are effective and serve the purpose for which they are developed. This would mean testing missiles again and again, under different and difficult conditions, to ensure high reliability. This would considerably delay the Iranian missile program thus making the estimate of 2015 a very optimistic one. In sum, it could be concluded that Iran would have to rely heavily upon external transfers and assistance to pose any significant threat to the United States in terms of a reliable delivery of weapons of mass destruction by 2015.

The author would like to acknowledge the generous financial support provided by the Catherine T. McArthur foundation in carrying out the work. The author would also like to express his sincere thanks to Dr. George Lewis for offering his valuable comments and suggestions on the manuscript.


Bharath Gopalaswamy is a Postdoctoral Associate at the Peace Studies Program, Cornell University. He can be reached at bg265 [at] cornell [dot] edu.

  1. 1. Robin Hughes, Briefing: Iran’s Ballistic Missile Developments, Jane’s Defence Weekly, September 13, 2006.
  2. 2. U.S. Department of State, U.S Missile Defense, April 16, 2007; www.state.gov/p/eur/rls/fs/83119.htm.
  3. 3. George Lewis and Theodore Postol, European Missile Defense: The Technological Basis of Russian Concerns, Arms Control Today, October 2007, pp 13-18.
  4. 4. Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, Iran Missile Update 2004, The Risk Report, Vol. 10, No.2, March–April 2004.
  5. 5. Uzi Rubin, The Global Range of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program, Jerusalem Issue Brief, Vol. 5, No. 26, June 2006.
  6. 6. Geoffrey Forden, GUI_Missile Flyout: A General Program for Simulating Ballistic Missiles, Science and Global Security, Vol. 15, No. 2, December 2006, pp. 133-146.
  7. 7. Charles Vick, Satellite or Strategic Launch Vehicles, February 27, 2007; GlobalSecurity.Org.
  8. 8. Staff Writers, Iran shows off new missile, taunts Israel, SpaceWar.com, September 22, 2007.
  9. 9. Official Says Iran’s First Satellite to Render General Services to Public, Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA), April 12, 2006, OSC document IAP20060412011048.
  10. 10. Iran’s Missile Capability Grows, Interview with Uzi Rubin, March 14, 2006, Iran Watch, December 4, 2006; www.iranwatch.org/ourpubs/roundtables/interview-uzirubin-042806.htm.
  11. 11. On July 22, 1998, Iran launched its first test flight of the Shahab-3 missile, which coincided with its announcement of a space program. See: Iran Missile Chronology, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2002; www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/Missile/1788_1813.html.
  12. 12. Aerospace Official Says Iran’s Missile Technology Peaceful, Fulfils, ‘Space Needs’, Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Radio, FBIS IAP20041020000094, Oct 20, 2004.
  13. 13. China’s Missile Exports and Assistance to the Middle-East, Nuclear Threat Initiative; www.nti.org/db/china/mmepos.htm.
  14. 14. Charles P. Vick, The No-dong-B/Shahab-4 Flight Tested in Iran for Iran & North Korea Confirmed, July 1, 2006; GlobalSecurity.org.
  15. 15. Michael Jasinski, Russia’s Nuclear and Missile Technology Assistance to Iran, Centre for Nonproliferation Studies, June 26, 2003.
  16. 16. Ali Chaudhry, Iran’s Ambitious Missile Program, Centre for Defense Information, July 1, 2004.
  17. 17. Iran Missile Chronology, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2002; www.nti.org/e_research/profile/Iran/Missile/1788_1818.html.
  18. 18. Charles P. Vick, The Closely Related Collaborative Iranian, North Korean & Pakistani Strategic Space, Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Weapon Program, March 2007; GlobalSecurity.org.
  19. 19. Iranian Military Engineers on Hand for N. Korean Missile Launch, WorldTribune.com, July 12, 2006; www.worldtribune.com/worldtribune/06/front2453929.001388889.html.
  20. 20. WMD Around the World: Iran, Federation of American Scientists, December 01, 2005; www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iran/missile/overview.html.
  21. 21. Greg Gerardi and Joseph Bermudez, Jr., An Analysis of North Korean Ballistic Missile Testing, Jane’s Intelligence Review, Vol. 7, No. 4, January 27, 1995, p. 189.
  22. 22. Iran Missile Facilities, Bandar Abbas, Nuclear Threat Initiative, May 2004; www.nti.org/e_research/profiles/Iran/Missile/3876_4099.html.
  23. 23. On MTCR’s role in shaping the evolution of Iran’s missile capabilities, see: Dinshaw Mistry, Containing Missile Proliferation: Strategic Technology, Security Regimes, and International Cooperation in Arms Control, Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2003, pp. 141-151.
  24. 24. Assessment of North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Program,Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, July 2006. According to Professor Yun To’k-min at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, since the 1970s North Korea has been involved in missile development between itself and various Middle Eastern countries such as Iran, Egypt, and others. The figure illustrates the connection between Iran, North Korea, and other states. While the diagram is focused on North Korea, it is important to note the interconnection between all parties. North Korea has played a key role in Iranian missile development, as has the USSR/Russia, China, Pakistan, Libya, and Syria.
  25. 25. Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, Nuclear Threat Initiative, updated 2003.
  26. 26. Defense Minister Inaugurates Solid Fuel Engines Production Line, Middle East Newsline, Vol.5, No.57, February 11, 2003. Tehran Vision of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Network 1, February 9, 2003, FBIS IAP20030209000065.
  27. 27. Dinshaw Mistry, op.cit.
  28. 28. Robin Hughes, op.cit.
  29. 29. Iran’s Missile Capability Grows, op.cit.
  30. 30. Shahab-3, Federation of American Scientists, updated December 14, 2006; www.fas.org/nuke/guide/iran/missile/shahab-3.htm.
  31. 31. Dinshaw Mistry, op.cit.