Iran’s missile to watch?

It is an enduring calculus of the atomic age: When nations seek to build a nuclear weapon, they also want to deliver it long distances and with great speed by a missile hurtling through the air. Compared to other means of delivery, such as via bombers or a battleship, the missile is the equivalent of ...

VAHI REZA ALAEE/AFP/Getty Images
VAHI REZA ALAEE/AFP/Getty Images
VAHI REZA ALAEE/AFP/Getty Images

It is an enduring calculus of the atomic age: When nations seek to build a nuclear weapon, they also want to deliver it long distances and with great speed by a missile hurtling through the air. Compared to other means of delivery, such as via bombers or a battleship, the missile is the equivalent of a bullet: fast off the mark, deep penetration, and most terrifying to potential victims.

If Iran is on a quest to become a nuclear-armed power, its missiles will reflect its intentions. An important new study just released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London contains a wealth of detail from open sources about Iran's missile program, and how Iran might match those missiles to a nuclear warhead. The study concludes that Iran is probably aiming first to perfect a solid-fuel, medium-range missile that can carry a nuke to hit regional targets, such as Israel, rather than attempting to launch a continent-spanning weapon aimed at the United States.

Iran denies it is seeking an atomic bomb. But its long string of deceptions regarding its uranium enrichment program, as well as leaks of documents and the claims of defectors, have alarmed much of the world -- and especially Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear weapons power.

It is an enduring calculus of the atomic age: When nations seek to build a nuclear weapon, they also want to deliver it long distances and with great speed by a missile hurtling through the air. Compared to other means of delivery, such as via bombers or a battleship, the missile is the equivalent of a bullet: fast off the mark, deep penetration, and most terrifying to potential victims.

If Iran is on a quest to become a nuclear-armed power, its missiles will reflect its intentions. An important new study just released by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London contains a wealth of detail from open sources about Iran’s missile program, and how Iran might match those missiles to a nuclear warhead. The study concludes that Iran is probably aiming first to perfect a solid-fuel, medium-range missile that can carry a nuke to hit regional targets, such as Israel, rather than attempting to launch a continent-spanning weapon aimed at the United States.

Iran denies it is seeking an atomic bomb. But its long string of deceptions regarding its uranium enrichment program, as well as leaks of documents and the claims of defectors, have alarmed much of the world — and especially Israel, itself an undeclared nuclear weapons power.

The new study points out that Iran’s acquisition of the fissile material for building a nuke — getting the uranium and plutonium — is not the only factor worth watching. Iran’s missile development ambitions also provide tell-tale clues. For example, are the missiles being built large and powerful enough to carry a nuclear warhead?

This is important, because a nuclear warhead is not a basketball. By examining the early efforts of other nations, the IISS experts concluded that an Iranian nuclear weapon would probably weigh about a ton. A missile would have to have enough power and other features to hurtle this device hundreds of miles.

Iran’s missile program began in the 1980s, when it imported liquid-fueled Scud-Bs from overseas to fight the war with Iraq. In the years that followed, Iran bought additional Scud-Bs, which they called the Shahab-1 (range: about 186 miles), Scud-Cs, or Shahab-2s (310 miles) and No-Dong or Shahab-3 missiles (longer range) from North Korea. A modified version of the Shahab-3 known as the Ghadr-1 began flight tests in 2004. According to the IISS, this liquid-fueled missile extends Iran’s range to approximately 1,000 miles when carrying a warhead weighing 1,600 pounds.

But here’s the rub: The liquid-fueled missiles probably could not carry a one-ton warhead without reduced range. The study concluded that it probably could not reach Israel unless it was launched from Iran’s western border, where it would be vulnerable to a pre-emptive attack.

In response to this dilemma, Iran turned to solid-fuel missiles. It launched one, called Sajjil, with a greater payload-range capability than the Ghadr. A two-stage Sajjil was test-fired in November, 2008, and can deliver a 1,600-pound nuclear weapon approximately 1,300 miles or even further. It also can be readied to fire in less time than the cumbersome liquid-fueled missiles.

The Sajjil is the Iranian missile to watch. Even so, a modified three-stage variant capable of delivering a one-ton warhead 2,300 miles is at least four to five years from possible deployment, the study found. The authors conclude that Iran is probably intent on perfecting this medium-range approach, rather than building a missile that could fly many thousands of miles further.

They predict it would take Iran at least a decade to threaten more distant points in Europe and the United States. They noted that Iran would need to develop tracking and telemetry systems based on ships so they could monitor such long-range missiles, and they would need to build vehicles to protect the warheads during high-speed re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere.

This outlook is markedly different from the alarms sounded by the 1998 Rumsfeld Commission, which said Iran could demonstrate such a continent-spanning missile five years from deciding to build one. President Bush said in 2007, citing U.S. intelligence agencies, that Iran could develop a missile capable of hitting the United States and all of Europe by 2015.

"To date," the new study says, "these worst-case scenarios have not played out."

Some other highlights of the study include:

  • Iran has developed a capable, indigenous missile industry, but still relies on foreign supply of key production equipment and missile components.
  • The military utility of Iran’s ballistic missiles is severely limited because of poor accuracy.
  • Iran’s space program launches have been "proof of principle" demonstrations, "offering no immediate strategic value beyond symbolism."
  • Arming Iran’s missiles with chemical or biological warheads would "not significantly enhance" their limited military capability.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook

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