Iran Displays New Missile; Nuclear Warhead Questions Still Unanswered

In a ceremony on March 8, Iran’s defense minister unveiled what he called a new, indigenously developed cruise missile, the Soumar, and announced the delivery of two medium-range ballistic missile systems to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps.  This event comes as the late March deadline for reaching a long-term agreement on Iran’s nuclear program approaches and raises the question whether Iran’s alleged efforts to mate a nuclear warhead to a missile will be covered by an eventual agreement.

In remarks at the ceremony, Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan described the Soumar as a “long-range ground-to-ground cruise missile system” that was developed by the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO).  AIO oversees the development and production of both liquid and solid fueled ballistic missiles.  It has been sanctioned by numerous countries, including the United States, and is subordinate to the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), which was sanctioned by the United Nations in 2010.

The Soumar appears to be either a re-purposed, or reverse engineered, version of the Soviet-era KH-55 (AS-15) missile, which has a range of between 2,000 and 3,000 km and is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.  Iran obtained – illegally – twelve of these missiles from Ukraine in 2001, according to a 2005 statement by Ukraine’s prosecutor-general.  Iran’s Missile Industries Group and CSIG, two entities subordinate to AIO, reportedly were involved in the reverse-engineering work.  The strategic version of the missile used by Russia’s air force could carry a 410 kg payload beyond 2,000 km, according to a March 8 military intelligence report from a European government.  This range could encompass Israel, the Gulf, and Southeastern Europe.

The March 8 ceremony in Tehran also saw the delivery of the Qadr and Qiam liquid-fueled ballistic missiles to the IRGC Air Force, or IRGC Aerospace Force, an entity sanctioned by the United States, European Union, and several other governments.  The Qadr is a medium-range, nuclear-capable missile that Iran claims to be an upgraded version of its Shahab-3, while the Qiam is a short-range missile (700-800 km).  Iran has said both missiles are equipped with “multiple reentry vehicle” payloads – most likely conventional cluster munitions.

The relative inaccuracy of Iran’s ballistic missiles (making them of limited use when armed with conventional warheads) raises the question: why invest in these systems, unless you are seeking to mate them with nuclear warheads?  The U.S. Intelligence community has assessed that ballistic missiles would be Iran’s preferred method of delivery for nuclear weapons.  And in a November 2011 report, the IAEA described evidence that Iran had conducted engineering studies on integrating a nuclear payload into the reentry vehicle for the Shahab-3 missile.

Iran, however, has steadfastly denied any connection between its missile program and its nuclear efforts.  During the March 8 ceremony, the head of IRGC Aerospace Force, Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, warned that “ballistic missiles will never be negotiable at all.”  And last month, Iranian negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister Seyed Abbas Araqchi said that “raising and negotiating the country’s defensive and missile capability in Iran’s nuclear talks with the Group 5+1 […] has never been allowed in the past nor at present nor in future.”  However, the U.S. State Department has insisted that Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are indeed part of the ongoing talks.

Another contentious topic that may – or may not – be an explicit part of the talks relates to allegations that Iran conducted nuclear research and experiments with “possible military dimensions.”  On March 9, Iran and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) met yet again to discuss the Agency’s long-standing investigation of these allegations.  Information was exchanged and a mid-April date was set for the next round of talks – after the P5+1 negotiating deadline.  Still, no progress was made in resolving the specific allegations, deemed “credible” by the IAEA, related to experiments with high explosives and studies on neutron transport calculations.  And these are only two of about a dozen topics related to weaponization about which the IAEA is seeking more information from Iran.

A March 7 piece in the New York Times summarized the weaponization-related allegations under investigation by the IAEA.  The Times’ piece is based on information in an annex to the IAEA’s November 2011 report, which described these allegations in detail, including:

  • computer modeling of implosion, compression, and nuclear yield, as recently as 2009;
  • high explosive tests simulating a nuclear explosion but using non-nuclear material, in order to see whether an implosion device would work;
  • the construction of at least one containment vessel at a military site, in which to conduct such high explosive tests;
  • studies on an initiation system used in nuclear detonation, in order to ensure uniform compression of an implosion device, including at least one large scale experiment in 2003, and experimental research after 2003;
  • support from a foreign expert, reportedly a former Soviet weapon scientist named Vyacheslav Danilenko, in developing the initiation system and a crucial diagnostic system to monitor the detonation experiments;
  • manufacture of a neutron initiator, which is placed in the core of an implosion device and, when compressed, generates neutrons to start a nuclear chain reaction, along with validation studies on the initiator design from 2006 onward;
  • the development of exploding bridgewire detonators (EBWs) used in simultaneous detonation, which are needed to initiate an implosive shock wave in fission bombs;
  • the development of high voltage firing equipment that would allow a new payload to be detonated in the air, above a target, which would only make sense for a nuclear payload;
  • testing of high voltage firing equipment to ensure that it could fire EBWs over long distances, which is needed for nuclear weapon testing, when a device might be located down a deep shaft;
  • a program to integrate a new spherical payload onto Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, of a size that would accommodate the high explosive and detonation packages described above;
  • preparatory work (without nuclear material) on the fabrication of natural and high-enriched uranium metal components; and
  • access to at least one implosion bomb design.