Iran: Missile Development

Step by step, Iran is mastering the art of missile production. With help from North Korea, Iran has learned to build its own version of the Soviet Scud-B missile, which can deliver nuclear or chemical warheads up to 300 kilometers, and may soon begin producing the more powerful Scud-C, which can fly up to 600 kilometers. If Iran continues on its present course, it could field a missile capable of reaching Israel within the next few years.

North Korea is Iran’s primary source of missile technology. Since 1985, Pyongyang has sold Tehran hundreds of Scud missiles and the factories to build them. Twice in the past four years, the U.S. State Department has penalized North Korean exporters and the Iranian buyers by imposing trade sanctions.

China is Iran’s second most important missile supplier. China has helped Iran develop solid fuel rockets and improve missile accuracy. In June 1996, a Congressional hearing cited U.S. intelligence findings that China had “delivered dozens, perhaps hundreds of missile guidance systems and computerized tools to Iran.” If the Clinton Administration determines that China, like North Korea, has knowingly helped Iran build Scud-size missiles, then Washington must decide whether to punish the Chinese sellers in the same way it has punished the North Koreans.

Early missile ambitions

Iran’s determination to acquire and produce ballistic missiles grew out of its war with Iraq in the 1980s. Tehran found itself ill-prepared to retaliate against Iraq’s missile attacks on Iranian cities. Tehran decided that for its own protection, it had to achieve self-reliance in military, and especially missile production. “Iran wants its own stuff now, to be no longer dependent on outsiders for weapon supplies,” says a U.S. official who tracks missile proliferation.

One of Iran’s earliest steps toward self-reliance was to produce the “Mushak” short-range surface-to-surface missile. A U.S. official compares this primitive solid fuel missile to the unguided Soviet Frog missile and to the Pakistani Haft-1 missile, which flies about 80 kilometers. The first Mushak, also known as the Iran-130, was test-fired in early 1988, and is designed to fly to a maximum range of 130 kilometers. By March 1988, five Mushak missiles had been fired at Iraq during the War of the Cities. And by August 1988, Tehran had test-fired a 160-kilometer-range Mushak and announced that mass production would soon follow. Iran claims that the Mushak was designed and produced without foreign help, but Chinese assistance is suspected.


During the Iran-Iraq War, the then-head of Iran’s Parliament, Hojatolislam Hashemi Rafsanjani, took steps to strengthen Iran’s missile program. In 1985, Rafsanjani led a high-level delegation to Libya, Syria, North Korea and China. As a result of the trip, Iran obtained Scud missiles from Libya and North Korea, and later acquired rocket components and know-how from both North Korea and China.

Iran’s first batch of Scuds came from Libya in 1985. These single-stage, Soviet-made missiles are liquid-fueled and can fly about 280-300 kilometers when carrying a 770-1,000 kilogram warhead. Before long, Iran had depleted its small supply. It then turned to North Korea in search of a new supplier. Tehran offered to help finance Pyongyang’s missile effort in exchange for technology transfer and an option to buy North Korean missiles as soon as they became available.

The first batch of North Korean Scuds arrived in July 1987, even before they were available to North Korea’s own army. Over the next seven months, Iran imported 90-100 missiles, most of which were promptly used in combat: According to the U.S. Defense Department, Iran fired nearly 100 Scuds at Iraq between 1985 and 1988.

After the war ended, Tehran began expanding its capabilities. By late 1990, Tehran had negotiated to buy North Korea’s newest missile offering, the Scud-C, with a range of 500 kilometers. According to press reports, Iran ordered an additional 200 Scud-Bs and Scud-Cs from North Korea in 1991.

After filling its immediate need for finished missiles, Iran moved quickly to set up a Scud factory of its own. “Iran’s relationship with North Korea follows the usual pattern,” says a U.S. State Department official, “you first buy entire missiles and the kits to assemble missiles, and then you learn to make them on your own–designs and blueprints come with the package” According to the official, North Koreans worked on the ground in Iran to walk Iranian scientists through the basic steps of Scud production. In 1993, Iranian Minister of Defense Akbar Torkan announced that “our technological capability is such that if we require similar missiles [to the Scud-B] then we can manufacture them ourselves.”


Iran is now poised to mass-produce extended-range Scud-Cs, though U.S. officials doubt that any missiles have been produced yet. The liquid-fuel Scud-C has an estimated range of more than 500 kilometers when carrying an 700-kilogram warhead. The missile is longer and wider than the Scud-B, which suggests that the fuel tanks have been lengthened and widened to increase the amount of propellant the missile can carry.

In 1991, U.S. intelligence had tracked several shipments of North Korean Scud-Cs to Iran. In 1992, the U.S. State Department imposed two-year trade sanctions against the Iranian Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics for engaging in “missile technology proliferation activities” with North Korea. Under U.S. law, Washington can penalize any foreign company or person who engages in the export of Scud-size missiles or the transfer of equipment or technology that “contributes to the design, development or production or missiles” in a country such as Iran.

In early 1993, an additional shipment of Scud-Cs along with several launching pads was reported by the Israeli media, and according to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang continues to supply Scud production technology to Iran. On May 24, 1996, Washington once again penalized a North Korean seller (Changgwang Sinyong Corporation a/k/a/ Korea Mining and Development Trading Bureau) and an Iranian buyer (Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics). The Middle East Military Balance, an annual survey of military capabilities published by Israel’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, estimates that as of 1994 Iran had 300 Scud-B missiles and 100 Scud-Cs.


The question now is whether international pressure can prevent North Korea from selling Iran an even longer-range missile, the Nodong-I. The 1,000 kilometer-range Nodong would allow Iran to reach targets in Israel, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The liquid-fuel Nodong is derived from Scud technology, and shares the Scud’s weaknesses. “It still has no tremendous guidance capability and a poor CEP [circular error probable, a measure of accuracy],” says a U.S. official. The Nodong was first test-fired by North Korea over the Sea of Japan in May 1993. Because the Sea of Japan is too small to accommodate a full range test of the Nodong, U.S. officials surmise that future testing may take place in Iran, where there is sufficient room. “Iran has never tested missiles to the 700 or 1,000 range,” one U.S. official tells the Risk Report, “but it is true that Iran is less restricted geographically for such tests and it could be surmised that North Korea might use Iran as a test range.”

U.S. officials believe that the Nodong may be nearly ready for serial production, but progress has been slowed because North Korea has had to postpone or cancel a number of test launches during the past two years. Both financial and technical constraints have been cited as the reason. In November 1996, Pyongyang was preparing to test the Nodong again, but American pressure “helped put a stop to that,” says a U.S. official.

True to its pursuit of self-reliance, Iran would like to produce its own Nodongs. According to U.S. officials, Iran has not yet received completed Nodong missiles, but Japanese TV reported in April 1994 that North Korea had agreed to construct a Nodong missile production plant in Iran. And former CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) Director James Woolsey said in 1993 that he believed Iran would be able to manufacture Nodong missiles by the year 2000.

China’s role

If Iran succeeds in building larger and more accurate missiles, China will deserve much of the credit. For years, Beijing has been a major supplier of battlefield and cruise missiles to Iran. In 1987, Iran purchased Chinese Silkworm anti-ship missiles, which were sent via North Korea so Beijing could deny responsibility for the exports. Since then, Iran has advanced beyond the Silkworm by acquiring the new C-802, an anti-ship missile that is more accurate and reliable than the Silkworm and can fly about 120 kilometers. During the Iran-Iraq war, Tehran fired at least 10 coastal-based Chinese missiles at Kuwait, one of which hit a U.S.-flagged oil tanker. Iran has also acquired 20 Chinese CSS-8 surface-to-surface missiles, which can carry a 190 kilogram warhead up to 150 kilometers.

In 1988, the press reported that China had signed an agreement to supply Iran with technology and equipment needed to produce Chinese “M-series” missiles, with ranges up to 900 kilometers. Hard evidence of transfers of finished missiles is lacking, and U.S. officials claim that Washington has convinced China not to export its M-9 and M-11 missiles to Iran. A U.S. official tells the Risk Report: “We have effectively got China out of the transfer of complete missile systems.”

That does not mean Iran has stopped buying missile components from China. In fact, Chinese missile-related exports to Iran seem to be increasing. In 1990, Tehran and Beijing signed a 10 year agreement for scientific cooperation and the transfer of military technology. In April 1992, it was reported that Iran was shopping for missile guidance systems.

In November 1996, the Washington Times reported that according to a secret Central Intelligence Agency report entitled “Arms Transfers to State Sponsors of Terrorism,” China had supplied Iran with technology and components for an advanced radar system. The report also said that the “China Precision Engineering Institute” agreed in August 1996 to supply gyroscopes, accelerometers and test equipment–all useful for missile guidance–to an arm of Iran’s Defense Industries Organization (DIO).

Under U.S. law, Washington can impose two-year trade sanctions against Chinese exporters if their exports make a “knowing contribution” to Iran’s development of Scud-size missiles. Asked whether Washington will penalize the Chinese sellers and the Iranian buyers, a U.S. official replied: “We have no good indication of what the Iranians are doing with Chinese materials and equipment, and what Iran chooses to do with Chinese technology is quite material.” To penalize an exporter, Washington must determine that the exporter helped build missiles that can fly at least 300 kilometers.

Lynn Davis, U.S. Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Affairs, told Congress in June 1996 that “we keep under continuing review the evidence to see whether any of these activities trigger U.S. sanctions.” She also said the State Department is “now addressing whether the transfer of Chinese built C-802 cruise missiles is sanctionable under the Iran-Iraq Arms Non-Proliferation Act of 1992.” The Act provides for the imposition of sanctions when a foreign person or country transfers goods or technology “so as to contribute knowingly and materially to the efforts by Iran or Iraq … to acquire destabilizing numbers and types of … advanced conventional weapons.” U.S. officials express doubt that Washington will penalize Beijing anytime soon for any of its missile-related sales to Iran. As one official puts it: “China is a very tough case because of its special relationship with the United States, and it seems that China is increasingly immune from sanctions.”

As Washington debates what to do about China and North Korea’s missile trade with Iran, Tehran continues its march toward its goal of mass-producing larger missiles. “The Iranians are smart and determined people,” a U.S. official warns: “At some point they will be as competent as the North Koreans, and then we will have to worry about Iranian missile sales. That’s what’s especially dastardly about these transfers–they are creating a new source of supply.”