Iran Missile Update – 1999

In July 1998, Iran took a giant step forward in its missile program by flight-testing the Shahab-3, an 800-mile nuclear-capable missile that will be able to reach Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. Iran is also developing a 1240-mile missile called Shahab-4, and within five years, according to a recent U.S. Congressional study, Iran might develop an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with outside help.

The Iranian missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive assistance from North Korea, Russia and China.

Iranian missile program

U.S. intelligence had been watching the progress of the Shahab-3 for some time before the launch. In December 1997, U.S. reconnaissance satellites observed a ground test of the Shahab’s rocket engine. The test occurred at Iran’s Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG) and was the sixth or eighth of the year, according to intelligence estimates.

On July 22, 1998, Iran conducted Shahab-3’s first test-flight. U.S. intelligence observed what appeared to be an extended-range version of the 1000 km-range North Korean Nodong missile. The Shahab-3 is reportedly not simply a Nodong with new paint, however, but an Iranian-developed missile based on Nodong technology imported from North Korea. The Shahab-3 is liquid-fueled, carried on a road-mobile launcher, and could be deployed within one to two years, depending on the level of outside assistance.

The missile exploded in the later stages of its test-flight, leading to the question whether the launch was a complete success. Martin Indyk, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, was quoted as saying, “We can’t declare it a failure because they got the missile up and it traveled a very considerable distance, for the requisite amount of time, [then] something went wrong.” It is possible that the Iranians blew up the missile on purpose after having deemed the test flight successful.

Although Iran is not yet capable of building nuclear warheads, the Shahab test appears to show that Iran is bent on acquiring them. Countries do not build an 800-mile missile simply to deliver conventional explosives. In addition, the missile could be used to carry chemical or biological weapons, another likely alternative due to its limited accuracy.

Judging from the current level of its missile programs, Iran will probably be capable of developing longer-range, more advanced missiles within two to five years. The Shahab-4 currently under development is a liquid-fueled missile which matches the Soviet SS-4 missile in range and may be derived from it. Iran reportedly acquired designs for the engines that powered the SS-4, plus some guidance components, sales that were protested by U.S. Vice President Al Gore. According to a press report, Pentagon officials expect the Shahab-4 to have a range of up to 1240 miles (the same range as the SS-4) and the ability to carry a 2200 pound warhead.

The Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, chaired by the Hon. Donald Rumsfeld, (Rumsfeld Commission) judges Iran also to be capable of “demonstrating” an ICBM-range missile, based on scaled-up Scud technology, within five years. In addition, Iran “has acquired and is seeking” advanced missile components that could be combined to produce ballistic missiles with a range sufficient to reach the United States.

Iran also has an indigenous infrastructure for building solid-fueled rockets and is seeking long-range missile technology imported from foreign sources.

Foreign partners

North Korea has been central to the development of the most recent Iranian ballistic missiles. In May 1996, the U.S. State Department imposed sanctions against entities in both North Korea and Iran for missile proliferation. The Changgwang Sinyong Corporation in North Korea and the Ministry of Defense Armed Forces Logistics in Iran were both cited. However, the sanctions did not prevent North Korea from declaring its intention to keep selling missiles and technology for hard currency.

Russia has also been an important contributor. In July 1998, the State Department imposed sanctions on seven Russian entities for “proliferation activities related to Iran’s missile programs.” The Russian entities sanctioned were the INOR Scientific Center, Grafit Research Insititute, Polyus Scientific Production Association, Glavkosmos, MOSO Company, Baltic State Technical University, and Europalace 2000. Two additional Russian entities – Tikhomirov Institute and the Komintern plant in Novosibirsk – were under investigation by the Russian Commission on Export Control at the time the sanctions were imposed, but were not named by the United States as sanctioned entities.

Reportedly, INOR contracted in September 1997 to supply special alloys for Iran’s long-range missile program, including steel for missile casings and alloy foil to shield missile guidance components. In addition, Russia’s arms exporting agency, Rosvoorouzhenie, and Russia’s space agency head, Yuri Koptev, have allegedly been directly involved in Iran’s Shahab program. Rosvoorouzhenie is also reportedly helping to construct a wind tunnel, which can be used for the testing and design of missile components. Russian assistance to Iran’s SHIG is said to include development of solid rocket fuel technology and the design of guidance and propulsion systems. Europalas 2000 reportedly was caught shipping Iran 22 tons of stainless steel that could have been used to make fuel tanks for Scuds, while Polyus is suspected of supplying navigation and guidance technology. Grafit is said to make material used to coat missile warheads, and U.S. officials reportedly suspect Iranians are being trained in missile guidance and propulsion at Baltic State Technical University and through a joint missile education center called Persepolis. These suspicions culminated in the Russian investigations and the U.S. sanctions.

The July sanctions were imposed only under pressure from Congress. The preceding month, President Clinton had vetoed overwhelming House and Senate votes in favor of a bill sanctioning the Russian companies. When Congress threatened to override the veto, the President imposed the sanctions.

Iran’s third source of missile technology has been China. According to the Rumsfeld Commission, China “has carried out extensive transfers to Iran’s solid-fueled ballistic missile program.” One press report has linked China Great Wall Industries to the supply of missile testing technology, and another has linked China Great Wall to an agreement to supply Iran telemetry equipment. The press has also reported an agreement by China Precision Engineering Institute to supply gyroscopes, accelerometers, and test equipment, and has reported joint work by China and Iran on short-range ballistic missiles.

As Iran’s missile capability increases, Iran will probably begin to export missile technology to states such as Syria or Libya, becoming a missile seller as well as a buyer.