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The Iran Primer

Michael Elleman's Blog

Part I: Are Iran’s Missiles a Threat?

Michael Elleman
Iran test-fired several ballistic missiles in March 2016 and one in October 2015. Why? What is Iran’s goal? Is there any significance to the timing?
Ballistic missiles have been a key pillar of Iran’s overall defense and deterrence strategy since its 1980-1988 war with Iraq. For Tehran, missiles provide the capacity to strike targets throughout the region, something its air forces would struggle to achieve. But while ballistic missiles serve the deterrence mission by threatening their use before or during a military conflict, they are often featured in Iran’s rhetoric when seeking to intimidate or coerce its regional rivals. As a consequence, ballistic missiles are heralded by the leadership, prominently displayed in military parades, and featured during military exercises. Test launches are often broadcast on state-owned television. 
It is therefore no surprise that Iran unveiled its newest missile, the Emad, in October 2015, and fired a few Shahab-3 missiles shortly after the Great Prophet war games in March 2016. It also showcased on state-television a network of tunnels used to protect its missile forces. The Shahab-3 missiles and the tunnels have been around for more than a decade, so Iran revealed no new capabilities in 2016. 
The Emad, tested in 2015, is a modified version of the medium-range Ghadr missile. The modification includes a new nosecone, outfitted with four-small winglets at the base of the warhead. Presumably, the winglets are designed to steer the warhead during re-entry into the atmosphere with the purpose of bettering accuracy. Mastering the technologies needed to make the Emad missile capable of delivering a warhead to a specified target with precision will take many years, possibly 10 or more. Whether Iran has ambitious plans to perfect this capability, or the emergence of a missile seemingly designed for conventional missions, not nuclear ones, is unclear, though it seems likely both objectives serve Tehran’s needs.
It is interesting to note that the Emad was the first medium-range missile Iran has publically tested since 2013. Indeed, Iran has launched, on average, between two and three medium-range missiles every year since 2006, except in 2014, when no missiles were tested. Tehran may have opted to not undertake potentially provocative action during the nuclear negotiations, which would explain the hiatus in testing. The resumption of flight tests is likely to represent a return to past practices. 
What are the capabilities and range of these missiles?
Iran maintains the largest and most wide-ranging ballistic missile arsenal in the region.  With roughly 200-300 Shahab-1 and -2 missiles (Scud-B and –C, respectively), Tehran can range targets as far as 500 km (310 miles). This places all of Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia within reach. Iran has converted some of its Shahab-2 missiles into Qiam missiles. The Qiam uses a detachable warhead, which reduces its vulnerability to the missile defenses deployed in the region.
Iran also possesses up to 100 Shahab-3 and Ghadr missiles, both of which are derived the Nodongs imported from North Korea. Dissatisfied with the performance of the Shahab-3/Nodong missiles that were limited to a range of about 1,000 km (620 miles), Iranian engineers replaced the steel airframe with a lighter-weight, aluminum-alloy structure, lengthened the propellant tanks, reduced the warhead mass and rearranged some internal components to extend the missile’s reach to 1,600 km (just under 1,000 miles). The modified version is called Ghadr.  

Shahab-3 by JamesMartinCNS on Sketchfab

The Shahab and Ghadr missiles are all liquid-fueled systems. Iran is developing a two-stage, medium-range missile based on solid propellant. The Sajjil-2 has an estimated range of 2,000 km (1,240 miles), though it has yet to reach operational status. The Sajjil-2 has not be tested since 2011, and appears to have encountered technical difficulties, though it is unclear precisely what is troubling the development efforts.
These Shahab, Qiam, Ghadr and Sajjil-2 systems lack the accuracy needed to be militarily decisive when armed with conventional warheads. They could sow terror and potentially weaken the resolve of states in the region if used against cities and critical infrastructure. These missiles could also disrupt, though not halt operations at key military facilities, such as airfields. Incorporating satellite-guidance systems (e.g. Global Positioning Satellite, or GPS, receivers) would improve accuracy, but by now more than about 25 percent, not enough to enhance the military effectiveness of the missiles.
Iran fields a family of increasingly accurate, heavy-artillery rockets with ranges of up to 250-300 km (155-190 miles). The Fateh-110, for example, flies on a trajectory that remains within the earth’s atmosphere during its entire flight. Small winglets mounted just below the warhead section can thus steer the rocket to its target with greater precision. In principle, the Fateh-110, or its variants, Khalij-Fars and Hormuz, could be accurate enough to strike point-targets reliably. However, in practice, there is little evidence that these rockets have achieved the design goal. This will likely change as Iran continues its efforts to enhance their performance and reliability. 
The Fateh-110 range capacity (roughly 210 km, or 160 miles) is not enough to reach across the Gulf, though it is capable of hitting Kuwait or the eastern emirates of the UAE. Consequently, Iran is developing a 300-km (190 mile) version, called Fateh-313. The status of this effort is not known.
The Fateh rockets, like the Shahab, Qiam and Ghadr missiles are all inherently capable of delivering a nuclear payload, if Iran were to acquire an atomic weapon. However, size and weight restrictions would make fitting a nuclear warhead onto the Fateh rockets more challenging. The international community broadly defines “nuclear capable” as any system that can deliver a 500 kg payload to 300 km, which is coincidentally the threshold limits used by the Missile Technology Control Regime, or MTCR.

What countries would be within range? Do these missile tests indicate a greater threat to these countries?
Iran’s missiles are capable of reaching targets throughout the Gulf region, all of the Levant, including Israel, Turkey and portions of the south eastern corridor of Europe. The missiles recently tested, including the Emad, do not extend Iran’s reach beyond the capabilities it possessed a decade ago. Iranian officials are on record insisting that the country has no requirement to build missiles that fly further than 2,000 km (1,240 miles). It remains to be seen if Iran will adhere to these declared limitations.
What defenses do U.S. allies and partners in the region have to counter Iran?
The United States has deployed at least six Patriot PAC-3 missile-defense batteries to the Gulf. Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have their own Patriot capabilities, while Qatar is in the process of purchasing Patriot. The UAE has procured two Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) units, with the first scheduled to be operational in late 2016.  Qatar, and possibly Saudi Arabia have discussed the purchase of THAAD as well.  The U.S. Navy has Aegis, ballistic-missile defense capable, ships patrolling in the Gulf.
Patriot systems provide defense against short- and medium-range missiles and can protect high-value assets. THAAD, and Aegis, intercept missiles above the atmosphere, and can defend large areas against short-, medium- and intermediate-range missiles.   When operated together, Patriot and THAAD provide two-layers of defense, which substantially enhances defense performance.
The United States and its Gulf partners are working together to integrate the many missile defense components deployed throughout the region. Progress has been slower than desired, though joint efforts to create a Shared Ballistic Missile Early Warning System, as outlined at the U.S.-GCC Summit at Camp David in 2015, are encouraging.
How do Iran’s offensive and defensive capabilities compare with those of its neighbors?
The United States and the Gulf states each have advanced and capable air forces with experience operating together, in both military exercises and during conflict. Iran’s antiquated air force would find it difficult to generate the number of sorties to have much of an impact on U.S. and Gulf state operations. The relative weakness of Iran’s air force severely limits its capacity to strike targets on the Arabian Peninsula, leaving Tehran dependent upon ballistic missiles for extra-territorial attacks.
Iran’s ground-based air defenses, however, are improving. The acquisition of the S-300 air-defense system from Russia will significantly improve Iran’s defensive capabilities.  

How has Iran’s missile program evolved in recent years? What is the status of Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program?
During the past decade, Iran has focused on improving the accuracy and reliability of its missiles, with little attention to increasing range. The Fateh-110 program, and the recent unveiling of the Emad missile are consistent with this focus on enhancing the military potential of its missile forces. There is no credible evidence to suggest that Iran is developing an intercontinental-ballistic missile, or ICBM. 
Iran, however, is developing a satellite-launch capability. The Simorgh rocket, which Iran reportedly tested in April 2016, has a first stage large and powerful enough to serve as a springboard for an ICBM. An ICBM based on Simorgh technology would be very large and cumbersome to deploy as a military system. If Iran were to transform its Simorgh into an ICBM, it would take a handful of years, and would not likely become operational before 2020. No country has ever converted a liquid-fuelled satellite launcher into a long-range missile, primarily because the operational requirements diverge enough to make the transformation impractical. 
Michael Elleman, a consulting senior fellow for missile defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”

Click here to read Elleman’s chapter on Iran’s ballistic missile program.  


Click here for recent remarks by U.S. and Iranian officials on the missile tests.



Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Gulf I: Iran’s Power in the Air

Michael Elleman

What are Iran’s missile assets?
            Iran has the largest and most diverse inventory of long-range artillery rockets and ballistic missiles in the Middle East. It is estimated to have between 200 and 300 Scud-B and Scud–C missiles, which Iran has renamed the Shahab-1 and Shahab-2. It also owns hundreds of Zelzal rockets and Fateh-110 semi-guided rockets (see below). 
      These systems allow Iran to threaten targets throughout the Gulf littoral, but they are not accurate enough to be decisive militarily. Iran would need at least 100 missiles armed with 500-kg conventional warheads — and potentially many more — to destroy a specific target with a moderate level of confidence.
            If fired in large numbers, Iranian missiles might be able to harass or disrupt operations at large U.S. or GCC military targets, such as airfields, naval ports or fuel depots. But such attacks are unlikely to not halt activities for a significantly long time.  
            Iran is also unlikely to be able to improve the accuracy of its short-range missiles for at least the next five to ten years.  The addition of more sophisticated inertial guidance units — or Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers — could improve accuracy by only 25 percent if properly incorporated into a Shahab or Fateh-110 missile, and then thoroughly tested.
            To further enhance its accuracy, Iran would have to develop the capacity to terminate missile thrust precisely or add correction systems for the post-boost phase.  But adding these mechanisms would also require flight testing likely to take four years or longer. 
            Iran’s longer-range missiles — the Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1 — are capable of striking targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel, as well as portions of southeastern Europe. But these missiles are highly inaccurate. And Iran’s stockpile likely totals less than 100. 
            This could change once Iran completes development of the solid-fuelled Sajjil-2 missile. Iranian engineers are widely believed to have the capacity to manufacture this system, although they still rely on foreign sources for fuel-production ingredients. Development may have stalled, however, since Iran has conducted only one flight test since 2009.
            The utility of Iran’s ballistic missiles is likely to remain weak for years, yet they could be used effectively as a psychological weapon on population centers. The most vulnerable cities are Baghdad, Kuwait City and Dubai, since they are within range of the Zelzal rockets that Iran has in large quantity. Abu Dhabi, Manama, Doha and Saudi coastal cities are far enough to require the longer-range Shahab-1 and -2 missiles, which are in shorter supply. 
What are Iran’s air force capabilities? And how do they compare to the U.S. air forces in the Gulf?
            The Islamic Republic’s air forces and ground-based air defense systems offer limited protection of Iranian air space. They are no match for the combined capacity of the United States and its six Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) allies. In a prolonged and intensive conflict involving the United States, Iran would have difficulty protecting its strategic assets, including its nuclear facilities, air bases, and command-and-control centers. 
            An integrated U.S. air defense network would probably prevent Iranian pilots from reaching many military targets within GCC territory, although limited air raids might have some success in the opening days of a conflict. (The GCC includes six sheikhdoms — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman — that make up most of the Arabian Peninsula.)
            Most of Iran’s aircraft were purchased before the 1979 Islamic Revolution and are widely considered obsolete. Even Iran’s Russian-made MiG-29 and Su-24 fighter-jets, acquired more recently, lack the modern avionics and air-to-air missiles needed to compete with the U.S. and GCC air forces.
      In January, Iran unveiled a new stealth fighter-jet (see left). But the presented craft is clearly a model, or mock-up. It is quite small as well, judging from the size of the pilot seated at the controls. The Qaher F-313 appears to be an aspirational system, which is many years from reality. But it does indicate Iran’s ambitions.
      Iran also lacks sophisticated airborne command-and-warning assets, as well as the secure communications network needed to relay vital threat and targeting information. These deficiencies place Iranian pilots at a severe disadvantage when engaging hostile air forces armed with a complete picture of the airspace. 
            Perhaps Iran’s most significant shortcoming is its limited capacity to maintain airplanes and generate anything beyond one sortie per day for each fighter jet. Iran has a very limited ability to surge its air forces. It would probably be quickly overwhelmed by a combined attack by U.S. and GCC forces.
            Despite these and other shortcomings, Iran’s air forces and air defenses can still inflict loses on allied air forces, albeit at a minimal rate. Tehran also claims to have mated C-701 and C-801 anti-ship cruise missiles to its F-4 aircraft. If true, these stand-off weapons would allow Iran to attack U.S. warships and commercial vessels in the Gulf with some success. 
            If Iran modified anti-ship missiles for land attacks, it could target key infrastructure assets located along the Gulf littoral, although the small warheads carried by these missiles would limit the damage.
What are the defense options against Iran’s missiles?
            Theater missile defenses flooding into the region could blunt the political and psychological effect of Iran’s offensive-missile threat. The United States already deploys Patriot, SM-3 and other missile interceptors in the region. Kuwait and Saudi Arabia have older-generation Patriot batteries. Both countries are in the process of upgrading their defenses with more capable systems. The United Arab Emirates leads in acquisition of missile and air defense; it is currently procuring a sophisticated suite of systems, including advanced Patriot and THAAD batteries.
            No defensive system is leak-proof. But the anti-missile capabilities acquired by the United States and its GCC allies have proven their efficacy during development and testing. They should help minimize public fear. 
            Iran might try to overwhelm these defenses by firing missiles in large salvos, as it does during annual military exercises. This tactic might allow a few warheads to reach their destinations, but interceptor missiles would probably protect the most critical targets. An integrated missile defense architecture, if implemented across the GCC in a coherent way, would further reduce vulnerability to salvo tactics.   
Iran has claimed it can arm drones with missiles. Is this a significant advancement?
            Iran is developing a wide-range of unmanned aerial vehicles. Most of the systems seen so far are slow, have limited maneuverability, and carry small payloads, so are used primarily as reconnaissance and intelligence-gathering platforms. 
            One notable exception is the Karrar, also known as the “ambassador of death.” The Karrar is based on target-drone technology, which was originally used for training air-defense crews. Nonetheless, it carries 500-kg gravity bombs and presents yet another means of delivery that American and GCC forces must track and, if necessary, defeat. 
            The larger concern, however, is Iran’s large arsenal of anti-ship cruise missiles acquired from China. These weapons pose a significant threat to Gulf shipping as well as navies operating near the Strait of Hormuz. Iranian use of anti-ship missiles would significantly escalate any conflict, so Tehran would probably use them only if the regime felt threatened. But their mere existence — and the threat they pose — offers Tehran an effective component for deterring attack by others.

Read Michael Elleman's chapter on Iran's missile program in "The Iran Primer"

Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”

Photo Credits: Fateh-110 missiles by M-ATF, from military.ir and iranmilitaryforum.net [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons and Qaher F-313 via President.ir

Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


Can Iran Replicate U.S. Drones?

Ted Wynne
Iran claims it is reproducing U.S. stealth technology less than five months after capturing an RQ-170 Sentinel drone, the most advanced unmanned surveillance aircraft.  On April 22, Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh told Iranian state television, “Our experts are fully dominant over sections and programs of this plane." 
Hajizadeh also offered details of the drone’s past activities “to let the Americans know how deep we could penetrate into [the technology of] this drone," Iran’s Fars news agency reported. He even claimed the decoded data proved that this particular drone had been used to help track movements inside Osama bin Laden’s secret compound in Pakistan. “Had we not accessed the plane’s softwares and hard disks, we wouldn’t have been able to achieve these facts,” said Hajizadeh, who is commander of the Revolutionary GuardsAir Force.
The RQ-170 is an unmanned aircraft with a 65-foot wingspan, stealth technology and a single jet engine.  Iran captured the drone on Dec. 2, 2011, although the United States has never confirmed whether the unmanned aircraft malfunctioned or Iran penetrated its technology and brought it down. U.S. officials did confirm that the drone operated out of neighboring Afghanistan, but did not comment publicly on widespread speculation that it was used to spy on Iran’s controversial nuclear program.
Two U.S. defense experts—Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies based in Bahrain and John Pike of globalsecurity.org based in Washington DC—assessed different aspects of Iran’s claims.
Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies
How difficult would it be for Iran to replicate the RQ-170 drone?
It would be taking a piece of cake and replicating the recipe or being able to determine what the recipe was.
What are the most sensitive technologies?
There are several elements to a stealth drone or aircraft. One issue is the geometry or shape of the object—trying to create an object that has no reflecting surfaces. The Iranians could copy the geometry or shape of the object.
The other issue is the material that coats the stealth aircraft or drone. Those materials are very complex electromagnetic properties. When they receive electromagnetic energy from radar, they absorb the energy received instead of reflecting it. Because of that, the materials that they use to coat it are very unique. They try to reduce the signature to nothing.
The Iranians may be able to tell what the constituent ingredients or ferro-magnetic materials are. But they won’t be able to determine the process by which they were made, which is as important as the materials themselves.  It has to with the way everything is aligned structurally.
What aspects concern the United States the most?
The military and the intelligence agencies would be concerned that the Iranians can start testing the materials to see how they reflect radar energies.  They can do experiments on the drone and may be able to update their radars to better detect future stealth drones. It gives them a leg up to better understand what they’re up against.
The other issue of concern is that the Iranians get to see what the sensors are – the cameras, the data links, how they communicate back to a satellite, whether the sensors are regular cameras or infrared. The sensors may have a sampling capability; they could sample the air to test what the Iranians are doing.
The Iranians now might have an ability to better screen or camouflage whatever facilities they are trying to hide. That’s the intelligence loss. Now they have a better idea of what we’re looking for and how we’re looking.
John Pike of Globalsecurity.org  
Iran claims to have replicated the technology from the RQ-170 Sentinel Drone.  How credible is this given the short 4-month timeframe from when Iran came to possess it?
The Iranians are notorious braggarts.  It is plausible that they could have replicated the general structure of the airframe [or structure].  It is much less plausible that they could have gotten much beyond that.
The drone’s primary mission is to conduct surveillance.  How will its loss impact the U.S. ability to monitor Iran’s nuclear program?
 It will have no impact, since the program of which it was a part surely continues.
 How long would it take Iran realistically to reproduce a drone?
To reproduce the airframe would only take months.  To replicate the whole thing [stealth, sensors, computers, etc], they would probably still be working on it when the Hidden Imam returns from Occultation.
 What new military capabilities does this drone provide to Iran?
Without a better understanding of the range and endurance of the RQ-170, it would be hard to say. But it was built to support a US persistent surveillance requirement that has no immediate Iranian counterpart. The RQ-170 develops target signature intelligence to support counter-personnel attacks, to include attacks from other UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicle]. The United States conducts such operations. Iran does not.
  How does this event affect Iranian capability to impact U.S. interests?
It doesn't.
Russia and China have both expressed interest in the drone’s technology.  What is the likelihood they may have assisted Iran in its technological exploitation? 
One assumes that both countries wanted to get a look-see, and that Iran obliged once the price was right.  I don't think this will change the larger scheme of things.
Ted Wynne works for the Center for Conflict Management at the U. S. Institute of Peace.
Tags: Drones

Mysterious Explosion at Iran Missile Base

Michael Elleman
For the outside world, one of the biggest mysteries about Iran is what really happened on Nov. 12, when a massive explosion went off at a sprawling military base just 25 miles from Tehran. The truth could provide pivotal information about the status of Iran’s missile program—a key to its overall military capability as well as a potential part of a nuclear delivery system.

  • What really happened?

The explosion destroyed about a dozen buildings and killed a senior Revolutionary Guard commander and up to two dozen colleagues reportedly involved in Iran’s solid-fuelled ballistic missile program. The death of Gen. Hassan Moghaddam and key aides will almost certainly impair Iran’s missile program and delay development of the Sajjil-2, which will have a range of 2,000 kilometers. The damage, tracked by satellite images 10 days later, affected a small compound in the northwest corner of a large military base.
The cause of the explosion cannot be determined by the limited evidence now available. Revolutionary Guard spokesman General Ramazan Sharif claimed the explosion happened while military personnel were transporting munitions at the base. But this version seems unlikely since the facility lacks storage bunkers and does not appear to be designed to receive or house munitions. Moreover, routine handling or movement of explosive materials in the presence of high-ranking officials would be highly unusual.
Other reports suggest that the incident happened while engineers were experimenting with a rocket motor. This explanation is reasonable. The military base has many facilities suitable for missile testing, and Moghaddam, a leading missile expert, would logically oversee activities critical to missile development. Unlike most sites on the base, however, the destroyed facility was not designed to support hazardous operations, including experiments on fully fuelled rocket motors. The site, for example, did not have earthen berms around the lightly-reinforced aluminium buildings to protect nearby personnel and structures from the effects of an accidental explosion. Nor did it have lightening protection, a ubiquitous feature at facilities dedicated to handling volatile materials, explosives and propellants. And, oddly, the site included a soccer field; one would not expect to find a recreation area near a dangerous facility.
Engineers may have opted to conduct hazardous operations at the questionable site, but other evidence makes Iran’s explanation doubtful. For example, destruction at the site, as revealed by the satellite images, is consistent with a detonation, which unlike an explosion, would generate a shock wave. Iran’s missiles are powered by propellants classified as “non-detonable.” They can explode, to be sure, but when doing so they do not produce a shock wave capable of inflicting the pattern of damage seen at the site.
Moreover, had a rocket motor detonated, it should have left a large crater where it once stood. Satellite images taken 10 days after the incident do not reveal any craters. And there is little evidence of extensive post-incident clean-up, so it seems unlikely that craters could have been back-filled by workers at the site.
Some evidence indicates more than one epicentre of damage, which suggests that two or more detonations destroyed the facility. If true, the Iranian explanations become even more suspect. There is no convincing evidence of sabotage or an attack against the facility, but such possibilities cannot be ruled out. Clean-up crews could have disturbed the site in the 10 days after the explosion and before satellite images were acquired, so a precise determination of what happened is impossible.

  • How might this affect Iran's ability to develop and fire ballistic missiles?

Gen. Moghaddam and others killed in the explosion are believed to have been involved in Iran’s efforts to develop and produce solid-propellant ballistic missiles, such as the Sajjil-2. The loss of technical expertise will certainly slow Iranian efforts to complete the Sajjil, which (before the explosion) needed at least two years of additional flight-testing. 
But the potential delays are likely to be measured in months, not years. Iran has institutionalized the fundamental knowledge and technical know-how needed to develop and produce missiles. The missile program minimizes reliance on key individuals, so development and production efforts will likely survive the loss of the experts. And Iran’s liquid-propellant industry, which supports deployment of the Shahab and Ghadr-1 missiles and the development of a space launcher, was unaffected by the incident.

  • How important was Gen. Moghaddam, who was killed in the explosion and honoured with a state funeral attended by the Supreme Leader?

Gen. Moghaddam built Iran’s solid-propellant industry from the ground up beginning in the mid-1980s, according to official reports and obituaries. His specific technical role is unclear, but his creativity and strategic vision may be more difficult to replace. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s attendance at his funeral indicates Moghaddam was well respected and well connected to top leaders. His programs will continue to receive strong support since ballistic missiles are a strategic priority for Iran.

  • Has Iran faced any other setbacks to its missile program in 2011?

In 2009, Iran conducted three Sajjil-2 flight-tests, a typical rate during early development of a new missile. No test launches occurred in 2010, and only one was performed this year. The absence of testing suggests that Iran has encountered problems in perfecting the missile. The precise reasons for stalled development are impossible to identify, but trade sanctions may have played a major role. According to reports by the U.N. Panel of Experts responsible for monitoring international sanctions, member states have intercepted several shipments of key missile propellant ingredients destined for Iran. Without a consistent source of basic ingredients, Iran will struggle to manufacture large solid-propellant rocket motors. And tests of missiles will not be viable without a reliable supply of high-quality rocket motors.

Read Michael Elleman's chapter on Iran's missile program in "The Iran Primer"

Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”

Iran's New Satellite Capability

Michael Elleman

         As part of an ambitious plan to expand its space program, Iran claims to have launched its own satellite into orbit on June 15. It is the second satellite the Islamic republic has put into space.
         The new 15.3kg satellite, dubbed the Rasad-1 (Observation-1), is designed to take pictures of the earth's surface, monitor damage from earthquakes, floods and other national disasters. The new satellite, assembled by Malik-Ashtar University, will have limited military value because its camera cannot identify objects smaller than 150 meters across. The earth observation satellite was launched using the two-stage Safir-1B (Ambassador-1B) carrier rocket.
  • Does yesterday's launch represent a new capability for Iran?
No, this was Tehran's third space launch. The first attempt in 2008 failed. Six months later, in February 2009, the Omid (Messenger) experimental satellite was launched atop a two-stage Safir rocket. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad originally announced plans for the third launch in March, but it was delayed. No explanation for the three-month delay was provided.
The Safir-1B is not a new system, but its second successful mission in only three tries, suggests that engineers at the Iranian Aerospace Organization (IAO) are accumulating significant technical wherewithal that will certainly aid future space launcher and ballistic missile developments.
The Safir and Safir-1B appear to be the same vehicle, although it is reasonable to conclude that some modifications were incorporated to enhance reliability and performance. The launcher's first-stage is a stretched version of Iran's Ghadr-1 ballistic missile, minus the warhead section. The added length, about 3.5 meters, allows the first-stage to carry and extra 5,000 kilograms of propellant. The second-stage is powered by a pair of low-thrust engines very similar to those used by either the Soviet R-27, submarine-launched missile, or the ROTA, a land-based missile developed by Russia's Makeyev Design Bureau in mid-1960s. The ROTA missile was never fielded.
  • Is a space launch in violation of U.N. Resolution 1929?
Paragraph 9 of Resolution 1929 stipulates "that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology..." The wording suggests that space launchers that employ key components found in Iran's ballistic missiles are proscribed. Because the Safir-1B uses the same engine as the Ghadr-1 medium-range ballistic missile, Iran is likely to be in violation of the U.N. resolution.
But this may be a moot point, as Iran has conducted flight-tests of the Ghadr-1, the two-stage solid-propellant Sajjil-2, and the short-range Qiam, a modified Scud-B missile, since the passage of Resolution 1929.   However, in possible deference to the resolution or public opinion, Tehran did not advertise the Ghadr-1 or Sajjil-2 tests.
  • Have U.N. sanctions slowed Iran's quest for longer range ballistic missiles?
Possibly. There is no evidence to suggest that Iran's missile development efforts have been harmed or slowed by international sanctions. U.N. reports state that Iran is still able to import missile technology and components from North Korea, although the flow may have been reduced. But the interception of key solid-propellant ingredients headed to Iran, such as aluminium powder, is likely to slow the pace of the Sajjil-2 missile development effort. Longer range systems based on larger solid-propellant motors will almost certainly be affected by supplier disruptions.
  • Can the Safir-1B launcher be converted into a ballistic missile?
The Safir-1B, like the earlier Safir, is designed for space launches. Its slow, steady acceleration and light-weight construction is optimized for inserting a satellite into orbit. But like most satellite launchers, the Safir systems could in theory be converted for use as a ballistic missile. Significant modifications and a flight-test program to validate reliability and performance would be required, however.
For example, the Safir is designed to carry a very small payload, many times lighter than any useful warhead, whether nuclear or conventional. The low-thrust engines of the Safir's second-stage would have to be replaced with more powerful ones. Structural reinforcements to accommodate a heavier payload would also be required; the added weight of the heavier payload and the reinforcements would rob the hypothetical missile of range.

These modifications are certainly within Iran's capabilities. The resulting ballistic missile would have a range of roughly 2100km when armed with a 750kg warhead. But such a capability would not enhance Iran's strategic reach, since the solid-propellant Sajjil-2 missile has an equivalent performance envelope, and is already under development and flight-testing. Moreover, the Sajjil-2 is designed specifically as a military missile. The Sajjil would be a superior choice on almost all accounts. It would therefore be surprising to see Iran convert the Safir launcher for use as a ballistic missile

Read Michael Elleman's chapter on Iran's missile program in "The Iran Primer"

Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and a former U.N. weapons inspector, is co-author of “Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.”
Online news media are welcome to republish original blog postings from this website (www.iranprimer.com) in full, with a citation and link back to The Iran Primer website (www.iranprimer.com) as the original source. Any edits must be authorized by the author. Permission to reprint excerpts from The Iran Primer book should be directed to permissions@usip.org


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