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.”