Could Iran deliver a bomb? Four basics about Iran’s ballistic missiles

Michael Elleman

     International concern—and diplomacy—over Iran’s nuclear program have focused largely on Tehran's growing abilities to enrich uranium, a process essential for both peaceful nuclear energy and to make a bomb. But a second key issue is the Islamic Republic's ability to actually deliver the world’s deadliest weapon if it decides to make a bomb. Here are four essentials to know about Iran’s ballistic missile program.
  • Is Iran capable of striking the United States with a ballistic missile?

No.  Iran has focused its attention on developing short- and medium-range missiles capable of reaching targets throughout the Persian Gulf and Israel, which is about 600 miles (1,000 km) away.  The Ghadr-1 -- a modified version of the No-dong missile Iran purchased from North Korea -- is Iran’s longest-range, operational missile.  It can deliver a warhead to roughly 1,000 miles (1600 km).  The Sajjil-2 is expected to fly about 1,200-1,400 miles (2,000-2,300 km).  However, the Sajjil will not be ready for military use until it completes several more years of testing.

There is no evidence to suggest that Iran is actively developing an ocean-spanning, intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching America’s east coast, more than  5,400 miles (9,000 km) away.  If Iran decides to develop the capacity to threaten the United States, a decade or more of technology development and testing will be needed to create a combat ready ICBM. 
  • But didn’t an unclassified Defense Department report say that Iran could have an ICBM by 2015?

The April 2010 Department of Defense report to Congress said, “With sufficient foreign assistance, Iran could probably develop and test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”  The key words are “develop and test.”  The report does not say Iran will have an operational ICBM by 2015. Iran could conduct a preliminary, proof-of-concept test of a missile capable of reaching the United States in 2015. 

The technology demonstrator would likely be relatively unsophisticated, cumbersome and unreliable.  And if Iran wanted to transform the missile into a military asset, it would have to be submitted to a lengthy testing program to verify its reliability and operational readiness. 

Flight-test programs in other countries rarely take fewer than three years, most take longer.  Iran is no different. Recent testing programs for the Shahab-3 and Ghadr-1 lasted five years each, and they were much simpler systems.  Consequently, Iran is unlikely to field an operational ICBM before 2020. 
  • Is Iran’s space program a cover for the development of long-range ballistic missiles?

Iran has an ambitious space program, to be sure, and is making steady progress toward its officially stated goal of launching a man into space within a decade.  In early 2008, Iran placed a small satellite into earth orbit using the domestically developed, two-stage Safir spacelauncher.  Last year, with great fanfare, Tehran unveiled a much larger satellite carrier rocket, the Simorgh, whose maiden voyage of is scheduled for February or March 2011. Still larger launchers are almost certainly on the drawing boards of Iran’s space agency. 

The technologies used to launch satellites can also be used to develop ballistic missiles, so there is good reason to be concerned about Iran’s space activities.  The Simorgh, for example, could in theory be converted into an intermediate-range missile capable of reaching most of Europe from Iranian territory. 

Space launcher and ballistic missiles are founded on similar technologies, but there are many fundamental differences between the two systems.  For starters, space launchers are normally prepared for flight over a period of many weeks, components and sub-systems can be checked and verified before launch, and the mission commander can wait for ideal weather before initiating the countdown.  And if during the countdown an anomaly is encountered, the launch can be delayed, the problem fixed and the process restarted.  Think of how many times a Space Shuttle launches been delayed for one reason or another. 
Ballistic missiles, on the other hand, must perform reliably under a variety of operational conditions, and with little advanced notification, like any other military system.   These operational requirements must be validated through an extensive test program before a missile can be declared combat ready.  And while some of the validation can be achieved within a civilian space program, not all of them can be addressed adequately when operating the system as a launcher.  All told, once the Simorgh is proven as a satellite carrier, another two to five years of testing in the ballistic missile mode would be required.

Nonetheless, Iran’s space activities must be closely monitored to avoid future surprises.
  • Could Iran use its short- and medium-range missiles to threaten Israel, the Gulf countries, and U.S. forces in the Middle East?

Iran presently fields the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.  Tehran has more than 200 Scud missiles, dubbed Shahab-1 and -2, that it could use to threaten targets throughout the Persian Gulf.  Iran also has roughly one or two dozen Ghadr-1 missiles that it could use to strike Israel.  Iranian officials claim their missiles are for defensive purposes only, and are designed to deter attacks against Iran.  There is a grain of truth in these statements, because the military utility of Iran’s missiles is severely limited by their very poor accuracy. To destroy with confidence a single military target, for example, Iran would have to unleash its entire arsenal against that one target.  Against airfields or seaports, Iran could conduct harassment attacks aimed at disrupting operations or causing damage to fuel-storage depots, but the missiles would be incapable of shutting down critical military activities.  Global Positioning Satellite – GPS - devices will not appreciably improve the accuracy of Iran’s missiles.

Iran’s missiles could be used as a political weapon to wage a terror campaign against cities in the Gulf and Israel.  The expected number of casualties would be low, about two deaths per missile, based on Germany’s use of the V-2 during World War II, and Iraq’s use of Scud missiles during Desert Storm.  Simple civil defense measures, such as early warning sirens, could reduce the casualty rate by about one half.  Missile defenses would further limit injury and death. 

If Iran builds nuclear weapons, the most likely delivery platform is the Ghadr-1, and the Sajjil-2, once it is fully developed.  Armed with nuclear warheads, these missiles pose a very real, very serious threat to Israel, the Gulf and U.S. forces in the region.  But it is the nuclear weapon, not the missile that creates the threat.

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.”