war on the rocks

No, Iran Does Not Have an ICBM Program

Let’s be realistic: Iran will not surrender its ballistic missile program. Rockets play too central a role in Iran’s defense and deterrence posture, especially given its antiquated and inferior air force. The need for missiles is also deeply embedded in the national psyche, from the days in the mid-1980s when acquiring and firing back Scud missiles was the only way to retaliate against Iraqi missile strikes on Iranian cities.

It should be possible, however, for the United States and its allies to limit Iran’s missile program. This includes preventing it from obtaining intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and intermediate-range systems (between 3,000 and 5,500 kilometers in range). Such a prohibition is realistic, because Iran today does not have any such programs and while countries are typically loath to give up existing capabilities they are often willing to accept limits on what they do not have. The facts are clear: None of the missiles Iran has under development come close to being able to hit the United States. Nor can they reach much of Europe beyond its southeastern corner.

Iran does have a space program, which, as noted by the U.S. Air and Space Intelligence Center, potentially “could serve as a test bed for developing ICBM capabilities.” The program also provides engineers with critical experience developing powerful booster rockets and other skills that could be used in developing longer-range missiles. But the presumptive link is tenuous. Iran’s satellite launchers are not ICBMs in disguise.

Iran’s two space-launch rockets, the Safir and Simorgh, are optimized for launching satellites, and are not well suited to perform as a ballistic missile, for which they have never been tested. The second-stage propulsion systems for both rockets rely on low-thrust, long-action time engines, which are ideal for accelerating a satellite on a path parallel to the earth’s surface and into a sustainable orbit. But such engines are poorly suited for ballistic missile trajectories, which reach higher altitudes. Plus, the large and cumbersome Simorgh, which is prepared for launch over an extended time on a fixed launching pad, would be vulnerable to pre-launch attack.

This is one reason no country has converted a satellite launcher into a long-range ballistic missile. SLV programs may assist ICBM development, but historically they have never proven to be decisive in their contribution. There are other reasons satellite launchers are not used for warhead delivery, including very different operational criteria and the requirement that a missile’s payload must survive the stresses experienced during atmospheric re-entry.

North Korea is a case in point. There has long been concern that Pyongyang was developing space launch vehicles as a ruse for ballistic missiles. So far, however, its Unha rocket has only been used to try to orbit satellites, not to test warhead delivery. Instead, North Korea ended up designing, developing, and testing three long-range missiles, the Hwasong-12, -14, and -15, that rely on different technologies and hardware. U.S. insistence over the years that North Korea not test space-launch vehicles did nothing to stop North Korea from developing road-mobile ICBMs.

Concerns that Iran worked with North Korea on engines for those ICBMs is mostly speculative, as one of us explained elsewhere, based largely on apparent similarities of some ballistic missiles and satellite launchers appearing in both countries. The designs of their respective long-range systems are significantly different. We take seriously the 2016 Treasury Department notice that two Iranian missile-related officials travelled to North Korea and were “critical to the development” of an “80-ton rocket booster” being developed there. The Treasury Department’s use of the word “booster” suggests that this was the mass of the missile in question and not the thrust of the engine.

If so, 80 tons is close to the 72- to 75-metric ton mass of the first stages used on Iran’s Simorgh and North Korea’s Unha launch vehicles. One cannot dismiss the possibility that the Treasury designation refers to the RD-250-based engine North Korea has incorporated into the Hwasong-15, which generates about 80-tons force at sea level. If Iran has access to the RD-250, or similar technology and hardware, its use on a satellite launcher must be proscribed. The United States and other parties to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) should work with Iran to set restrictions on space-related activities, and demand program transparency to verify compliance.

There are indications that the basic design of the second stage of Iran’s Safir, and possibly the third stage of North Korea’s Unha launcher, is the same as the second stage of the Hwasong-14. It remains unclear, however, if North Korea intends to proceed with deploying that ICBM system. The November 28, 2017 launch of the more capable Hwasong-15 ICBM, which appears to rely on a different propulsion system for its second stage, suggests North Korea is likely to forgo the minimally capable Hwasong-14 ICBM.

Restricting Iran’s missile program is among the ways in which President Donald Trump has insisted the 2015 nuclear agreement be “fixed” before he is faced with the next deadline in May about continuing to waive sanctions as required by the deal. While that seems a hard sell as America, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom continue working group consultations to address U.S. concerns about the JCPOA, Iran’s missile program could actually be the least knotty of the issues on the table. Further, officials in Tehran have repeatedly stated Iran does not need missiles that exceed a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,203 miles).

Rolling back Iran’s most dangerous missiles will require concerted attention. The United States and its European allies should correctly define the problem and focus on seeking restrictions on the missiles that could be most easily used to deliver nuclear weapons (if Iran were to completely abandon the JCPOA and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty). In prioritizing the most dangerous systems, they should discuss how to ban Iranian testing of missiles that, according to documents provided to the International Atomic Energy Agency, originally were designed to accommodate an apparent nuclear payload, like the 1000-mile range Ghadr. Having such a missile capability would serve well Iran’s nuclear hedging strategy. These systems should be targeted for an extended ban by the UN and for related sanctions on individuals and entities associated with the system.

Meanwhile, shorter-range Iranian missiles systems that are not nuclear-capable should not be allowed to be transferred to Hezbollah and other outside groups­, but need not be banned in Iran’s hands. The Fateh-110 family of missiles, for example, clearly are not intended for nuclear use.

Nor are the Scuds that Iran imported and renamed the Shahab-1 and -2. These were Soviet export models specifically designed to carry not nuclear but conventional warheads. They may be inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons because they exceed the 300-kilometer/500-kilogram (186 miles/1102 pounds) range/payload threshold set by the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime. But theoretically, almost any airframe that can carry and drop a large object is inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons.

A realistic solution involves differentiating among Iranian missile systems. Not all of them are inexplicably linked to nuclear weapons development. Those that obviously are should be curtailed. It may be necessary to allow limited and transparent space launch development. Meanwhile, Iran’s neighbors will have to live with its shorter-range systems, for which integrated missile defenses present the best counter-measure. It’s not a perfect solution, but it’s a realistic way to deal with the real issue.


Michael Elleman is Senior Fellow for Ballistic Missile Defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). Mark Fitzpatrick heads the IISS Non-Proliferation Program and its Washington office. They are the authors of a new IISS report assessing the nuclear capability of Iran’s missile systems.

Image: Tasnim News Agency