A History of Iran's Ballistic Missile Program

May 1, 2012

Publication Type: 

  • Weapon Program Background Report

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile

Iran's ballistic arsenal is one of the largest in the Middle East, and, according to the Director of National Intelligence, many of Iran's missiles are "inherently capable of carrying a nuclear payload." Iran has made important technical strides in recent years with regard to missile development: it has successfully placed three satellites into low earth orbit using its own two-stage launch vehicle; it has built and successfully tested multi-stage missiles; it has improved missile guidance; and it has improved and diversified the fuel used to propel its missiles. These developments allow Iran to extend the range of its missiles and to deploy and fire them more quickly. Iran has also worked to ensure survivability of its missiles: they can be mounted on mobile launchers and deployed to newly built silos.

Iran's arsenal of liquid- and solid-fueled ballistic missiles has grown steadily. The Shahab-3 ballistic missile has been deployed for several years. Iran is believed to have fielded several hundred, which have a range of about 1,300 km, and to developed variants of the Shahab-3 with an extended range. Iran has also displayed and successfully tested the solid-fueled Sejil, a two-stage ballistic missile with an estimated range of over 2,000 km. These missiles could be adapted to carry a nuclear warhead.

Iran's rapid growth in missile prowess has led to increased concern about the country's intentions. According to Israeli engineer Uzi Rubin, (see interview with Iran Watch) Iran could be building a fleet of long-range missiles that, armed with conventional warheads, might serve a "saturation" strategy. A salvo of such conventionally-armed missiles against an Israeli city, for example, could substitute for Iran's skeletal air force. Given that many of Iran's ballistic missiles are inherently capable of carrying nuclear payloads, Iran may also be developing a long-range nuclear weapon delivery system. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is investigating evidence that Iran may have worked on re-designing a missile re-entry vehicle for its Shahab-3 missile to accommodate a nuclear warhead.

This essay traces the history of Iran's missile effort, explains where Iran managed to find foreign help, and reviews efforts to hinder Iran's missile progress.

Early Missile Ambitions

Iran's determination to acquire and produce ballistic missiles grew out of its war with Iraq in the 1980s. Tehran found itself ill-prepared to retaliate against Iraq's missile attacks on Iranian cities. Tehran decided that, for its own protection, it had to achieve self-reliance in missile production.

Scud B and Scud C

Iran's first efforts to achieve this aim focused on the import and production of short-range Scud-type missiles. In 1985, the then-head of Iran's Parliament, Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, led a high-level delegation to Libya, Syria, North Korea, and China. As a result of the trip, Iran obtained Scud missiles from Libya and North Korea, and later acquired rocket components and know-how from both North Korea and China.

Iran's first batch of Scuds (known as Scud Bs) arrived from Libya in 1985. These single-stage, nuclear-capable, Soviet-origin missiles use liquid fuel and can fly about 280-300 km when carrying a 770-1,000 kg warhead. Before long, Iran had depleted its small supply. It then turned to North Korea in hope of finding a new supplier. Tehran offered to help finance Pyongyang's missile program in exchange for technology transfer and an option to buy North Korean missiles as soon as they came off the production line.

The first batch of North Korean Scud Bs was delivered in July 1987, and it was reported that the delivery took place even before the missiles were available to North Korea's own army. Over the next seven months, Iran imported 90-100 missiles, most of which were promptly used in combat. According to the U.S. Defense Department, Iran fired nearly 100 Scuds at Iraq between 1985 and 1988.

After the war ended, Tehran continued its missile efforts. By late 1990, Tehran had negotiated to buy North Korea's newest missile offering, the Scud C. U.S. intelligence began to detect shipments of North Korean Scud C missiles moving to Iran in 1991. The liquid-fuel Scud C is longer and wider than the Scud B, which suggests that the fuel tanks were expanded to hold more propellant. It has an estimated range of more than 500 km when carrying a 700 kg warhead. According to press reports, Iran ordered some 200 Scud Bs and Scud Cs from North Korea in 1991. Iran also succeeded in test-firing what U.S. intelligence identified as a Scud C in 1991.

In early 1993, an additional North Korean shipment of Scud Cs, along with several launching pads, was reported by the Israeli media. According to U.S. intelligence, Pyongyang also supplied Scud production technology. "Iran's relationship with North Korea follows the usual pattern," said a U.S. State Department official at the time, "you first buy entire missiles and the kits to assemble missiles, and then you learn to make them on your own - designs and blueprints come with the package." According to the official, North Korean specialists worked on the ground in Iran to help Iranian scientists master the basic steps of Scud production. In 1993, Iranian Minister of Defense Akbar Torkan announced that "our technological capability is such that if we require similar missiles [to the Scud-B] then we can manufacture them ourselves."

According to The Middle East Military Balance, an annual survey of military might published by Israel's Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, Iran was already thought to have acquired or built some 300 Scud B missiles and 100 Scud Cs by 1994. The Central Intelligence Agency, in a report on missile proliferation in 2003, estimated that Iran possessed "a few hundred" short-range ballistic missiles at that time. According to a threat assessment in 2012 by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Iran's inventory of ballistic missiles has grown to be among the largest in the Middle East.

Liquid Fuel Technology

Shahab-3

In July 1998, Iran first tested its imported version of North Korea's medium-range No-Dong missile. This single-stage, liquid-fueled, road mobile, nuclear-capable ballistic missile became known as the Shahab-3 in Iran. According to Iranian officials and U.S. and Russian technical experts, the original Shahab-3 could carry a 1,000 kg payload 1,300 km. Iran subjected the missile to at least seven test flights, with mixed results, between July 1998 and July 2003, when Iran declared the missile operational and delivered it to the armed forces. After these initial steps, Iran has continued to test variants of the missile. According to Uzi Rubin, Iran tested a longer-range version of the missile, in 2004, with a much revised baby bottle-shaped reentry vehicle. Variants of the Shahab-3, including the Ghadr (Qadr), have been tested several times since then. Iran claims that these variants have a greater range (up to 2,000 km) and throw weight (750 - 1,000 kg), as well as improved accuracy.

The Shahab-3, like the North Korean No-Dong missile from which it is derived, is a scaled-up version of the Scud B and Scud C missiles, and shares the Scud's weaknesses. The Scud B is only accurate to within about a kilometer of its target at a range of 300 km. Because accuracy diminishes with range for a given guidance system, the accuracy of the Shahab-3 at a range of 1,300 km has been estimated at no better than three kilometers of its target, making it of little use as a battlefield weapon. With such low accuracy, it could not be counted on to hit troops or even an airfield. Iran is believed to have fielded several hundred 1,300 km Shahab-3 missiles. However, according to a 2009 assessment by the U.S. Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Iran has fewer than fifty launchers for all variants of the Shahab-3.

BM-25

In November 2007, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced that North Korea had sold Iran a missile with a range of 2,500 kilometers. This appeared to confirm earlier press reports that Iran had acquired the BM-25, a modified version of the Soviet SS-N-6, which is a single-stage, liquid-fueled, submarine-launched ballistic missile with a range of 2,400 to 3,000 km and the ability to carry a nuclear warhead.

Space Launch Vehicle

In October 2005, Russia launched Iran's first satellite, the Sina-1, on a Russian rocket. From that point, Iran began to pursue the technology needed to launch a satellite into space on its own. February 2008 saw the inauguration of an Iranian space center in Semnan Province, marked by the test launch of Iran's Kavoshgar 1 research rocket. Iran's first space launch vehicle, the Safir, failed during an August 2008 flight test, but the following February, Iran demonstrated how rapidly it was progressing by successfully launching the two-stage Safir space rocket, and placing Iran's first domestically-built satellite, Omid, into low earth orbit.

Iran followed with a second successful satellite launch in June 2011 (the Rasad), and a third in February 2012 (the Navid Elm-o Sanat), in both cases using the Safir. After the first launch, U.S. officials admitted "grave concern" over the achievement and cautioned that the capabilities necessary for the space launch could be applied toward developing long-range ballistic missiles. According to Iranian media reports, the Safir is 22 meters long, has a diameter of 1.25 meters, and weighs 26 tons. This diameter would be able to accommodate a nuclear warhead, although the rocket has so far carried only satellites weighing between 15 and 50 kg into low-earth orbit. In February 2010, Iran unveiled a larger space launch vehicle, called the Simorgh. Iran claims that this carrier could place a 100 kg satellite into a 500 km orbit. And in January 2011, Iran inaugurated ten laboratories for testing space structures and complete rocket systems. These facilities reportedly feature testing rigs for rocket sections a thermal test rig for heat shields, and fixtures for aeroelasticity testing; hey will allow Iran to test ballistic missile systems, as well as space launchers.

As a result of the launches, and of Iran's expanding missile-relevant infrastructure, international concern over Iran's ballistic missile program has increased exponentially. According to the findings of a joint assessment by U.S. and Russian technical experts, the successful launch showed that Iran "can exploit low-thrust rocket motors to build a two-stage rocket, and that it has qualified engineers who are able to make good use of the technology that is available to them." According to the U.S. Air Force's National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Iran's space launch vehicle could "serve as a testbed for long-range ballistic missile technologies." The U.S.-Russian joint assessment calculated that "the Safir could be modified with a different upper rocket stage so that it could carry a warhead weighing roughly 1,000 kg to a range of about 2,000 km."

Solid Fuel Technology

In addition to its Scud and Shahab missiles, which rely on liquid fuel technology, Iran has developed solid fuel technology, which is more useful militarily.

Short-range Missiles

One of Iran's earliest steps in this direction was to produce the "Mushak" short-range surface-to-surface missile. A U.S. official compared this primitive solid-fuel missile to the unguided Soviet Frog missile and to the Pakistani Hatf 1 missile, which flies about 80 km. The first Mushak, also known as the Iran-130, was test-fired in early 1988, and was designed to fly to a maximum range of 130 km. By March 1988, five Mushak missiles had been fired at Iraq during the War of the Cities. And by August 1988, Tehran had test-fired a 160 km-range Mushak and announced that mass production would soon follow. Iran claimed that the Mushak was designed and produced without foreign support, but Chinese assistance was suspected.

Iran also possesses the solid-fueled, Chinese-made, 150 km-range CSS 8 (also called the Tondar 69) and a second solid-fuel missile called the Fateh 110. Both are short-range, tactical missiles. Iran claims to have successfully flight tested the Fateh 110 in September 2002. It is reportedly a single-stage missile with at least a 200 km range. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who has served as head of Iran's Parliament and as President of Iran, asserted that Iran itself produced the solid fuel propellant for the missile. In addition, then-Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced in January 2000 that Iran had commissioned projects to produce the solid fuel ingredients HTPB resin, aluminum powder and potassium chlorite at the Ministry of Defense's Education and Research Institute. The Aerospace Industries Organization, which reportedly manages a number of missile plants, claims to be capable of producing "many types of liquid and solid propellant." According to an Iranian media report, the Aerospace Industries Organization opened a plant to mass produce the Fateh 110 in mid-September 2002, after completing a successful test flight. Iran has reported a number of successful tests of the Fateh 110 since then.

An upgraded version of this missile was allegedly delivered to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Air Force in September 2010. And an anti-ship variant of the Fateh 110, called the Khalij Fars, has also been tested. According to a 2012 report to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence, this missile would allow Iran to threaten military and commercial vessels in the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman.

Sejjil

On May 20, 2009, Iran successfully tested the Sejjil-2, a two-stage, solid-fuel, surface-to-surface missile. It appaers to have been successfully tested several times since then. U.S. officials confirmed Iran's claim that the missile's range is between 2,000 to 2,500 km. A May 2009 joint threat assessment by U.S. and Russian technical experts estimated the rocket motors for each of the two stages are alike except for their length. The assessment also estimated an overall weight of roughly 21 tons, if the missile were carrying a 1-ton warhead, which the Sejjil "should be able to carry…to a range of about 2200 km." Further advances on the Sejjil continue. Iran announced that it test-fired an upgraded version in December 2009. According to an Iranian official, this version boasted a shorter launch time.

Matine Warhead to Missile

In 2008, the International Atomic Energy Agency reported that it had been shown documents containing evidence of high explosives testing, and work done to redesign the inner payload chamber of the Shahab-3 re-entry vehicle to accommodate a "nuclear device." This effort was known as "Project 111." In November 2011, the Agency reported that Iran may have explored a number of missile warhead designs suitable for delivering a nuclear payload. The Agency said it was "increasingly concerned" about activities in Iran "related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile." Iran has refused the Agency's request to address these allegations, claiming that they are based on fabricated evidence.

International Sanctions

Apprehensions about the objectives of Iran's ballistic missile program have given rise to international sanctions. In 2006, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1737, which banned the supply of materials and technology to Iran that might aid nuclear activities or the development of nuclear weapon delivery systems. It also asked countries to freeze the assets of certain companies and individuals. Three subsequent U.N. Security Council resolutions, 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1929 (2010) increased sanctions and designated additional companies and individuals for their involvement with Iran's nuclear and missile programs.

All together, the resolutions asked countries to freeze the assets of many of Iran's key missile companies. These included Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), and Fajr Industrial Group (all subordinate entities of Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO)). Also sanctioned were Ya Mahdi Industries Group (another AIO subordinate) for international purchases of missile equipment; Parchin Chemical Industries (a branch of Iran's Defense Industries Organization), which produces solid propellant for missiles; Niru Battery Manufacturing Company (a DIO subsidiary), which manufactures power units for Iranian missile systems; Sanam Industrial Group (subordinate to AIO), for purchasing equipment for Iran's missile program on behalf of AIO; and Electro Sanam Company, Ettehad Technical Group, Joza Industrial Co., and Safety Equipment Procurement (all front companies for AIO and linked to Iran's ballistic missile program).

Sanctions adopted by the European Union and the United States have gone farther, targeting not only dozens of individuals and firms involved in Iran's ballistic missile program, but also banks and transport companies linked to procurement and financing for this program.

Foreign Suppliers

The success of the Iranian missile program and the speed of its development would not have been possible without extensive foreign assistance, notably from North Korea, Russia, and China. While North Korea furnished the basic hardware for liquid-fueled rocket propulsion, Russia supplied materials, equipment, and training. China supplied help with guidance and solid-fueled rocket propulsion. According to a 2012 report to Congress by the Director of National Intelligence, Iran remained dependent on foreign suppliers for obtaining important missile components.

North Korea

As noted above, North Korea furnished the basic building blocks for Iran's liquid fuel, Scud-type missile effort. Iran received both complete missiles and the plants to build them. In effect, North Korea served as Iran's off-shore missile development site. Many of Iran's missiles, the BM-25, the Shahab-3 and the Scud B and C, have come directly from North Korea, either in the form of components or finished missiles. In May 2011 a U.N. panel of experts reported that Iran and North Korea were suspected of exchanging ballistic missile technology by using regular scheduled Air Koryo and Iran Air flights, in violation of sanctions on both countries.

The U.S. State Department has repeatedly sanctioned the Changgwang Sinyong Corporation (also known as Korea Mining Development Trading Bureau or KOMID), North Korea's main missile exporter. In May 1996, it levied sanctions against Changgwang Sinyong and Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics. Since 2000, Changgwang has been sanctioned continuously for proliferation activities with Iran. Changgwang was also reportedly the source of 12 No-Dong missile engines that arrived in Iran from North Korea on November 21, 1999. The engines were most likely intended for use in the Shahab-3.

China

For years, Beijing has been a major supplier of battlefield and cruise missiles to Iran. In 1987, Iran purchased the Chinese Silkworm anti-ship missile and then acquired the more capable C-802, a Chinese anti-ship missile that Iran test-fired in 1996 from one of its ten Chinese-built "Houdong" patrol boats. During the 1990s, Iran reportedly acquired Chinese CSS 8 surface-to-surface missiles, which can carry a 190 kg warhead up to 150 km.

China has also outfitted Iran with solid fuel missile technology. Beijing's help appears to have started in the 1980s, during Iran's work on the Mushak missile, described above. In 1998, the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (known as the Rumsfeld Commission after its chair, Donald Rumsfeld) reported that China had already "carried out extensive transfers to Iran's solid-fueled ballistic missile program."

In addition, Iran has received missile testing and guidance assistance from China. In June 1996, the chairman of a Congressional hearing cited U.S. intelligence findings that China had already "delivered dozens, perhaps hundreds of missile guidance systems and computerized tools to Iran."

In response to such transfers, the U.S. State Department has sanctioned a number of Chinese firms for engaging in proliferation activities with Iran. In June 2006, the U.S. Department of the Treasury added the China Precision Machinery Import-Export Corporation (CPMIEC) to the Specially Designated National (SDN) list, freezing its assets under U.S. jurisdiction, for the sale of goods controlled under the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to the Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group (SBIG). CPMIEC markets the "M-family" missile, liquid and solid rocket motors, precision machinery, and a variety of tactical missiles; it supplied C-801 and C-802 anti-ship cruise missiles to Iran, according to the Defense Intelligence Agency. . The firm, like a number of other Chinese firms, is a repeat offender.

A number of other Chinese firms engaged in missile-related work have also been punished by the United States for proliferation activities with Iran, including the China Shipbuilding Trading Company; Beijing Alite Technologies Company; and LIMMT Metallurgy and Minerals Company Ltd.

The Chinese government has pledged to improve its proliferation posture, notably by committing not to assist any country in the development of a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon, and by adopting a set of export control laws. In 2004, China also began talks with officials from the Missile Technology Control Regime on Beijing's national export control system and China's possible membership in the regime. China has since adopted export control legislation similar to the controls of the Missile Technology Control Regime, but the 2012 Director of National Intelligence report to Congress found that "Chinese entities - primarily private companies and individuals - continue to supply a variety of missile-related items to multiple customers, including recent exports to Iran and Pakistan."

Russia

Despite Russia's adherence to the Missile Technology Control Regime since 1995, Russian entities have continued to help Iran develop missiles. In October 2000, the Central Intelligence Agency reported to Congress that Russian assistance had "helped Iran save years in its development of the Shahab-3." And in its report covering missile proliferation during the first half of 2003, the CIA observed that Russian assistance was also supporting "Iranian efforts to develop new missiles and increase Tehran's self-sufficiency in missile production."

In July 1998, the State Department imposed sanctions on seven Russian entities for "proliferation activities related to Iran's missile programs." They were the INOR Scientific Center, Grafit Research Institute, Polyus Scientific Production Association, Glavkosmos, MOSO Company, Baltic State Technical University, and Europalace 2000.

Reportedly, INOR contracted in September 1997 to supply special alloys for long-range missiles, including steel for missile casings and foil to shield missile guidance components. In addition, Russia's arms exporting agency, Rosoboronexport, was allegedly involved in Iran's Shahab program. Rosoboronexport also reportedly helped to construct a wind tunnel, in 1997, which can be used to design and test missile components. Russian assistance to Iran's Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG) was thought to include solid rocket fuel technology and the design of guidance and propulsion systems. Europalace 2000 reportedly was caught shipping Iran 22 tons of stainless steel that could have been used to make fuel tanks for Scuds, while Polyus was suspected of supplying navigation and guidance technology. Grafit was said to make material used to coat missile warheads, and U.S. officials reportedly suspected that Iranians were 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 United States imposed additional sanctions on Rosoboronexport for proliferation activities in 2006 and 2008.