Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq and Iran

Appendix III to the Report of the Committee to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States
July 15, 1998

Weapon Program: 

  • Nuclear
  • Missile
  • Chemical
  • Biological


Michael Eisenstadt

Related Country: 

  • Iran
  • Iraq
Current Developments and Potential for Future Surprises

This paper will attempt to answer the following questions: 1) What are the current missile capabilities of Iraq and Iran? 2) What kind of WMD payloads can these countries put atop their missiles? 3) What considerations should analysts bear in mind in assessing the future direction of missile and WMD programs in these two countries?


Ballistic Missiles

Before the 1991 Gulf War, the backbone of Iraq's missile force consisted of the al-Husayn missile, which was an extended-range variant of the Soviet Scud-B. Originally, the al-Husayn was built by cannibalizing Scud-Bs, using three Scud-Bs to create two al-Husayns. Subsequently, Iraq was able to achieve a 1:1 conversion ratio by producing airframe and fuel-tank components locally. By the time of the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was able to produce most of the components for the al-Husayn locally, including warheads, airframes, and motors. (Iraq is not believed to have been able to produce the guidance system and turbopumps for the motors, and Iraq claims that of the 80 or so motors it produced, none performed to standard.) Iraq was also working on a number of medium- and intermediate-range missiles which never got beyond the design or initial development stages. 3

Iraq may retain a small force of operational missiles--probably locally produced versions of the al-Husayn--equipped with chemical or biological warheads and mounted on mobile launchers. In addition, Iraq has conducted computer design studies of missiles with proscribed ranges since the 1991 Gulf War (including missiles with ranges of several thousand kilometers), and it has continued efforts to procure components for such missiles--including gyroscopes obtained in 1995 from scrapped Russian intermediate-range missiles. Because Iraq is permitted to produce missiles with a range of 150 km or less, it retains the infrastructure, talent, and know-how needed to reconstitute its missile program rapidly, and it has been working on several systems--such as the Ababil (which uses an SA-2 rocket motor) and the Sumud (a miniature Scud-B) in order to preserve the skills of design and production personnel. Were inspections and monitoring to cease, Iraq could produce a missile of proscribed range perhaps within a year, by clustering or stacking missiles currently in its inventory, or by resuming production of the al-Husayn missile. 4

WMD Payloads

Despite seven years of inspections, Iraq retains a significant residual CBW arsenal, and is probably is quietly continuing with its nuclear effort.

Iraq's Pre-1991 Missile Force

Missile Range (km) Comments
Fao 100-200 An extended range HY-1 Silkworm anti-ship
Fahd 300 SA-2 modified for use against ground targets
Scud-B 300 Standard Societ 8K-14 ScudB
Al-Husayn 650 Modified Scud-B, fitted with HE and CBW warheads
Al-Husayn "short" 650 Al-Husayn modified in attempt to solve flight instability problems

Al-Husayn "nuclear

630 Al-Husayn modified to carry nuclear weapon to be produced under August 1990 "crash program"
Al-Hijara 650 Ak-Husayn fitted with concrete-filled "kinetic penetrator" warhead
Al-Abbas 950 Extended range Al-Husayn
Al-Abid   Space launch vehicle test-launched December 1989
Tammuz   Al-Husayn with SA-2 second stage; mock-up built
Badr 2000 750+ Solid-fuel missile being developed jointly with Arentina and Egypt. Development only partially completed. Intended as Iraq's primary nuclear delivery system.

Chemical Weapons

Iraq is believed to still possess a small stockpile of lethal agents, munitions, precursor chemicals, and production equipment that provide it with the ability to inflict massive casualties on an unprotected civilian population, though it probably does not have sufficient quantities of chemical munitions for effective battlefield use. This residual inventory probably includes stocks of blister and nerve agents, possibly including quantities of "VX salt"--a form of the highly lethal nerve agent that can be stored on a long-term basis. The U.S. government believes that if inspections and monitoring were to cease, Iraq could resume production of mustard agent in weeks, sarin within months, and VX in 2-3 years. 5

Some 45-75 al-Husayn warheads remain unaccounted for (Iraq claims to have unilaterally destroyed them but offers no proof). Iraq's first generation CW warhead consisted of converted Scud-B warheads, and was a unitary design that relied on a burster charge to aerosolize and disseminate the agent. Because these warheads retained the contact fusing of the original warhead, the burster charge would have detonated only upon impact, disseminating the agent over a very limited area (perhaps several tens of meters from the point of impact). A nerve agent payload, however, could nonetheless create a downwind hazard extending hundreds of meters or more from the impact point, depending on weather conditions and building patterns. If Iraq has succeeded since 1991 in acquiring barometric or radar proximity fuses for its missile warheads, it might be able to make a more efficient warhead that would disseminate its CW payload over the heads of the target population (i.e. prior to impact), dramatically increasing the size of the lethal downwind footprint, and increasing the number of potential casualties per missile strike. 6

Biological Weapons

Iraq probably retains agent seed stocks, growth media, production equipment, and munitions, and almost certainly has sufficient quantities of biological agent on hand to cause massive casualties among civilians, though it may not yet have perfected the means for effectively disseminating biological warfare agents. Both UNSCOM and the U.S. government believe that if inspection and monitoring were to cease, Iraq could resume production of biological agents within a matter of days. Some UN inspectors, however, believe that Iraq may currently possess a clandestine biological warfare agent production capability, which means that they could be producing biological warfare agents even now. 7

Iraq almost certainly retains a residual biological warfare capability, since some agents (such as anthrax in its spore form) can be stored and remain viable for decades, although it is unclear whether Iraq has developed an effective warhead for missile delivery. Iraq is believed to have used basically the same modified Scud-B warheads used in its CW program as its first generation BW delivery system. As such, these warheads would have probably been even less effective at disseminating BW agent than CW agent, since the explosive burster charge would have killed many of the pathogens during dissemination. And if Iraq was producing BW agent in liquid form only (as it claims), the percentage of agent aerosolized by the burster charge in the optimal size for inhalation would have been minuscule. Even in the worst case, perhaps several tens of people would have been affected. Perhaps more people would have been killed by the impact of the warhead and missile airframe.

This assessment would change, however, if Iraq succeeded since 1991 in acquiring and fitting barometric or radar proximity fuses to its surviving al-Husayn missile warheads. This would result in a warhead that would disseminate its BW payload overhead--before impacting with the ground--allowing for more efficient dissemination of the agent. While it may be difficult for Iraq to test such an arrangement under the nose of UN weapons inspectors, it is not impossible: they may have done so by testing such a fusing arrangement on one of its missiles of permitted (less than 150 km) range. Likewise, Iraq might be working on designs for a more efficient and effective second generation BW warhead employing submunitions to more uniformly disseminate the agent over a broader area. It would be almost impossible for UN inspectors to detect such activities if they were restricted to paper and computer design studies and lab work.

Finally, if Iraq were to have the capability to produce BW agent in dried form and to mill the dried agent to the optimal size for dissemination and inhalation by human subjects, it would be able to introduce dramatic improvements into its warhead design. Iraq is believed to retain the equipment required to do so, though it is unclear whether it has mastered the technique. As stated above, Iraq's first generation BW weapons used agent in liquid form. When disseminated by a burster charge, a large percentage of pathogen are killed by the explosion, and much of the resulting aerosol is not the right size for inhalation. Only about 1% of a liquid agent load is effectively disseminated when dispersed by a burster charge. However, in the case of dried agent that is already milled to the proper size before loading in the warhead, a much higher percentage of the agent payload can be effectively disseminated (even if the dissemination pattern provided by a unity warhead is relatively inefficient). And if Iraq could master the design of bomblets for a submunition warhead that would uniformly disseminate the agent over a wide area, even greater efficiencies could be realized. It is not clear whether Iraq has made any progress in developing such a warhead since 1991, although there is reason to believe that it was working on such a design before the Gulf War. 8

Nuclear Weapons

Iraq possesses a workable bomb design, bomb components produced before the Gulf War (it claims to have destroyed these but has not provided credible evidence), and its cadre of experienced scientists and technicians--who are being kept together and are probably able to do paper and computer studies and simulations as well as weapons design work with little risk of detection.

Since the Gulf War, Iraq is suspected of having conducted clandestine theoretical research relating to bottlenecks in its pre-1991 program, which would make it easier to resurrect its program if inspections and monitoring were to cease. The greatest concern, however, remains the possibility that were Iraq to acquire fissile material from abroad, it could probably produce an operational nuclear device--perhaps within a year--even with inspections and monitoring in place. It is not clear, however, whether such a device would be small enough and reliable enough to be delivered by missile. In such a case, vehicle, vessel, or aircraft delivery options are possible. 9

Iraq also retains the capability to produce radiological weapons. Iraq researched radiological weapons in the mid-late 1980s and field tested one or two different types of bombs filled with a radiological payload. United Nations Security Council resolutions allow Iraq to possess radioactive isotopes for medical, agricultural, and industrial purposes, which are the raw materials needed to produce radiological weapons. These, however, are probably more useful as terror weapons than weapons of mass destruction. 10


Ballistic Missiles

The backbone of Iran's strategic missile force consists of 200-300 North Korean Scud-B and -C missiles, with ranges of 320 km and 500 km, respectively. These missiles are armed with conventional and perhaps chemical warheads, are mounted on ten to fifteen mobile launchers, and can reach major population centers in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the smaller Arab Gulf states. In addition, Iran funded the development of North Korea's Nodong-1 missile which, with a range of 1,300 km, is capable of reaching Israel from Iran. The program, however, has reportedly been plagued by technical and financial problems; the Nodong-1 has been tested only once (in May 1993) and only a small number of systems (ten mobile launchers with missiles) have been produced by North Korea and fielded with its own forces. Though Iran is not believed to have taken delivery of finished Nodong-1 missiles, it is believed to have received much of the technology incorporated in this missile as compensation for its financial support. 12

Iran also signed a contract in 1989 for some 200 Chinese CSS-8 missiles, and at least several score have been delivered. These are SA-2 (HQ-2) surface-to-air missiles which have been modified for use against ground targets. Though possessing limited range, payload, and accuracy, they would be important in the event of a future war with Iraq because of their ability to hit major Iraqi population centers near the border with Iran and because they offer Iran a cheap and effective way to dramatically augment its offensive punch. 13

Iran has been trying since the mid-1980s to acquire a missile production capability, in order to end its reliance on external sources of supply. This effort, however, has been plagued by various bottlenecks, including a shortage of skilled personnel, special materials, technological expertise, and adequate financing. As a result, until recently, Iran had little success in creating an indigenous production capability thus far. 14

This may be changing, however, thanks to aid provided by Russia, China, and North Korea in the past 2-3 years. This assistance includes equipment, machinery, components (including guidance systems), and special materials required to produce missiles. At present, Iran assembles Scud-C missiles acquired in kit form from North Korea and it is reportedly building two hybrid liquid-fuel systems with substantial help from Russia: the Shehab-3--based on the North Korean Nodong-1 is expected to have a range of 1,300 km, and the Shehab-4--based on the Soviet SS-4 is expected to have a range of 2,000 km. In 1997, Iran conducted 6-8 static ground tests of the motor for the Shehab-3, indicating that work has gone beyond the design stage. According to leaked intelligence estimates, the Shehab-3 is likely to make its first test flight within 1-2 years, and the Shehab-4 its maiden flight within about 3-4 years. 15 Iran is also believed to have a parallel short-range solid-fuel missile (with a range of 150 km) that it is undertaking with Chinese help. 16

Iran's Rocket and Missile Forces

Rockets Range (km) Payload Source Comments
Shahin- 1/2 20 HE/CBW (?) Local - -
Oghab 45 HE/CBW (?) Local - -
Fajr- 3/5 45 HE/CBW (?) Local - -
Naze 'at- 4/6/10 90 HE/CBW (?) Local - -
Zelzal-2 100 HE/CBW (?) Local - -
Mssiles Range (km) Payload Source Comments
CSS-8 150 HE/CBW (?) China  
Scud-B 320 HE/CBW (?) N. Korea  
Scud-C 500-600 HE/CBW (?) N. Korea  
Shehab-3 1,300 CBW (?) Local (with foreign help) Nodong-1 derivative?
Shehab-4 2,000 CBW (?) Local (with foreign help) SS-4 derivative?

Iran also produces a range of artillery rocket systems, including the Shahin, Oghab, Fajr, Naze`at, and Zelzal. Although these rocket systems were developed primarily for a battlefield support role, Iran used the Oghab in a strategic role during the February-April 1988 "War of the Cities," to bombard Iraqi cities and towns, as well as military targets along the border. In a future war with Iraq, they would almost certainly be used in such a fashion again, and could be used to deliver chemical strikes if necessary.

Iran is also reportedly working on a cruise missile to deliver conventional and nonconventional payloads. A first-generation Iranian cruise missile would probably be based on missiles currently fielded by Iran, such as the Chinese HY-1 Silkworm or C-802 anti-ship missiles, which would simplify and expedite initial production efforts. Indeed, there are reports that Iran is developing an extended-range version of the HY-1. 17

Because of its isolation and weakness, the Islamic Republic of Iran has shown a preference for using covert, indirect methods--such as the use of terrorist proxies--as a means of achieving key political or military objectives. This has enabled Iran to challenge more powerful adversaries while minimizing the risk of retaliation. Because of its success in employing such methods in the past, Iran is more likely than other states to rely on covert delivery means to deliver chemical and biological agents (saboteurs armed with aerosol dispensers, or specially trained teams operating vehicles, aircraft, or small boats fitted with spray tanks) especially when dealing with an adversary capable of retaliating in kind, or escalating with nuclear weapons.

Chemical Weapons

Iran possesses one of the largest chemical warfare programs in the developing world. It can produce several hundred tons of chemical agent a year and may have produced several thousand tons of agent to date, including blister (sulfur mustard), choking (phosgene), blood (cyanidal), and possibly nerve (sarin) agents. 18 Given that Syria first received Soviet binary-type Scud missile warheads for its own stockpile of Scud-Bs in 1979, 19 and that Syria and Iran are believed to have a rather close relationship in the military R&D domain, it would seem prudent to assume that Iran gained access to these warheads for reverse engineering purposes, or that it emulated the Iraqi approach in modifying conventional Scud warheads in order to produce a first generation chemical warhead for its own inventory of Scud-B and -C missiles.

In January 1993, Iran signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which it ratified in June 1997, and which obligates it to destroy its stocks of chemical weapons within ten years of ratification. Despite these steps toward apparent compliance with the CWC, it is hard to believe that Iran would give up a potentially important tactical force multiplier and the core component of its strategic deterrent while Iraq may retain residual chemical and biological warfare capabilities. One explanation is that Iran has ratified the treaty with the intention of hiding stocks of chemical weapons for future contingencies. If so, it might give up its stockpiles of older, less effective agents, while covertly retaining its stocks of more lethal agents. Alternatively, it might intend to give up its agent stockpile while retaining an emergency surge capability for production during a crisis. Either way, Iran may provide an early test of the efficacy of the CWC.

Biological Weapons

Iran may have produced small quantities of biological agent and perhaps a small number of weapons. It probably is researching such standard agents as anthrax and botulin toxin (two agents also produced by Iraq) and it has shown interest in acquiring materials that could be used to produce various other toxins (specifically, mycotoxins and ricin). Iran can probably deploy biological weapons and disseminate them via either terrorists or spray tanks mounted on vehicles, aircraft, or boats, although more advanced means of dissemination--by unmanned aircraft or missiles, for instance--may currently be beyond its means. 20

Nuclear Weapons

Iran's known nuclear technology base is at present rather rudimentary, although it is building an extensive civilian nuclear infrastructure that could serve as a stepping stone to a weapons program. In particular, its efforts to acquire research reactors, nuclear power plants, and nuclear fuel cycle related facilities, its apparent investigation of various enrichment techniques (gas centrifuge enrichment in particular), and reports of Iranian efforts to obtain fissile material in the former Soviet Union have raised questions about Iran's intentions.

Because Iran's nuclear program is believed to be in the early stages, at this time there are few unambiguous indicators of nuclear intent. However, Iran's procurement activities during the past decade are not entirely consistent with a peaceful nuclear program. Iran's strategy is probably to build up its civilian nuclear infrastructure while avoiding actions that would clearly violate its NPT commitments, using its new contacts in Russia and China to gain experience, expertise, and dual-use technology that could assist a parallel clandestine military program sometime down the road. Most public estimates of the time Iran will need to attain a nuclear capability range between seven and fifteen years, although Tehran could probably acquire a nuclear capability sooner if it were to receive fissile material and extensive help from abroad. Because of the uncertainties involved, it is impossible to predict how long it could take Iran to develop nuclear weapons. There is no doubt though, that the acquisition of civilian research reactors, nuclear power plants, and nuclear technology from Russia and China will ultimately aid this effort. Without such outside help, Iran will probably face formidable obstacles to realizing its nuclear ambitions. 21


In the coming years, it will be very difficult to assess the scope and progress of the missile and WMD programs of Iraq and Iran, due to target country deception and denial efforts, because progress in each of these programs will depend on the interplay of several variables whose interaction are difficult to predict or assess, and because these programs may benefit from help from various foreign actors (individuals, companies, or governments) whose identity and motives may not always be clear.

In Iraq, the international community will be faced with the problem of detecting covert design and development work and field tests of warheads and other components destined for missiles of proscribed range, masquerading as tests of missiles of permitted range. It is likely that Iraq will be able to conduct significant research, development, and testing that will not be detected by UN inspectors or observed by foreign intelligence agencies. As a result, Iraq might be able to make unexpected progress on its missile and WMD programs despite sanctions and inspections, even if it is unable to engage in the full range of development and testing activities that are considered part of the R&D cycle elsewhere. This could include progress toward more efficient chemical and biological missile warhead designs, innovative ways to extend the range of permitted systems beyond 150 km by stacking or clustering, the elimination of bottlenecks in the al-Husayn program to enable the resumption of production once sanctions are lifted, and work on medium- and intermediate-range missile designs.

In the case of Iran, the problem is somewhat different. There, the problem is determining the scope and depth of foreign help to Iran's missile (and WMD) programs, including the transfer of know-how and technology. While technology transfers can be documented (even if this is easier said than done), getting a handle on the know-how that has been transferred (both officially and unofficially) may often be impossible. And while technology transfers are important, the transfer of know-how is probably the more important factor in the long-term. This assistance might enable Iran to develop chemical and biological warheads for its missiles (if it does not possess these already), and enable Iran to skip the production of short-range liquid-fuel missiles and move directly to medium- and intermediate-range liquid-fuel missiles--perhaps equipped with rudimentary penetration aids (simple decoys, a modest maneuver capability, or chaff and low power electronic countermeasures) 22 In addition, future progress will depend on whether Iran's military industries will be able to overcome the lack of managerial and systems integration skills that have been an obstacle to progress in the missile and WMD field in the past.

1. Mr. Eisenstadt is a Senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He has published studies concerning the armed forces of Iraq, Iran, Syria and Israel. He was a research analyst for the Secretary of the Air Force and contributed to the Gulf War Power Survey.

2. For an assessment of Iraq's missile and WMD capabilities that cites many useful open source references from before and immediately after the 1991 Gulf War, see: Michael Eisenstadt, Like a Phoenix from the Ashes? The Future of Iraqi Military Power (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1993).

3. W. Seth Carus and Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. "Iraq's Al-Husayn Missile Programme," Jane's Soviet Intelligence Review, May 1990, pp. 204-209, and June 1990, pp. 242-248; Der Spiegel, January 28, 1991, pp. 3-4 in JPRS-TND, February 25, 1991, p. 49; Der Spiegel, November 18, 1991, pp. 41-52, in FBIS-WEU, November 21, 1991, pp. 11-14; William Lowther, Arms and the Man: Dr. Gerald Bull, Iraq, and the Supergun (New York: Ivy Books, 1991), pp. 174-176, 200, 207, 250-251.

4. Interview with UNSCOM missile team leader Nikita Smidovich in AFP, June 4, 1993, in FBIS-NES, June 7, 1993, p. 31; U.S. Government (USG), Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, 13 February, 1998, pp. 7-10, 17.

5. USG, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, pp. 5-7, 15.

6. Much of the information in this section is derived from discussions and interviews with UNSCOM weapons inspectors during the period 1992-1998.

7. USG, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, pp. 4-5, 13; discussions and interviews with UNSCOM weapons inspectors, 1998.

8. Discussions and interviews with UNSCOM weapons inspectors, 1998.

9. Eisenstadt, Like a Phoenix from the Ashes?, pp. 26-30; Maurizio Zifferero, "IAEA Activities and Experience in Iraq Under the Relevant Resolutions of the United Nations Security Council," in IAEA, International Nuclear Safeguards 1994: Vision for the Future (Vienna, Austria: International Atomic Energy Agency, 1994), pp. 211-221; Steven Dolley, "Iraq and the Bomb: The Nuclear Threat Continues" (Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Control Institute, February 19, 1998).

10. Eisenstadt, Like a Phoenix from the Ashes?, pp. 29-30.

11. For an assessment of Iran's missile and WMD capabilities that cites many useful open source references, see: Michael Eisenstadt, Iranian Military Power: Capabilities and Intentions (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1996).

12. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr., "Iran's Missile Development," in William C. Potter and Harlan W. Jencks (Eds.) The International Missile Bazaar: The New Suppliers Network (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 47-74; Middle East Defense News (MEDNEWS), May 18. 1992, pp. 1-2; MEDNEWS, December 21, 1992, pp. 4-5; Defense Week, May 1, 1995, pp. 1, 14.

13. Bermudez, "Iran's Missile Development," p. 64. 14. Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (FIS), A New Challenge After the Cold War: Proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (Moscow: FIS, 1993), in JPRS-TND, March 5, 1993, p. 29.

15. Los Angeles Times, February 12, 1997, pp. A1, A6; Washington Times, September 10, 1997, p. A1; The Washington Post, December 31, 1997, p. A1; The Washington Post, January 18, 1998, p. A9.

16. Defense News, June 19-25, 1995, p. 1; Washington Times, May 22, 1997, p. A3; Washington Times, June 17, 1997, p. A3; Washington Times, September 10, 1997, p. A1.

17. Aviation Week & Space Technology, February 1, 1993, pp. 26-27; MEDNEWS, December 21, 1992, p. 4.

18. New York Times, January 29, 1989, p. A1; Robert M. Gates, Director of Central Intelligence, remarks to the Comstock Club, Sacramento, California, December 15, 1992; R. James Woolsey, Director of Central Intelligence, testimony to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, February 24, 1993; FIS, A New Challenge After the Cold War, p. 29; United States Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States and its Interests Abroad (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996), p. 82.

19. Jane's Defence Weekly, September 3, 1997, p. 3.

20. New York Times, August 13, 1989, p. A11; Newsweek, June 22, 1992, p. 42; MEDNEWS, April 19, 1993, p. 5; Herb Krosney, Deadly Business: Legal Deals and Outlaw Weapons, The Arming of Iran and Iraq, 1975 to the Present (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1993), pp. 195-199; Anthony H. Cordesman, Iran & Iraq: The Threat from the Northern Gulf (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994), pp. 100-103; Iran Brief, May 1, 1995, pp. 11-12; Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Current and Projected National Security Threats to the United States and its Interests Abroad, p. 82

21. Eisenstadt, Iranian Military Power: Capabilities and Intentions, pp. 9-25.

22. Uzi Rubin and Azriel Lorber, "Future Trends of Missile Proliferation in the Middle East and its Impact on Regional Missile Defences," paper presented at the 8th American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Multinational Conference on Theater Missile Defense, London, June 6-9, 1995.