Technological Pathways to Ballistic Missiles in Iran

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

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


Aaron Karp

Author's Title: 

Senior Faculty Associate, Graduate Programs International Studies Old Dominion University
America's previous debate over missile proliferation surrounded the National Intelligence Estimate NIE-95-19 "Emerging Threats to North America During the Next 15 Years," issued in November 1995. Although this document dealt with global threats, the debate it catalyzed focused almost entirely on the missile projects of one country--North Korea. Since then North Korea's projects have slowed and lost their erstwhile urgency.

Today's debate is propelled instead by revelations over Iran. Once again a regional rocketry program has become a kind of intellectual prism, refracting issues that go far beyond immediate technical matters. Of central importance are broader questions regarding non-proliferation objectives, missile defense and Middle East strategy. Equally salient are foreign policy questions about relations with Iran, engagement of difficult regional actors in general and the prospects for policies based on sanctions and export controls.

When judged on technical criteria alone, other programs are no less provocative. Iraq has abandoned none of its long-range rocketry ambitions, including a 3000 km weapon. Saddam is only waiting for a second chance to scour the international market for useful hardware and materials. North Korea's TaepoDong projects may have subsided, but it apparently has gone back to concentrate on the NoDong series. Egypt appears to be receiving new installments of technical assistance from North Korea, probably supporting improved Scuds. India continues development of the Agni, with a 2000-3000 km version currently being prepared for flight test. Pakistan has renewed its long-stymied missile program through the 1500 km Ghuari, reportedly a version of the North Korean NoDong.

Missile proliferation clearly remains a global problem, but the focus on Iran is justified and useful nevertheless. Although we are accustomed to treating Iran as a revolutionary state, an exception in every way, its missile projects are ironically typical of regional long range rocketry. Among all current missile proliferators, Iran best illustrates the general issues. Egypt is ambivalent at best about long range rocketry. Iraq remains shackled by UN-sanctions. North Korea is at the center of a unique strategic milieu dominated by the question of its very survival. Neither of the Indian or Pakistani weapons introduce radically new capabilities as do Iran's intermediate range systems, a capability that goes far beyond its manned aircraft.

The New Politics of Technology Suppliers

The most important question regarding the flow of ballistic missile and dual-use technologies to Iran is entirely political: What are the export policies of China and Russia? They are Iran's most important technology suppliers, the only suppliers capable of transforming Iran into a long-range missile power. Both clearly are supplying equipment, development assistance and manufacturing facilities. Both also are extremely difficult for Washington to deal with, sharing a well-known pattern of officially denying involvement, then promising to halt further assistance, and finally continuing regardless.

A typical cycle of this pattern began in the Fall of 1996 with the first public report that Iran was developing intermediate-range ballistic missiles. In February of 1997 Israeli sources revealed that Russia was involved. Russian officials initially denied involvement Iranian ballistic missile programs, but later claimed that Iran efforts to acquire Russian technological assistance had been thwarted. On 27 October 1997 Foreign Minister Primakov said that "there is no basis to rumors that the Iranians are receiving missiles from Russia." Subsequent reports suggest technical assistance does continue. The United States met the same pattern repeatedly since the late 1980s when dealing with China.

The Chinese and Russian pattern of transfer-deny-pledge-continue can be explained in at least three different ways, each based on a different view the nature of their national governments. Proliferation policy is part of larger constitutional questions about the future of the Chinese and the Russian state. There is mounting evidence that export control and non-proliferation policy in Beijing and Moscow is determined not by official decision-making, but by the deteriorating salience of their governments themselves.

Does the central government still call the shots, or do individual exporters? Three alternate explanations for decision-making in China and Russia can be summarized as transferring with formal authorization, through informal acquiescence, or in contravention of policy.

  • Formal authorization: China or Russia may be transferring ballistic missile technology with explicit and formal authorization from their central governments, which may even positively encourage such transfers.

If so, their promises and assurances to the contrary are disinformation for foreign consumption. The implications are very disturbing for diplomacy, since the integrity of their leaders comes into question. On the other hand, the outlook for future control is not so discouraging, since the formal institutions of government remain effective. Strenuous American and allied diplomacy should work. Pressure must be strong and expensive incentives may be necessary.

  • Informal acquiescence: The governments in Beijing and Moscow may be unsure of their national interests and unwilling to act decisively. Their policies may be essentially passive, based on a blind eye, tolerating transfers which serve some clear and immediate national interests--such as the welfare of key technological sectors--while potentially harming only speculative and long term security interests.

If so, the statements and pledges of their officials may represent genuine intentions, but they are not sufficient to make policy. In this case, the objective of Western non-proliferation policy must be to compel their leaders to make decisions and regularly reiterate them, both in highly visible declarations and through official regulations and inter-agency consultations to insure compliance throughout the government.

  • Contravention of policy: The authority of central governments in Beijing and Moscow may have deteriorated to the point that policy is unenforceable. Agencies and firms no longer respond to regulations and follow their own inclinations. Regional and economic interests have overwhelmed the ability of the state to regulate economic behavior.

If the state is essentially incompetent in non-proliferation, and the will of national leaders is all but irrelevant, there is little to be accomplished through traditional diplomacy. Instead, to be effective, measures must deal directly with the immediate agents of proliferation, the offending firms and laboratories. Some of these actors benefit only from sales to proliferators like Iran; they have no interest in cooperating with Washington. Consequently, the only way to end their activities may be non-diplomatic.

The implications of these question are so troublesome or grave for outside powers like the United States that usually we avoid even acknowledging them. Yet there is mounting evidence that neither Russia nor China can be dealt with in the traditional manner of orthodox states and regimes like the MTCR.

If the Chinese and Russian states--their central governments--no longer are the cynosure of non-proliferation policy-making, then traditional non-proliferation mechanisms like MTCR diplomacy and demarches may have passed the point of marginal returns. If so, Iranian proliferation can be halted only by shifting our focus from supplier countries to individual firms and laboratories, or by dealing directly with Iran.

Technological Bottlenecks

Iran's need for Chinese, Russian and other foreign technology have changed considerably over the years. After over 25 years of rocketry research, Iran has a considerable technical endowment. The essential equipment to create long-range missiles--mostly of mid-1950s vintage--appears to be nearly complete. While selected imports might accelerate development and improve performance, the success of the overall program no longer relies on specific hardware imports. The most challenging bottlenecks, rather, are in the soft technology--the human skills, management expertise and economics--of missile development.

The Programs

Since starting in the mid-1970s, Iran has established an ability to make small-diameter solid motors, best suited for use in unguided artillery rockets. Solid motor experience is based on Chinese assistance. This has led to numerous examples, none completely satisfactory. The most recent is the 200 km range NP110, a large artillery rocket with a 450mm diameter motor.

The artillery rocket experience appears to have been frustrating for Iran; its projects betray poor design, exceptional redundancy and lead to limited deployment at best. Even so, the effort must not be discounted. These are very large artillery rockets and could be mass produced. Armed with chemical or biological agents they could easily saturate any defensive system. But they seem unlikely to lead Iran to larger weapons.

Until recent revelations about Russia, liquid propulsion was thought to come from North Korea under an arrangement started in 1985, based on Scud technology and possibly the NoDong. But North Korean support has been disappointing for the Iranians, who have scant practical results to show. After building a Scud-facility with North Korean help, according to DoD "the Iranians are now able to produce the missile themselves." One of the greatest enigmas of Iran is why they have not made use of this capability.

Japanese officials maintain that North Korea has gone back to the NoDong project, a belief partially confirmed by reports that the Ghauri missile launched by Pakistan on 6 April 1998 actually was an imported NoDong. This raises the possibility that Iran may turn to North Korea again soon. But there are serious limits to North Korean technology and Iran has strong incentives to look elsewhere for assistance.

In the mid-1990s Iran started two new projects to develop long range ballistic missiles, the Shahab-3 and -4:

  • Shahab-3 is reported to be a solid-fuel weapon capable of carrying a 700 kg payload to a range of 1300 km. This would place it between the capabilities of the 1970s-vintage Soviet SS-22 or SS-23, both eliminated under the 1987 INF Treaty. There is no comparable Chinese weapon, which probably--but not certainly--rules out China as a source (the closest Chinese counterpart is the DF-25, a 1700 km solid-fuel missile which China reportedly canceled in 1996). According to Israeli reports engine development for the Shahab-3 is nearing completion and the missile could be flight tested in roughly 18 months as of March 1998, meaning sometime in 1999-2000.
  • Shahab-4 appears to be a liquid-fuel weapon based on and possibly copied from the 1950s Soviet SS-4 (also known as the R-12). The latter could carry a payload of 1360 kg to a range of 1940 km. Best known for its role in the Cuban missile crisis, it too was banned by the INF Treaty. A series of static engine tests undertaken in Iran in late 1997 mostly likely involved a liquid motor (under favorable conditions, liquid motors can be run over and over, while solid motors usually must be replaced completely). This could have been the engines for the SS-4. The SS-4 was powered by the 65,000 kg thrust RD-214, a typical Soviet 4-nozzle design of the period. The possibility also cannot be excluded that Iran's liquid propulsion is based on North Korean supplied Scud-versions, including the NoDong.

Neither project is being managed like an American or NATO-country procurement program. Instead, they appear to be essentially opportunistic. Like most regional rocketry projects, they organized not by strategy but by the availability of technology and resources. In lieu of reliable suppliers, they are based on improvisation. They progress not smoothly but in fits and jerks interrupted by long pauses. They exist because they are possible, and they will be completed when ever it is feasible.

Rather than being driven by strategic goals or a rigorous time schedule, they are the result of a general Iranian desire to have long range ballistic missiles and the sudden availability of key technologies. It almost certainly is enough for Iran leaders that the weapons would serve a variety of purposes and their development is feasible. Further planning may be neither necessary nor desirable. Neither project resembles a systematic program, since essential components and sub-systems are absent or lag far behind. Iran will complete these weapons if and when its possible; it is doubtful even their project managers specify milestone dates in terms more rigorous than a periods of several years.

The opportunistic and improvised nature of Iran's long range rocketry makes it virtually impossible for outside powers to stop them altogether. But their dependence on foreign technology makes then vulnerable to interruption. In the end, however, only a shift in the supporting consensus among the Iranian leadership can bring them to a halt.

Hard Technology

It is likely that some of the traditional technological bottle necks of large rocket development already have been overcome. Based on news reports about the beginning of static tests last Winter, liquid propulsion could be sufficiently advanced for flight testing to begin within the next two years. Large solid motors have been much harder for all countries to master and may take considerably longer for Iran. Guidance also may have been dealt with, probably by circumventing the need for inertial platforms and relying either on radio-command techniques or adaptation of strap-down gyros.

  • The most serious remaining hardware problems are likely to be in warhead development, since Iran still cannot produce fissile materials for nuclear warheads. Instead it would have to rely on conventional explosives or highly speculative CBW warheads. Another question concerns re-entry vehicles. Unless Iran has a foreign-developed re-entry system, the range of its first IRBMs will be limited to approximately 1000-1200 km (greater ranges involve higher re-entry speeds and concomitant heating and instability, necessitating more advanced RVs).
  • There may no longer be a hardware barrier to IRBM development and deployment. If its engine was successful in initial static tests this Winter, and other basic components can be made ready, a prototype flight article of the Shahab-4 could be ready within a year. An unproven, "stove-pipe" weapon could be deployed within two years. A minimally reliable weapon (50% or less) based on approximately 6 flight tests could be deployed in about 5 years from today or the year 2003. A high reliability weapon (75% or better) would require at least 12 test flights and approximately 8 years to develop and deploy in 2006.
  • Development and deployment of a solid-fuel rocket like the Shahab-3 will depend largely on the problems of casting large solid-fuel grains (diameter of approximately 1 meter). If a solid motor of suitable diameter can be mastered, a weapon like the Shahab-3 could be deployed slightly faster than its liquid-fuel stable mate, since less flight testing would be necessary. If its is ready for flight test in 1999-2000, and all-out push might make deployment of a small quantity (2 to 6 missiles) at minimum reliability possible in 2001. More could be deployed with higher reliability in 2003.
  • For either system, the pacing equipment no longer appears to be propulsion, but is more likely to be guidance, re-entry and warheads.
  • Regarding warheads, Iran could readily improvise a chemical or biological warhead, but their destructiveness would be unknown until actual use. A nuclear warhead would be strategically desirable, but Iran's nuclear program does not appear to be accelerating to match its missiles.
  • Regarding ICBM potential, Iran still faces enormous technical barriers. Although IRBM development is a vital stepping-stone to larger systems, ICBMs require much greater levels of support and entirely new technologies. Iran would have to master the completely foreign engineering problems of engine clustering and multiple staging, it would have to acquire INS and a highly-destructive warhead. For Iran to overcome these problems would require at least 15 years and may be totally impossible without massive foreign aid.
  • All of these estimates, however, assume that essential problems of soft technology, outlined below, can be overcome.

Soft Technology

The most difficult barriers may have nothing to do with equipment in any case. They are more likely to be in realm of soft technology, especially finding adequate numbers of skilled managers, engineers and technical personnel, as well as financing. In rocketry as in other aspects of its military industrial program such as armored vehicles and artillery, Iran has proven its ability to create new prototypes, especially by relying on 1950s vintage technology. It has been much harder to bring these designs to series production, most likely due to a combination of inadequate personnel and finances, and high-level indecision.

  • Poor decision-making has slowed Iranian missile development since the mid-1980s. Above all, Iranian political leaders have been unwilling or unable to streamline the nation's rocketry projects. With numerous projects under way simultaneously, resources cannot be concentrated for maximum effect. Because of their unprecedented scale, this problem will be most severe for the Shahab-3 and -4. The critical decision for Iran may be to pick a clear preference, something it historically has avoided. Eventually the Iranian Government will recognize that the MTCR is not the only enemy of the Shahab-3 and -4; each one is the enemy of the other. It is when we see Iran making a choice between them that we should become most alarmed.
  • Shortfalls of skilled personnel limit Iran's ability to absorb foreign technology, both dual-use and dedicated missile design and production equipment. Iran's missile program appears to have fully competent engineers on top, but its human resources grower progressively weaker as one goes down the chain of command. Thus it is unable to execute otherwise suitable programs. Design may be adequate, but development is poor, system integration worse, and production extremely difficult.

This problem is responsible for Iran's well-known efforts to create an educational center for missile training. According to press reports two Russian institutions have led these efforts, the Bauman National Technical University in Moscow and the Baltic State Technical University in St. Petersburg (before 1990 the Military Mechanical Institute Imeni Ustinova). The latter is establishing a joint missile education center in Persepolis under the direction of Iran's Sanam Industries Group which reportedly directs the nation's solid-fuel rocketry program. Sanam is an arm of the Iranian Defense Industries Organization (DIO), also known as Department 140 or the Missile Industries Group.

Closing down these training centers must be a high priority. But this may be difficult; Russian agencies will claim that they engage only in routine tactical missile maintenance training. Until they can be closed, efforts must be made to assure that theoretical training stays to a minimum, that the new centers do not become vehicles for dispatching Russian rocketry and missile experts, and that they do not facilitate transfers of MTCR-controlled equipment. * When bringing Russian exerts to Iran is too sensitive, it still may be feasible for Iran to subcontract specific tasks to Russian groups for assistance. For example, another Iranian agency in ballistic missile development, the DIO's Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG) reportedly has enlisted the services of the Russian Central Aerohyrodynamic Institute for design and development support.

  • In addition to Russia, there are other sources for human assistance. North Korea already has supported Iran's missile program, and has supplied substantial Scud missile infrastructure. Transfers probably include partial engineering for the still incomplete NoDong. North Korean transfers have slowed tangibly since 1993. This roughly coincides with the US-North Korea Agreed Framework and preliminary missile talks. There still may be North Korean missile engineering cadres there. More support could come following the collapse of the North Korean state, which would release a flood of scientists and engineers.
  • Finances will remain a serious problem for years to come. According to ACDA, Iranian military spending fell from an estimated $11.5 bn in 1986 to $3 bn in 1994 (in constant 1994 US dollars), leaving military planners with virtually no latitude for expensive new programs. The prospect of new oil deals with Western petroleum firms is offset by the unstable price of oil. Unless new funding or new elasticity in government spending can be found, budgets are unlikely to permit anything beyond prototypes and very limited deployment of new weapons. Financial problems will not halt Iranian rocketry. But unless budgets rise swiftly and consistently, finances will slow down technical progress, delaying deployment by several years.

The Commission represents the most important event in the rise of the latest manifestation of the national debate over the threat of ballistic missile proliferation.

The first stage, which lasted roughly from 1988 through 1991, centered on the discovery of the missile proliferation issue. This was a largely analytical debate, concerned mostly determining the nature of ballistic missile proliferation. It was largely descriptive and analytical, outlining the scale of the problem. It also dealt primarily with the regional rocketry programs that were most dependent on foreign technology and consequently most vulnerable to the MTCR. In retrospect it was the easy days of missile non-proliferation, when weak or highly dependent regional programs were quelled through the straight-forward application of the MTCR. After rapid series of revelations and MTCR successes, the issue drifted off the national agenda.

The second debate which merged in 1995 and lasted through early 1997 was entirely different, dominated not difficult to stop regional missile programs and threats to the territory of the United States. It emerged out of synergy of several things including: the discovery of the TaepoDong-1 and -2, the latter potentially able to reach targets on the extreme Western periphery of the United States; the publication of NIE-, which concluded that no new country would emerge with an ability to attack the United States with a ICBM within the next fifteen years (i.e., before the year 2010); and the Defend America Act, which led supporters of National Missile Defense to justify an accelerated effort to develop and deploy a protective missile shield for North America.

This debate ended when all three catalysts lost their ability to provoke. Soon after it was discovered the TaepoDong program stopped making visible progress. After the roll-out of mockups and initial static engine tests, the program made no additional news and simply disappeared. Meanwhile the older and less ambitious NoDong project also stopped. In the United States, NIE- provoked a series of Congressional hearings and a Congressionally Commissioned investigation. The latter upheld the key findings of the NIE. Last, the Defend America Act never attracted sufficient support to become law and it too gradually disappeared.

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