Iran's Shihab-3 Missile

March 9, 2003

Weapon Program: 

  • Missile


Israel Briman


Middle East Missile Monitor

Related Country: 

  • Iraq
  • Israel
  • Russia
Figure 1
Figure 2


  • The 1300 Km Shihab (Comet) 3 IRBM achieved operational status with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Air Force in July 2003 . It is believed that by now Iran possesses about 20 missiles of this type, which can reach Israel as well as US military targets in the Middle East

  • The missile's range and payload conforms well to Iran's nuclear ambitions.

  • The ancestry of the Shihab 3 is the North Korean missile program, which relied heavily on Soviet/Russian technology transfer.

  • While its Nodong 1 progenitor was tested only once, its clones - the Pakistani Ghauri and the Iranian Shihab 3 accumulated more than 10 flight test, of which more than one half may have been successful. Hence, the Iranian may feel justified in claiming operational status after what is considered a lean flight test program by Western standards.


Iran was massively attacked with ballistic missiles during the Iran - Iraq war 1980 - 1988. Iraq fired about two hundreds of Scud type ballistic missiles into Iran. This war made a deep impression on Iranian policymakers. The lack of a suitable answer to the Iraqi missile attacks pushed Iran to acquire some ballistic missiles from Libya and Syria. A somewhat one-sided international embargo also emphasized the importance of self-sufficiency, particularly in modern sophisticated weapon systems, including ballistic missiles.

Iran views Israel and the United States as its primary enemies. Thus its ballistic missile interests would be to hold Israel at risk and to deter the U.S., the "Great Satan", from intervening in the area, contrary to Iranian interests. In addition Iran has a clear need to be able to deter its neighbors and to prevent the recurrence of the type of situation it found itself facing during the Iran-Iraq war.

Iran joined the club of countries with independent ballistic missile capabilities in 1995 with the initial operational capability of the 300 km Shihab-1. These missiles were actually 300 km range North Korean Scud-B missiles. Later Iran acquired 500 km range Shihab-2 missiles, which are based on Scud-C missiles. These missiles did not cover the full extent of the area of geopolitical interest to Iran, most notably Israel*. Iran was interested in acquiring a longer range ballistic missile and decided to join in the funding of the development of Nodong-1 (a long-range ballistic missile) by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) - North Korea.

DPRK has been developing ballistic missiles for many years, but their traditional practice has been the addition of incremental improvements to their single engine Scud design. The Scud is based on the first generation Soviet R-11 ballistic missile. It had a single Isayev liquid rocket engine capable of flying the 5.5 ton R-11 to a maximum range of 290 km. The North Korean engineers, supported by Soviet know-how, developed from the R-11 a Scud-B and later a 500 km Scud-C variant. These Scud derivatives were supplied by the DPRK to Iran and several other Middle Eastern countries.

As the R-11 design could not be stretched to provide the range and payload to fulfill the DPRK's strategic requirements, a different approach had to be found. According to Global Security org. the DPRK used a larger Isayev propulsion system to power the Nodong-1. This unit (the R-13 or R-21 type) powered the first Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missiles. This North Korean activity was supported by massive Soviet / Russian technical help albeit not always with official sanction. In October 1992 for example more than 60 Russian missile specialists were stopped from traveling to Pyongyang. These experts were from the V.P. Makayev OKB, the submarine ballistic missile design bureau.

The first flight test of Nodong-1 was performed in 1993 and achieved a range of 500 km. The missile was launched to a high apogee trajectory, probably in order to demonstrate and test the separation of the warhead from the rocket motor, both of which finally fell into the Sea of Japan. This is the only recorded Nodong-1 test flight. The program was plagued by technical and financial problems. The production models of Nodong-1 were probably not available for export before 1996 or 1997. Two "Muslim missiles" were derived from the DPRK Nodong-1 design. These are the Iranian Shihab-3 and the Pakistani Ghauri. This becomes obvious when comparing pictures and dimensions of these three ballistic missiles. It is believed that Iran may have purchased up to 10 of these Nodong-1 missiles and a further number of liquid propulsion units from DPRK. Since 1998 Shihab-3 and Ghauri flight tests have been performed by Iran and Pakistan bringing to about 10 the number of flight tests of various Nodong-1 derivatives.

The first Shihab-3 flight test was conducted in July 1998. It ended after only some two minutes into the flight, instead of the 10 minutes needed to reach the full range. Further two flight tests were conducted in 2000. The second test in 2000 was apparently unsuccessful, as the missile exploded shortly after launch. Iran claimed that this test was successful and that the missile was "solid fueled" and would be used for launching communications satellites instead of warheads. In 2002 Iran performed at least additional two flight tests of the Shihab-3.

Since April 2003 the strategic balance in the Iranian sphere of interest has been totally changed by the US occupation of Iraq. Nevertheless on July 7th, 2003, Iran confirmed that it had conducted a final flight test of the Shihab-3, a missile capable of hitting Israel and which covers Iraq and Afghanistan in which the US now has a deep interest (see map bellow).


The Iranian Shihab-3 (or Shahab-3) has also been designated Zelzal-3. The Shihab-3 is estimated to have 15.2 - 16 ton take-off mass. It has a 1.3 m diameter and a length of 17 meter. The Shihab-3 will reportedly have a 1300-1500 km operational range with a respective 1000-750 kg warhead. A first generation nuclear warhead has typically a weight of about 1000 kg. Thus the sizing of the Shihab-3 matches well the nuclear ambitions of Iran, expressed by its broadly based nuclear program.

In addition to nuclear power generation, this program seems geared to develop Iranian capability to produce both Plutonium and highly enriched Uranium, both intended for nuclear weapons. Global Security org. estimates the accuracy, CEP, of Nodong-1 as being approximately 2 km. Use of GPS navigation can improve the CEP to ~50 m. Shihab-3 will have similar accuracies.

In May 2002 it was reported that Iran had decided to start full production of the Shihab-3 missiles. Israeli officials estimated that Iran has now an arsenal of at least 20 Shihab-3s. The "final acceptance test" on July 7 2003 was apparently very successful. While reluctant at first to disclose this test, once Israeli sources leaked its existence the Iranians officially disclosed that the Shihab 3 was henceforth operational with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Air Force. An impressive rollout parade saluting Iran's hard line clerical ruler, the Aiatollah Hamenai, was broadcast by the Iranian TV networks.

*Iran's ability to attack Israel by ballistic missiles is not restricted to the capabilities of the Shihab-3. For many years Iran has boosted its indirect missile capacities against Israel through the Lebanese based Hizbullah terrorist organization. Iran has transferred (via Syria) hundreds of short-range Fajir rockets to the Hizbullah. These Rockets have a 40-50 km range. From Lebanon they threaten northern Israel including Haifa, a major sea port and industrial center.