- Weapon Program Background Report
Table of Contents
- Early Missile Ambitions
- Current Ballistic Missile Capabilities
- Space Launch Vehicles
- Cruise Missiles
- The Nuclear Weapon Dimension
- Key Institutions and Personnel
- International Sanctions
- Foreign Suppliers
- The Role of Export Control
Iran's arsenal of guided missiles is the largest and most diverse in the Middle East. Many of those missiles are large enough to carry nuclear payloads, a fact that has long been an object of international concern. In 2015, the United Nations Security Council warned Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" until October 2023.
This concern was well founded. Iran had already started an effort to mate a missile to a nuclear warhead. According to an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Iran had a "coordinated" program to develop a nuclear weapon through the end of 2003 that included work to integrate a new spherical payload with nuclear weapon characteristics into its Shahab-3 ballistic missile. Since then a U.S. intelligence threat assessment has expressly cautioned that Iran "would choose ballistic missiles as its preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them."
Iran does not yet have a nuclear warhead, but it now possesses missiles large enough to carry one approximately 2,000 km. Its engineers have mastered missile stage separation and have used both liquid and solid propellant. If Iran does develop a nuclear warhead, its missiles would be powerful enough to deliver it throughout the Middle East and to parts of Europe.
Iran has also developed both cruise and ballistic missiles for use in conventional combat. And it has used such missiles to target Islamic State positions in Syria, an Iranian Kurdish separatist group in northern Iraq, and military bases hosting U.S. troops in Iraq. These attacks demonstrate the improved accuracy of Iran's missiles and Iran's willingness to use them in military strikes.
Iran has also transferred missiles to its proxies, including: Hezbollah, a longstanding recipient of Iranian funds and arms; Shi’ite militias in Iraq; and Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who have used Iranian missiles to strike civilian targets in Saudi Arabia on numerous occasions.
These actions highlight the growing importance of missiles to Iran’s security policy. They also follow a number of technical strides made by Iran in the past two decades, including extending the range and accuracy of its missiles, developing cruise missiles, building mobile launchers and underground silos, placing three satellites into low earth orbit using its own space launch vehicle, and improving its missile propellants.
This progress, paired with the increasing size of Iran’s arsenal – estimated in March 2020 at 2,500-3,000 ballistic missiles plus an uncertain number of cruise missiles – enables Tehran to more credibly threaten U.S. bases and ships in the Middle East, as well as its neighbors’ cities and critical infrastructure, than it could a decade ago.
This essay traces the history of Iran's missile effort, with a focus on their role as a nuclear weapon delivery vehicle. The essay provides an overview of Iran's current capabilities, identifies key entities supporting the effort, explains where Iran has found foreign help, and reviews efforts to hinder Tehran’s progress.
Early Missile Ambitions
Iran's determination to acquire and produce 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. Iran 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, Soviet-origin missiles use liquid fuel and can fly about 280-300 km when carrying a 770-1,000 kg warhead. They are large enough to accommodate a nuclear payload. Before long, Iran had depleted its small supply in the war with Iraq. 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 the North Korean 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.
Not content to import missiles from abroad, Iran began to develop a domestic program. One of its earliest steps 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, 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.
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 2019 by the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, Iran's inventory of ballistic missiles has since grown to become the largest in the Middle East.
Current Ballistic Missile Capabilities*
Ballistic missiles can be divided into five classes based on range: close range (less than 300 kilometers), short range (300 to 1,000 km), medium range (1,000 to 3,000 km), intermediate range (3,000 to 5,500 km), and intercontinental (more than 5,500 km). As of March 2020, Iran’s ballistic arsenal is composed mainly of short and medium range missiles, although some work on longer range missiles is suspected.
Missiles can also be classified according to whether they are liquid-fueled or solid-fueled. A liquid-fueled missile engine produces more thrust per pound of fuel than a solid-fueled engine, but is more complex and can require many precision-machined and moving parts. Some types of liquid-fueled missiles must also be fueled at their launch site, which makes them easier for an opponent to detect and destroy. Solid-fueled missile engines, on the other hand, are relatively economical and easy to maintain, and they can be stored for many years. Solid fuel also allows for a more rapid launch. Solid-fueled missiles are therefore generally less vulnerable in combat.
Missile accuracy is measured by the concept of circular error probable (CEP): the radius within which, on average, half of all missiles fired will land. For example, given a missile with a CEP of ten meters, if one hundred were launched at a target, on average fifty would land within ten meters.
Short Range Ballistic Missiles
Iran’s short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) can reach targets in Iraq, Syria, and the countries of the Persian Gulf. They comprise both aging and new systems with liquid and solid fuel, ranges between 300 and 750 kilometers, and CEP accuracies ranging from several kilometers to about ten meters. Iran is estimated to have up to 100 mobile SRBM launchers. The main missile families within this category are the Fateh and the Shahab (Scud). Iran also possesses the solid-fueled, Chinese-made, 150 km-range CSS 8 (also called the Tondar 69).
Fateh Missile Family: Fateh-110, Fateh-313, Zolfaghar, and Raad-500
The Fateh-110 is the base model of the Fateh family of missiles and the mainstay of Iran’s current SRBM arsenal. It is a steel-bodied, single-stage, surface-to-surface, solid-fueled missile with a diameter of 0.61 m, which is capable of delivery a 500 kg payload up to 300 km. According to a 2015 U.S. Air Force study, the Fateh-110 has CEP of 100 meters, although Iran reportedly later developed a guidance kit for the missile that could reduce its CEP to 30 meters or less.
Iran claimed to have first successfully flight tested the Fateh 110 in September 2002. Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former President and Speaker of Parliament, asserted that Iran itself produced the solid fuel propellant for the missile. In January 2000, then-Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced 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. An upgraded version of the Fateh-110 was allegedly delivered to the IRGC Aerospace Force in September 2010.
The Fateh-313 is an improved variant of the Fateh-110 with a maximum range of 500 km. It features a smaller nose cone than the Fateh-110, and as a result probably has a smaller payload. According to Iranian sources, components of the missile are made with carbon fiber, a material that is lighter than steel and makes a missile more difficult to detect on radar. The Fateh-313 was unveiled in 2015, and it was likely used in Iran’s missile attack on U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2020. Independent analysis of that attack suggests that some of the missiles used in it had a CEP as low as 10 meters.
The Zolfaghar is a single-stage, solid-fueled missile unveiled in 2016 with a maximum range of 700 km. It appears to be derived from the Fateh-313. Its payload and CEP are unknown, although Iranian media have estimated the Zolfaghar to be capable of delivering a payload of between 450 and 600 kg. The Zolfaghar was reportedly used in Iran’s 2017 strike against Islamic State positions in Syria, but was alleged to be inaccurate. In 2019, Iran unveiled a variant of the Zolfaghar named Dezful, with a reported range of 1,000 km.
The Raad-500 was unveiled in February 2020. It is reportedly an improvement on the Fateh design with a 500 km range and a CEP of 30 meters. According to IRGC Aerospace Force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, its body is made entirely of a non-metallic composite material reportedly containing carbon fiber. It is distinct from the Raad, an Iranian anti-ship cruise missile in service since 2007, as well as from a Pakistani cruise missile of the same name.
Shahab (Scud) Missile Family: Shahab-1, Shahab-2, and Qiam-1
The Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles are modified versions of the Soviet Scud-B and Scud-C, respectively, which Iran obtained from North Korea in the 1980s and 1990s. Both are single-stage, liquid-fueled missiles that can be fired from mobile launchers. The Shahab-1 can deliver a 985 kg payload to a maximum range of 300 km. It has a 0.885 m diameter and a CEP of roughly 500 meters. The Shahab-2 can deliver a 770 kg payload to a maximum range of 500 km. It has a 0.88 m diameter and a 700 meter CEP. Iran may have several hundred Shahab-1 and Shahab-2 missiles remaining in its arsenal.
The Qiam-1 is a single-stage, liquid-fueled missile capable of delivering a 650 kg payload to a maximum range of 800 km. Independent analysts have estimated the Qiam-1 to have a CEP of several hundred meters; however, as it was one of the missiles used in the January 2020 strike on U.S. forces in Iraq, which was widely considered accurate, it is possible that the Qiam-1’s CEP has recently improved. The missile has a road-mobile launcher, but it is also designed to be launched from underground silos. Iran has claimed that the Qiam-1 features a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MARV).
The Qiam-1 is derived from the Shahab-2, but is distinctive in that it has a triconic warhead and no tail fins – allegedly making it more difficult to detect with radar. The missile design may enhance the accuracy of conventional warheads as well as provide a delivery vehicle for a smaller nuclear weapon. It was unveiled in 2010 and has been successfully flight tested several times since. Iran reportedly employed the Qiam-1 in its strikes against Islamic State positions in 2017 and 2018, in addition to its January 2020 attack on U.S. forces. Yemen’s Houthi rebels have used a variant of the Qiam-1, named Burkan-2H, to attack targets in Saudi Arabia from ranges of over 900 km.
Medium Range Ballistic Missiles
Iran’s medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) have ranges up to 2,000 kilometers, allowing them to reach Israel, Lebanon, and parts of Eastern Europe. The bulk of Iran’s MRBM arsenal is known to have poor accuracy, and newer models are unproven. They could nonetheless be used to target cities, and are of particular concern should Iran develop nuclear warheads. As of 2019, Iran is estimated to have 50 mobile MRBM launchers. It could also launch many of its MRBMs from silos. The main missiles in this category are the Shahab-3, the Sejjil, and the Khorramshahr.
Shahab-3 and Variants
The Shahab-3 is a single-stage, liquid-fueled, road mobile ballistic missile derived from an imported version of North Korea’s No-Dong missile. With a diameter between 1.25 and 1.38 m, it is large enough to carry a nuclear warhead. According to Iranian officials and U.S. and Russian technical experts, the original Shahab-3 could carry a 1,000 kg payload to a maximum range of 1,300 km. Iran tested the missile at least seven times between July 1998 and 2003, with mixed results. Nevertheless, Iran declared the missile operational and delivered it to the armed forces in 2003. Iran is believed to have fielded several hundred 1,300 km Shahab-3 missiles.
The Shahab-3, like the No-Dong, is a scaled-up version of the Scud B and Scud C missiles, and shares the Scud's weaknesses in conventional combat. 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, the CEP of the Shahab-3 at a range of 1,300 km has been estimated as high as 3 km. With such low accuracy, it could not be counted on to hit troops or even an airfield. The wide area of effect of a nuclear explosion would negate this shortcoming, however, meaning that the Shahab-3 has potential utility as a nuclear weapon delivery vehicle. This is why Iran chose the Shahab-3 for its experiments with nuclear warhead design.
Iran has developed and tested variants of the missile, including the Ghadr (Qadr) and the Emad-1, which Iran claims have a greater range (up to 2,000 km) and payload capacity (750 - 1,000 kg), as well as improved accuracy. Some of these variants have reportedly improved the Shahab-3’s reentry vehicle. According to Israeli engineer Uzi Rubin, Iran tested a version in 2004 with a baby bottle-shaped (triconic) reentry vehicle. Iran claims that the Emad-1 variant, unveiled in 2015, features a maneuverable reentry vehicle (MARV), and independent analysts have estimated it to have a CEP of 500 meters at its 2,000 km maximum range. Tests of Shahab-3 variants continue, with the most recent alleged to have taken place in April 2019.
On May 20, 2009, Iran successfully tested the Sejjil-2, a two-stage, solid-fueled missile. It appears to have been successfully tested several times since then. U.S. officials confirmed Iran's claim that the missile's range is 2,000 to 2,500 km. It has a diameter of 1.25 m, and its CEP is unknown. 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 one-ton warhead, which the Sejjil "should be able to carry to a range of about 2,200 km." Iran announced that it test-fired an upgraded version in December 2009, which reportedly boasted a shorter launch time. No tests have been reported since 2012, however, and as of March 2020 Iran has not declared the Sejjil to be operational.
The Khorramshahr is a liquid-fueled missile with a payload capacity of 1,800 kg and a reported range of 2,000 km. It is derived from the North Korean Musudan (BM-25) missile, itself a variant 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. In 2007, then-U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates claimed that North Korea had sold Iran missiles with capabilities matching the Musudan. In 2017, after multiple reported tests, Iran displayed its modified Musudan as the Khorramshahr.
The Khorramshahr’s large payload may give it more conventional firepower than Iran’s other missiles, but as of March 2020 much remains unknown about its capabilities. Iranian media have speculated that a new "compound" warhead displayed on the Khorramshahr in September 2019 may be able to accommodate "a number of small warheads of a few hundred kilograms." Chief of Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces Mohammad Hossein Baqeri claimed at that time that the missile impacted within a meter of its target during testing. Independent estimates, however, have put the Khorramshahr’s accuracy at up to a 1.5 km CEP and posited that the new warhead is a cluster munition. Its diameter is estimated to be between 1.5 and 2 m.
The Khorramshahr’s reported range is also subject to doubt. The maximum range of the Musudan is estimated to be between 2,500 and 4,000 km, which exceeds the 2,000 km claimed by Iran for the Khorramshahr. It is possible that the IRGC Aerospace Force – which has declared that it has no intention to build missiles with a range greater than 2,000 km, in keeping with an alleged order by Supreme Leader Khamenei – has either modified the missile to reduce its range or is concealing its true range. A maximum range greater than 3,000 km would classify the Khorramshahr as an intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM).
Ballistic Missile Launch Silos
Iran has built underground structures to conceal and protect its ballistic missiles since at least 2008. Some of those structures are single-missile silos that serve only as hardened launch sites. In recent years, however, Iran has constructed large subterranean complexes that house missile storage and production facilities. In some instances, these underground "missile cities" contain miles of tunnels and launch sites that enable Iran to combine the mobility of its transporter-erector launchers (TELs) with the protection and concealment offered by an underground site.
Space Launch Vehicles
At the same time Iran developed ballistic missiles, it developed space launch vehicles (SLVs). Although SLVs are stated to have a civilian and not a military purpose, they use many of the same technologies as ICBMs. Both lift and release a payload on an accurate trajectory beyond the earth’s atmosphere. As a result, many countries’ space programs have contributed directly to their missile programs.
Iran is no exception. Its space program is primarily overseen by the civilian Iranian Space Agency, which falls under the Ministry of Information and Communications Technology; but the Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics plays a role in SLV and satellite development. The IRGC Aerospace Force also maintains its own military space program.
In October 2005, Russia launched Iran's first satellite, the Sina-1, on a Russian rocket. 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. Since then, Iran’s indigenous space program has produced three SLVs: the Safir, the Simorgh, and the Qased.
Iran's first SLV, the liquid-fueled, two-stage Safir rocket, initially failed during an August 2008 flight test. In February 2009, however, Iran successfully launched the Safir into space, 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. A string of failures reportedly followed. 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 long-range ballistic missiles. In February 2015, Iran again launched the Safir successfully, carrying the Fajr satellite, but in February 2019 it reportedly failed to launch the Doosti satellite.
The Safir’s first stage is reportedly based on the Shahab-3 MRBM. According to Iranian media reports, the complete 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 52 kg into low-earth orbit.
In February 2010, Iran unveiled a larger space launch vehicle called Simorgh. The Simorgh is a two-stage, liquid-fueled rocket that appears to be based on the North Korean Unha-3/Taepodong-2 SLV design, reportedly using a cluster of four Shahab-3 engines for the first stage. It was reportedly developed with North Korean assistance, perhaps including design data and stage separation technology. Iran claims that the Simorgh could place a 250 kg satellite into a 500 km orbit.
The Simorgh has had a poorer launch record than the Safir. It has yet to send a satellite into orbit as of June 2020. It was first tested in April 2016 and failed to reach orbit, though it is possible that it was not meant to do so in this test. The Simorgh then experienced three consecutive launch failures in July 2017, February 2019 (with a Payam satellite), and February 2020 (Zafar satellite) respectively.
On April 22, 2020, the IRGC Aerospace Force successfully launched a Noor satellite into a 425-440 km orbit using a newly-developed SLV called Qased. The Qased is a three-stage rocket that employs both liquid- and solid-fuel technology. Its first stage is based on the Ghadr MRBM, a liquid-fueled Shahab-3 variant. Its second and third stages are both solid-fueled. The second stage appears to use the Salman motor, which was developed by the IRGC’s Research and Self-Sufficiency Jehad Organization. There are few details about the origin of the third stage.
Relevance to Missiles
The potential missile applications of Iran’s SLVs have long been an object of concern. After the Safir’s early launches, a joint assessment by U.S. and Russian technical experts found 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. intelligence community’s 2019 Worldwide Threat Assessment, "Iran’s work on a space launch vehicle (SLV) – including on its Simorgh – shortens the timeline to an ICBM because SLVs and ICBMs use similar technologies."
The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency was more explicit. It found that the Simorgh could be capable of ICBM ranges if configured as a ballistic missile. Independent estimates put the Simorgh’s range at 4,000-6,000 km – on the upper end of IRBM and the lower end of ICBM range – if carrying a nuclear payload. A missile with such a range could threaten Europe. The Simorgh also is reported to use hypergolic propellant, a type of liquid fuel that is stored more easily, and thus is more militarily useful, than the cryogenic propellant often used in SLVs.
The Qased is of even greater concern. It confirms that Iran has a military space program run by the IRGC Aerospace Force, which also controls Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal. In addition, the Qased uses solid-fuel and was launched from a mobile platform with no advance warning. Initial estimates place the Qased’s range if used as a ballistic missile at slightly more than 2,000 km, when carrying a 1,000 kg payload.
The Qased’s success in placing a satellite into orbit on the first attempt could also indicate improved guidance: the systems that enable an SLV to release a satellite at the right speed, in the right direction, and at the right time for it to enter orbit could also enable an ICBM to release its re-entry vehicle with a similar level of precision.
A broader concern is that Iranian engineers gain knowledge and experience from SLV development that could be applied to ICBM work. India appeared to follow such a path in its missile development, by gradually building on experience gained from Indian collaborations with NASA.
Cruise missiles function essentially as pilotless aircraft. They are powered by an air breathing jet engine, fly slower than a ballistic missile and close to the earth’s surface, and are guided on their entire flight path. These characteristics pose a different set of challenges to missile defense systems and thereby round out a country’s missile arsenal. Cruise missiles can be divided into two categories based on their intended target set: land-attack and anti-ship. This essay focuses on Land-Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs) that may be nuclear-capable.
Iran's development of LACMs may have received a boost in 2001, when it purchased several Soviet Kh-55 air-launched cruise missiles on the Ukrainian black market. It made slow progress over the subsequent decade in duplicating them, due at least in part to difficulty obtaining and producing complex turbojet or turbofan engines. Since 2012, however, Iran has unveiled, tested, and used several new models. Iran’s current arsenal can be broken down into three classes: the Soumar family (Kh-55 derivatives), the Ya Ali, and the Quds-1.
While the Soviet Kh-55 (AS-15) was originally designed to carry a nuclear warhead, its Iranian Soumar variants have not been reported by the U.S. government to be nuclear-capable. According to non-governmental reporting, the Soumar and its variants are "possibly nuclear capable." (The other LACM classes are not nuclear-capable.)
The Soumar and its variants have additional substantial differences from the Kh-55, which is an air-launched missile with a range of 2,500 to 3,000 kilometers. The Soumar itself is a ground-launched missile with a maximum range of 700 km. In February 2019, Iran introduced an improved variant of the Soumar named Hoveizeh, with a reported range of 1,350 km.
The Nuclear Weapon Dimension
The primary concern about Iran’s missiles is that they could deliver nuclear weapons. As of April 2020, Iran does not have the highly enriched uranium needed to fuel a nuclear weapon. However, Tehran’s progressive abandonment of restrictions on its nuclear program following the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) raises the possibility that Iran could again position itself for a ‘breakout’ effort to develop a nuclear-armed missile.
In order to do so, Iran would have to complete a few technological steps: first, building a nuclear warhead, which requires miniaturizing a nuclear device and designing a complex detonation system; and second, mating the warhead to a missile, which requires adapting the warhead or missile to account for a nuclear warhead’s unique ballistic properties and creating a reentry vehicle to protect the warhead as the missile re-enters the Earth’s atmosphere.
Iran has worked on all of those things in the past. From the late 1990s until 2003, it coordinated efforts to develop a nuclear weapon under the Amad Plan. Details of the Amad Plan have gradually emerged through International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports and from documents obtained by Israeli intelligence. In 2008, the IAEA 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 a part of the Amad Plan known as "Project 111." In November 2011, the IAEA said that Iran may have explored a number of missile warhead designs suitable for delivering a nuclear payload. Included in this work was the development of explosive bridgewire detonators which, according to a 2015 IAEA report, had "characteristics relevant to a nuclear explosive device."
Both U.S. intelligence and the IAEA concluded that Iran ended the Amad Plan in 2003. After that date, nuclear weapon-related work was divided into covert and overt streams. According to the IAEA, "some activities" related to the development of a nuclear explosive device took place between 2003 and 2009. According to the U.S. State Department, Iran has kept together its team of scientists involved in the Amad Plan under an entity called the Organization of Defensive Innovation and Research (SPND), which has been led since 2011 by the former head of the Amad Plan, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.
Key Institutions and Personnel
A broad network of entities are involved in Iran’s missile program. The program’s impetus flow from the top of Iran’s power structure: Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has taken a special interest in missile development dating back to his presidency during the Iran-Iraq War, and the overall IRGC commander, Hossein Salami, is a former commander of the IRGC Aerospace Force, the end-user of most of Iran’s missiles. Aerospace Force commander Amir Ali Hajizadeh, a forceful proponent of missile development, is another key figure. Following are brief descriptions of some of those key institutions driving Iran’s progress.
IRGC Aerospace Force
The IRGC Aerospace Force originated during the Iran-Iraq War as an air transportation division for the newly-created IRGC. It was established as a separate service, the IRGC Air Force, in 1985 when Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini divided the IRGC into ground, naval, and air forces. Over time, the IRGC Air Force and the regular air force (Islamic Republic of Iran Air Force, or IRI Air Force) established a division of labor between them: the IRI Air Force came to operate most of Iran’s aging fleet of combat aircraft, while the IRGC Air Force gained control over most of Iran’s missiles and drones. In 2009, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei changed the IRGC Air Force’s name to Aerospace Force in formal recognition of this role.
The IRGC Aerospace Force oversees the development and production of missiles and associated equipment, such as launchers and silos. It has overall operational control over Iran’s missile arsenal, with the exception of some anti-ship cruise missiles that are controlled by the IRGC and IRI navies. Current IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh was appointed to the role in 2009.
Al-Ghadir Missile Command
According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, Al-Ghadir Missile Command is the military unit within the IRGC Aerospace Force that "is responsible for Iran’s deployed missile force." Al-Ghadir Missile Command has been involved in missile launches since 2008. It regularly participates in Iran’s national-level Noble Prophet military exercises, and in 2017 conducted its own exercise named Eqtedar e-Velayat. As of May 2018, its commander was Mahmud Baqeri Kazemabad.
Aerospace Industries Organization
The Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) is an industrial and military subsidiary of Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) that designs and produces missiles. According to its founding law, AIO is responsible for "research, design, building, production, purchase, sale, and support in the field of technologies related to missile systems and space industries in the defense sector."
AIO oversees an extensive sanctions evasion network used to procure materials needed for Iran’s missile program. According to the U.S. Department of the Treasury, AIO subsidiaries, subordinates, and front companies have been involved in purchasing millions of dollars’ worth of equipment for missile development. AIO is also involved in Iran’s space program: it designed a satellite in 2019, and reportedly also built a satellite launched in 2015 and designed launchpads for SLVs.
AIO’s main subordinate entities for missile-related work are Shahid Hemat Industrial Group (SHIG), which is responsible for production of liquid-fueled ballistic missiles, and Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), which is responsible for production of solid-fueled ballistic missiles.
IRGC Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization
The IRGC Research and Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organization (RSSJO) is a division of the IRGC responsible for research and development of military technologies, including ballistic missiles and armed drones. RSSJO was previously directed by Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, an IRGC officer considered the "Father of Iran’s Missile Program." He was killed in 2011, in an explosion at the Shahid Modarres Garrison, a missile research facility. The second stage of the IRGC’s Qased space launch vehicle was reportedly designed by RRSJO.
Apprehension about the objectives of Iran's ballistic missile program gave rise to international sanctions in the mid-2000s. 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. The resolution also asked countries to freeze the assets of certain companies and individuals. Three subsequent Security Council resolutions, 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), and 1929 (2010) increased sanctions and designated additional entities for their involvement with Iran's nuclear and missile programs. Combined, the resolutions asked countries to freeze the assets of several key Iranian missile entities.
In 2015, these resolutions were superseded by Security Council resolution 2231, which accompanied the nuclear accord with Iran, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Resolution 2231 imposes less stringent restrictions on Iran’s missile program than its predecessors did. It "calls upon" Iran "not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" and permits member states to sell missiles and missile systems to Iran on a case-by-case basis if approved by the Security Council. (No such sales have been approved as of June 2020) These restrictions expire in 2023.
Resolution 2231 also maintains sanctions on many of the key entities supporting Iran's missile development. These include: Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), Fajr Industrial Group, Sanam Industrial Group, and Ya Mahdi Industries Group, which are subordinate to Iran's Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO); Electro Sanam Company, Ettehad Technical Group, Joza Industrial Co., and Safety Equipment Procurement, which are AIO front companies; Parchin Chemical Industries and Niru Battery Manufacturing Company, which are subordinate to Iran's Defense Industries Organization (DIO, a sister organization to AIO).
The United States withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018 in part because the agreement did not adequately address missile proliferation and testing. Washington has since sanctioned broad sectors of the Iranian economy in a "maximum pressure" campaign intended, among other aims, to curb Iran’s missile program.
Iran’s (and other countries’) access to missile components and technology is also restricted by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The MTCR is a consortium of 35 countries whose goal is to restrict the proliferation of missiles and unmanned air systems that are capable of delivering a 500 kg payload at least 300 km. MTCR members do so by adhering to a set of common export guidelines applied to a shared list of controlled items. Iran has regularly sought to acquire items on this shared list, and items just below the MTCR control threshold, using elaborate illicit procurement schemes involving overseas networks.
According to the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 report on Iran’s military power, "Iran continues to depend on foreign suppliers for critical [missile] components and technology." 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. 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.
North Korea effectively served as Iran’s off-shore development site for liquid fuel, Scud-type missiles. The BM-25 (Khorramshahr), the Shahab-3, and the Scud B and C (Shahab-1 and -2), have all 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. North Korea reportedly also helped Iran to develop its Simorgh SLV from the North Korean Unha-3 design.
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 for proliferation activities with Iran. As early as May 1996, it connected Changgwang Sinyong with Iran's Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL) in a set of targeted sanctions against the two entities. KOMID 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. KOMID reportedly maintains "active" offices in Tehran. A March 2020 report by the U.N. panel of experts for North Korea named a number of KOMID representatives based in Iran.
For decades, Beijing has been a major supplier of ballistic missile technology. Beijing's help appears to have started in the 1980s, during Iran's work on the Mushak missile. 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."
A number of Chinese firms engaged in missile-related work have been sanctioned by the United States for 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 MTCR-controlled goods to SBIG. CPMIEC markets the "M-family" missile, liquid and solid rocket motors, precision machinery, and a variety of tactical missiles.
More recently, Chinese national Li Fang Wei (Karl Lee) has been a key supplier to SBIG and other entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program. Li reportedly worked through the Iranian embassy in Beijing to sell missile-usable components including gyroscopes, accelerometers, graphite cylinders, ultra-high strength steel, and high-grade aluminum alloy. His company, LIMMT Economic and Trade Company, Ltd, was the centerpiece of a network of at least 22 front companies and affiliates that for years evaded U.S. trade and financial sanctions. Li was added to the SDN list in 2009 and has been sanctioned and indicted numerous times by the United States.
Other notable targets of U.S. sanctions for supply to Iran include the China Shipbuilding Trading Company, Beijing Alite Technologies Company, Wuhan Sanjiang Import and Export Company, and Gaobeidian Kaituo Precise Instrument Company.
The Chinese government 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. Although not a member of the MTCR, China's export control laws reflect MTCR controls. However, on five occasions between February 2017 and March 2020 the United States sanctioned Chinese entities for involvement in Iranian missile proliferation networks.
Despite Russia's adherence to the MTCR since 1995, Russian entities have helped Iran "develop new missiles and increase Tehran's self-sufficiency in missile production," according to a CIA report covering missile proliferation during the first half of 2003.
Reportedly, Russian assistance included the supply of special alloys for long-range missiles, including steel for missile casings and foil to shield missile guidance components; stainless steel that could be used to make fuel tanks for Scuds; and navigation and guidance technology. In addition, 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. Russian entities allegedly involved in these activities were sanctioned by the United States in the late 1990s.
Russian assistance was critical in the early development of the Shahab missile. Russia's arms exporting agency, Rosoboronexport, reportedly helped to construct a wind tunnel, which can be used to design and test missile components. 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."
Russian support to Iran’s missile program appears to have subsided between 2010 and 2020, with the notable exception of Russia’s sale and delivery to Iran of an S-300 (SA-20c) surface-to-air missile system in 2016. Moscow reportedly rejected an Iranian request to purchase the more advanced S-400 air defense system in 2019.
The Role of Export Control
Iran has demonstrated an ability to design and produce advanced missiles, but as of 2020 it is not self-sufficient in doing so. For instance, it appears to lack the ability to domestically produce certain materials, such as carbon fiber, in sufficient quantity or quality to mass-produce missiles, such as the Fateh-313, that incorporate those materials into their design. Iran also needs such lightweight and heat resistant materials to help with re-entry for longer-range missiles. Tehran faces similar limitations in manufacturing complex components, such as small turbofan engines for powering high-end cruise missiles.
Tehran may also rely on technologies and expertise from abroad when designing new missiles. Most of the powerful rocket engines for Iran’s MRBMs and SLVs are based on North Korean designs (themselves derived from Soviet technology), whereas Iran’s anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs) are almost entirely variants of Chinese models. Iran has been able to reproduce and in some cases improve upon those designs, but it is unclear whether Tehran would be able to take big technological steps – such as developing an ICBM – without imports. In particular, Iran may depend on foreign support to improve missile guidance, through technologies such as laser and fiber optic gyros. Effective export controls can impede Iran from filling in these and other gaps in its missile capabilities.
Iran’s missile program has a long and active history and is driven by influential forces at the top of the Islamic Republic’s hierarchy. Iran in recent years has developed – and demonstrated in action – a number of advanced conventionally-armed missiles that can threaten U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East. It has also been increasingly willing to export these missiles, as well as missile production equipment, to its proxies in the region.
Meanwhile, Iran's ballistic missiles remain a concern because of their ability to deliver nuclear weapons, should Iran choose to develop such weapons. Iran may have maintained some part of a covert nuclear-military program that previously worked on arming a missile with a nuclear warhead.
*Technical missile capabilities (range, accuracy, etc.) listed here are based on our comparison of available U.S. government, independent, and Iranian claims and estimates. Key sources referenced are: for U.S. government, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)’s 2019 Iran Military Power report; for independent analysis, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS)’ Missile Defense Project; and for Iranian claims, Tasnim News Agency, a semi-official news organization with close ties to the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC). Whenever DIA and CSIS assessments conflicted, or when those sources did not give an assessment of a particular capability, we referenced another U.S. government or independent source. Iranian claims not corroborated by independent or U.S. government assessments are indicated as such in the text of the essay. *