The Iranians know they cannot win a war against the United States. Their stated policy is to deter the U.S. and its allies by threatening a war that will cause such damage at such a price that this option will become unacceptable. With this perspective, they are investing very smartly in deterrence enhancers and force multipliers instead of replacing obsolete equipment.
What does Iran invest in? Precision strike munitions, anti-ship missiles, nuclear weapons, ballistic missiles, and space capabilities. The newer Shahab 3ER missile (based on the North Korean No Dong), with a reach of 2,000 km, can threaten Ankara or Alexandria, giving Iran leverage over the entire Middle East.
Iran has acquired eighteen BM25 land-mobile missiles with launchers from North Korea, which can strike targets in Europe. In the past, the BM25 has been produced in two models: one with a range of 2,500 km and the second with a range of 3,500 km.
Well-substantiated reports indicate that the Iranians managed to smuggle out of Ukraine several Russian Kh 55 strategic cruise missiles, probably not to be deployed but to be emulated and copied.
In 1998 Iran announced a space program. A space launcher that can orbit a satellite weighing 300 kg can be altered into an ICBM that could drop more than 300 kg on Washington.
Iran’s political leadership is now aiming toward global power projection in the name of Islam, demanding recognition that Islam comprises 25 percent of humanity and should occupy its rightful place in decision-making in world affairs. Statements like this are not about self-defense.
Iran is Seeking to Deter the United States
What is the rationale behind the Iranian missile program? Prior to 1991 and the first Gulf War, the main threat to Iran was Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The Iranians began developing their missile program under fire when Saddam Hussein launched missiles at them and they had nothing to respond with except for a few Scud-Bs that they got from Libya, the only country that supported Iran.
Since 1991, the United States has replaced Iraq as threat number one for Iran. The Iranian military’s reference threat scenario is a massive U.S. military action against Iran, aided by U.S. allies in the region including the Gulf States and Israel, which they see as an outpost of the United States.
The Iranians are realists. They don’t aim to win a set piece battle against the United States. They know it’s impossible. Their policy is to deter the United States and its allies by threatening a war that will cause such damage at such a price that this option will become unacceptable to the United States. With this perspective, they are not focusing their efforts on renovating their quite large armed forces. Rather, they are investing very smartly in deterrence enhancers and force multipliers. Replacing obsolete equipment has secondary priority.
In April 2005, during one of the two large annual military parades, the Iranian air force held a fly-by. The majority of the airplanes involved – F5s, F4 “Phantoms,” and F14 “Tomcats” – were all U.S.-made combat aircraft bought during the time of the Shah, and they were still flying last year in Teheran. Looking at Iranian ground forces, we see a lot of M113 APCs, some M60 tanks, some Russian and Chinese tanks that they bought during the Iran-Iraq war, but there has been no massive renovation.
What Armaments Does Iran Invest In?
So what does Iran invest in? Precision strike munitions, naval weapons, ballistic missiles, and a space program, apart from the nuclear program. Iran invests a lot in anti-ship weapons like the Raad missile, with a range of 350 km. The purpose of this weapon is to control the Persian Gulf, which they see as the corridor through which the United States would probably launch an invasion. It is interesting to note the weapons tested by Iran during its recent large-scale naval exercise. Iranian media announced the use of the Misaq shoulder-launched, anti-aircraft missile which strongly resembles the old Soviet “Strella” Manpad; the Kosar shore defense anti-ship missile that is very similar to a Chinese anti-ship missile; the “Fajar 3 radar-evading” missile (probably the Shahab 2 [Scud C]); and the Ajdar “super-fast” underwater missile, which most probably is the not-too-successful Russian Shkval underwater rocket.
Ballistic Missiles in the Iranian Arsenal
The Iranians are pursuing the most intensive missile program in the Third World, with constantly increasing ranges. Iran’s missile arsenal begins with the Zalzal unguided rocket and the Fatah 110, an improved Chinese bombardment rocket with a 200 km range and a 200-250 kg warhead, to threaten concentrations of invading armies near its borders. Iran also has the Shahab 1 (Scud B) with a range of 300 km and the Shahab 2 (Scud C) with a range of 500 km.
The Iranian Shahab 3 missile, with a range of 1,300 km, is patterned after the North Korean No Dong missile. The Shahab 3 can threaten either Tel Aviv or Riyadh from the same launch point. The newer Shahab 3ER, with its 2,000 km range, can reach Ankara in Turkey, Alexandria in Egypt, or Sanaa in Yemen from one single launch point deep within Iran. Thus, Iran does not have to move its launchers to project power, making its missile arsenal more survivable.
Iran’s missiles are not controlled by the military, they are controlled by the Revolutionary Guard, which has its own air force, ground force, and navy, and which reports to Iran’s spiritual leader.
Iran is investing a lot in mobile launchers, but a few months ago we found a reference for the first time to the possibility of silo-basing.
The number of tests of the Shahab 3 has been relatively small and there are indications that perhaps as many as one-half of them failed. What is intriguing is that Pakistan has a parallel program of an almost identical missile that is tested more frequently and is almost always successful. This does not mean that the Shahab missiles are not operational. While Western practice does not accept a new weapon for service unless it achieves repeated successes in the test range, the Iranians apparently think that if it worked once, it’s operational.
Iran acquired eighteen BM25 land-mobile missiles with launchers from North Korea which can strike targets in Europe. In the past, the BM25 has been produced in two models: one with a range of 2,500 km and the second with a range of 3,500 km. Obviously, they threaten not just Iran’s immediate neighbors, and it seems that the Iranians are looking to project power beyond their own region.
Once Iran set up a missile industry, it tried to cover expenses by exporting. The Iranians attempted to sell Scud-Bs to Zaire. They signed a $12 billion deal with Khaddafi to set up an entire missile industry in Libya and were very upset when Khaddafi changed and became one of the good guys. Iran has also provided heavy rockets to Hizballah: the Fadjir 3 with a range of 45 km and the Fadjir 5 with a 75 km range.
Iran is also developing a whole line of big, solid propellant, two-stage ballistic missiles – the Ghader 110. Well-substantiated reports indicate that the Iranians managed to steal and smuggle out of Ukraine several strategic cruise missiles, probably not to be deployed but to be emulated and copied. Thus, we can expect an Iranian cruise missile program too, based on cloning the Russian Kh 55, the Soviet equivalent of the U.S. “Tomahawk.”
Iran’s Space Program Could Extend Its Global Reach
Iran announced a space program as soon as it tested the first Shahab 3 in 1998. Iranian statements refer to several satellites, some locally made, and an indigenous space launcher. Ultimately, their space program aims to orbit spy satellites like Israel’s “Ofek,” by an Iranian satellite launcher from Iranian territory. A spy satellite of reasonable performance should weigh about 300 kg. Once Iran learns how to put 300 kg into earth orbit, it could adapt the satellite launcher into an ICBM that could drop more than 300 kg anywhere in the world, for instance, on Washington, D.C. The Iranians could be smart enough not to actually develop an ICBM: every time the Iranian satellite passed above the U.S., it would remind America of Iran’s potential to strike it. Remember the impact on the U.S. of Russia’s launch of “Sputnik”?
Iran’s immediate goal is to deter the United States. Its long-term goal is clearly to project power beyond Iran, over Europe and over the United States. Iran is already projecting power over the entire Middle East. With its space program, Iran is bound to project power on a global scale.
Obviously, the Iranians are overstating their capabilities as part of their psychological warfare. But behind this overstatement is a real capability – not as much as they claim, but not insignificant either. They have some real capability there, they are investing a lot of money in it, and it is growing with time.
In 2006, the Iranian political leadership seems to have moved beyond the needs of self-defense and is now talking about global power projection. At a recent conference in Berlin, one of the deputies to Iran’s foreign minister called upon the world to recognize that Islam comprises 25 percent of humanity and should occupy its rightful place in decision-making in world affairs and in the allocation of the world’s resources. Statements like this are not about self-defense.
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has stated that Islam should roll back 300 years of Western ascendancy. He was speaking in the name of Islam, not in the name of Iran. At the same time, there is talk about the greatness of Iran, with its 6,000-year-old civilization. The Iranians are trying to retrieve the old glory of the empire and at the same time become the leaders of world Islam. The development of long-range missiles is a key element in building up Iran’s power to assume such a leadership position.
Uzi Rubin has been involved in Israeli military research, development, and engineering programs for almost forty years. Between 1991 and 1999 he served as head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, and in that capacity he oversaw the development of Israel’s Arrow anti-missile defense system. He was awarded the Israel Defense Prize in 1996. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs on April 6, 2006.