The Iranian ballistic missiles program emerged amid the Iran – Iraq war in the 80s as an initial attempt to gain a deep strike capability, replacing the own degrading air force and mitigating Iraqi air superiority. However, the end of war did not lead to cessation of the program; moreover, it was steadily accelerated throughout the 90s. Starting with the supplies of ready weapons from foreign sources, within a decade and a half Iran had established and gradually enhanced the research and development branch, industrial-technological cycle, training base, and finally, an operational component of its own missile forces. The IRI missile effort has finally moved from the shadow into the spotlight in mid-00s, when the U.S. invasion in Iraq dramatically changed both the Iranian strategic environment and posture.
As of mid-2010, the IRI BM potential remains largely obscure. The bulk of the program constituted from the short-range ballistic missiles are mostly different derivatives of the 'Scud family'. However, the primary weapon of concern in relation to the presumable WMD program are the medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM), primarily the Shahab-3, which already are both in operational status and online production, the Sijjil-2 (formerly Ashoura) and the Shahab-4 and some other unidentified projects at the R&D stage. Based on open sources, the estimate number of deployed Shahab-3 launchers is between 6 and 12. This asset, essentially based on the North Korean No-Dong design, has a liquid fuel engine and a range near 2,000 km with Israel, Turkey, South-East Europe and the Arabian Peninsula in range. This is not a full-fledged missile force yet, but not a rudimentary either.
In addition, the May 2009 test of Sijjil-2 indicated a next qualitative stage of the Iranian BM program. The significance of a solid propellant engine goes far beyond purely technical domain and has also at least operational, and perhaps, even strategic implications. It dramatically reduces reaction time (i.e. provides a "launch-on-warning" capability given no need to fuel missiles prior to launch), complicates detection by space, aerial and other ISR assets and poses a more complex targeting challenge for the opposing military forces. Apparently, mobility, survivability, precision and range of fire of the IRI missile units would continue to advance. The intermediate-range ballistic missiles, based on the North Korean Taepodond design, and even intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) which development is disguised under space launch vehicle project are looming on the horizon: According to an open source estimate, the ICBM might be operational as early as in 2015; this timeline coincides with most estimates of when Iran will have enough weapon-grade highly-enriched uranium (HEU). Presumably, these projects would be associated with development of multiple independently targeted / manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles and sophisticated guidance systems.
An indicator that requires a special attention is the place of the BM units in the Iranian military forces order of battle. It is integrated into the Air Force branch of the IRGC and should be considered as an essentially a missile force since it barely has any aircraft. More broadly, the IRGC is characterized by a unique role in the IRI politico-military hierarchy and the entire national security system, being subordinated directly to the top leadership. In particular, the IRGC is in charge of the national nuclear program, presented as "peaceful." In case the last statement is false, that implies that the Corps would combine control over both WMD capability and delivery means. The potential application of the IRI missile capabilities should be analyzed from two perspectives – conventional and unconventional, and viewed through the lenses of doctrine of asymmetric response, which is deeply enrooted into the Iranian strategic thinking.
On one hand, Iran intensively used BM during its war with Iraq; by fact, in the last period of war it became an only asset to outreach the adversary's strategic rear. Later, in 1994 and 2000, Tehran was not hesitating to use ballistic missiles to strike the Iranian armed opposition camps in Iraqi territory in a rare application of essentially strategic weapons for counterinsurgency ends. At a glance, it justifies a suggestion that Iran needs its BM force to apply missiles per se precisely for such or similar purposes. Other suggestions would state that Iran might target Israel in case of war with its conventional missiles to influence its morale, similarly to what was attempted by Iraq in 1991. The BM also would give the Iranians a capability to project firepower to the southern shore of the Gulf (i.e. influence the global energy factor and threaten the U.S. military bases). That would become even more feasible, if the Iranian defense industry is able to develop cluster sub-munitions and fuel-air explosive warheads to supplement currently available high explosive (HE) warheads. Thus, the argumentation stressing conventional reasons behind the IRI missile capabilities – such as asymmetric military assets against a superior adversary(s), tool of economic warfare and strategic influence – has a right to exist.
However, certain observations allow challenging previous arguments. Iran continues to expand the range of missiles. Increase of the missile's range unavoidably leads to decrease of a payload. To deliver 100 kg of HE to a distance of 2,500 km does not make sense. An increased range also results in increase of the circular error probable (CEP) of the missile. In simple terms, that means that chances to defeat a distant target with the HE warhead especially having a relatively small physical signature, are modest at least. Such low accuracy leaves an only feasible conventionally-oriented goal – to strike spatial targets such as big cities, using BM as a tool of psychological terror, and providing an adversary a just cause and a legal case to respond overwhelmingly with full force. Subsequently, the real applicability of the BM in its conventional mode remains rather limited, and this brings the issue to an unconventional option.
Unconventional Application Track 1: Nuclear Option
The analysis of the details of the IRI nuclear program is not a purpose of this short report; however, it is based on the increasingly shared worldwide assumption that the end-state of the Iranian venture is a nuclear weapon. Iran rapidly boasts tempo of its enrichment effort at the specialized facility in Natanz and, probably, some other facilities dispersed throughout the country and hardened to avoid an Osirak-type air raid. An industrial quantity of the enriched uranium at the Iranian disposal is already a matter of fact; the anticipated next stage might become its weaponization. According some estimates, as for mid-2009 Iran was within one to three years from crude nuclear weapons, with a deliverable one looming on the horizon: The joint U.S.–Russian technical experts' threat assessment team reported at the same time, Iran would be able to successfully marry a 2,500 km range missile with a nuclear warhead in 6–8 years.
All said the above assertion makes treating the ballistic missiles from opposite to a conventional option – in a potential capacity as a nuclear weapons, the delivery means. Indeed, the tactical and technical features of the Iranian BM make them not just a more preferable delivery means than aircraft (that is important in the light of poor state of the IRI Air Force and overwhelming air superiority/air defense capabilities of the potential adversaries), but, by definition, the only weapon of choice in the Iran's inventory. The nuclear explanation removes a controversy over above mentioned range / payload ratio and CEP problems: Weight and impact effects of a nuclear warhead are totally different from a conventional one. Thus, the utility of the BM coupled with a nuclear weapon appears high. Below is a fictional geopolitical scenario that involves both components.
The Shiite communities of Bahrain and the Eastern province of Saudi Arabia, led by radical pro-Iranian leaders start uprising against "oppressive regimes" and rapidly gain control over certain areas. The respective governments are caught off-guard and seek assistance from the Western allies. Tehran issues vocal warnings against an external interference reinforced by a nuclear test at the desert site in eastern Iran and multiple ballistic missile launches. The awareness of existence of a deliverable nuclear arsenal of Iran, coupled with the obvious display of its determinations, paralyzes the decision-making processes, sharply exacerbates trans-Atlantic rift, freezes any military response options and eventually leads to inaction. Iran gains control over the mentioned territories via its Islamist Shiite proxies; the region is in disarray, the global energy market destabilized, and the naval base of the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain is ceased to exist.
Unconventional Application Track 2: Chemical Option
The IRI chemical warfare capability is opaque. Politically, Tehran exploits victimization track, referring to its suffering from the chemical weapon during war with Iraq as a moral obstacle to pursue such a capability. Moreover, Iran is a signatory of the Chemical Weapons Convention. Despite of the fact that some international reports indicated that Iran experiments with chemical agents and even develops initial production capabilities of the mustard gas, hydrogen cyanide, phosgene, sarin and tabun, there is a tacit agreement to consider Iran as a state free of chemical weapons. Yet, there is another side of the issue. First, the victimization argument does not seem convincing from the standpoint of realpolitik executed by Iran. That means it could reverse the course 180 degree if needed. Second, Iran has an extensive petrochemical industry infrastructure that gives plenty of opportunities to maintain covert dual-use track chemical programs able to "fast weaponized" in need. Of the five agents mentioned the first three are essentially battlefield agents and have no logical feasibility to be coupled with the long-range BM. However, the nerve agents such as sarin and tabun are worth to be considered in the next virtual strategic scenario below.
Iran and Syria enter a strategic alliance aimed at the 'liberation' the Golan Heights (a minimum objective) and the destruction of Israel (an ultimate objective). In a D-day Iran delivers from its territory a massive long-range missile strike with chemical nerve agents warheads on the Israeli Air Force (IAF) bases, the Jericho-2 missile units' locations and reservists mobilization depots. The surprise missile attack is coordinated with the massive armor onslaught by the Syrian army on the Heights. The entire Israeli defense system is essentially based on the rapid mobilization of its reserve forces and air superiority; however, the unconventional missile strike creates havoc in the key points. The casualties, loss of control, need to decontaminate the exposed installations and hardware, and evacuate civilians, complicated by necessity to perform in the protective gear, heavily undermines mobilization deployment of the Israel Army and effectively pin down the IAF on its bases in the critical hours of Syrian offensive. Taking over the Heights, amid intensive international pressure on both sides to stop hostilities, Syria halts an advance and claims a unilateral cease-fire after achievement of its goals, thus diminishing justification reasons for a reprisal nuclear counter-attack by the survived Israeli assets. Whatever unrealistic a given scenario appears, especially keeping in mind the long shadow of the Israeli nuclear weapons, one should not disregard a mix of religious zeal, irrational motives or risk acceptance rationales from the Iranian side (mentioned in the next section) that may enable it to ignore the potential retaliation threat.
Drivers Behind the WMD-Missiles Nexus
The intention of to get the WMD capability is based on the Iranian perceptions of threats and sources of those threats. Since the Islamic revolution of 1979 and establishment of the current regime the IRI leadership clearly indicated the foes – the United States and Israel. An emerging WMD potential will be primarily oriented against both. There is a set of three possible explanations of the IRI quest for the nuclear weapons that is indivisible from its missile program.
Minimal Deterrence ('Shield'). This explanation might be based on the obsession of the IRI politico-military elite about the U.S. effort to changed regime by force. This notion is deeply enrooted into contemporary Iran's strategic culture. According to this hypothesis, the IRI seeks a minimal (defensive) nuclear deterrent potential vice the United States, and if not being attacked, will never use nukes first, being fully aware of the overwhelming response. By the same token, Iran would not strike Israel, since the nuclear explosions and radioactive fallout affect not only the Arab-Muslim population in Israel and Palestine, and perhaps, in the broader region.
Deterrence Plus ('Sword'). This explanation suggests, that feeling itself protected and emboldened by newly acquired nuclear capability and being driven by a mix of geopolitical and mega-religious motivations, the IRI would transform towards more aggressive posture and militarized behavior, proactively exerting pressure, and imposing its own influence in the Gulf, Iraq, Levant, the Caucasus and the Central Asia, notwithstanding the United States, West, Russia and Arabs security interests. The lack of a unified stand and political will from the latter would result in a situation when counter-deterrence efforts will prove ineffective and futile.
Irrational Modus Operandi ('Apocalypses Now'). This explanation is based on the assumption that at least part of the current IRI top leadership, influenced by the apocalyptic religious zeal of Shiite 12er Islam, does not answer characteristics of the rational actor's model. This suggestion is either hard to justify or deny, so the hypothesis has a right to exist. Whatever true, such factors as a non-transparent nature of the regime, its perplexed national command authority and decision-making system, misperceptions, miscalculations, gambling, risk acceptance, domestic political determents and even mentioned above doomsday motivations, all combined make the incoming IRI nuclear potential extremely hazardous for the global security and stability.
The following considerations should be kept in mind in relation to the IRI BM program. This program is inherently linked to the nuclear program and should be treated indivisibly from it. The program in question has relatively low conventional application utility and extremely high unconventional one. The ultimate goal of Iran is to get an operational nuclear weapon. At the same time, the missile program per se has already taken shape as the IRI's strategic asset and a political warfare force multiplier. By conducting repetitive missiles tests, supported by extensive media and propaganda coverage, Iran simultaneously tests the will and cohesion of the Western alliance, signaling its intentions to the world. The nature of reaction (or, perhaps, a lack of such) to its actions strengthens Tehran's perception of the strategic paralysis of the U.S. and soft stand of the EU. Equally, the missile factor has seriously affected the American-Russian relations through the BMD controversy, as well as negatively influences the Middle East regional dynamic. The threatening verbal posture of Iran towards Israel already has been in some way practically applied through the projection of the missile threat during the 2006 Israeli-Hizbollah war. Finally, it increases a domestic political capital of a radical wing of the regime that manipulates with the citizens' national pride sentiments.
Overall, the Iranian intentions–capabilities nuclear equilibrium steadily gains momentum – the former are stated and the latter are shaping. As for the ballistic missiles' program, it is a missing link that brings them together. At the moment Tehran detonates the first nuclear device at a test site, Iran will get both its shield and sword. To continue this medieval warfare terms hyperbola, if one gets a crossbow, the next logical step is to have bolts for it; otherwise, it is completely nonsense to have a crossbow. This is an explicit parallel with the true nature and the real ends behind the advancing ballistic missiles programs of the Islamic Republic of Iran.