Does Iran Want an ICBM?

An Iranian Emad medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) being tested in 2015. Image Credit: Mohammad Agah/ Tasnim News via Wikimedia Commons CC BY 4.0

A team of American researchers may have identified a secret Iranian facility developing long-range missiles, according to a story in The New York Times.

After analysing satellite imagery of a site near the city of Shahrud in northern Iran, researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, concluded that it was probably being used to develop long-range rockets that could be used either for a space programme or an ICBM.

The absence of facilities to store liquid propellant suggests the rockets are solid-fuelled.

The main virtue of solid fuel is that it eliminates the elaborate preparation procedures needed to ready a rocket for launch, making it less vulnerable to enemy attacks.

Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal will undoubtedly use news of missile development facility to justify America’s withdrawal from the deal. They will have little credibility. While it may be troubling to many governments, Iran’s missile development does not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). If anything, by rolling back Iran’s nuclear programme, the JCPOA has denied Tehran the only kind of warhead appropriate for an ICBM.

The most likely explanation is that Iran was “hard hedging”, to use the words of MIT nuclear strategist Vipin Narang. By quietly developing capabilities for a long-range rocket, Tehran was giving itself options in case its strategic environment worsened, the JCPOA collapsed, or both.

Indeed, Iran has never been shy about its short and medium range ballistic missiles. After ISIS attacked Tehran last June, Iran launched seven Zolfaghar ballistic missiles at the group’s capital Deir el-Zor (though three of the missiles may have failed).

It is hardly surprising Iran wants an array of short and medium range ballistic missiles. During the Iran-Iraq War’s “War of the Cities”, Saddam Hussein’s air force and missiles bombarded several Iranian urban concentrations. Iran’s retaliatory options were limited then. What’s more, in the three decades since that conflict, the Iranian Air Force’s fleet of American warplanes has become obsolete and decrepit. Ballistic missiles with conventional warheads give Tehran a way to target Saudi and Israeli cities in the event of a conflict.

In public, Iran has imposed a limit of 2,000 kilometres on its missile programme. While that range is enough to cover Saudi Arabia and Israel, the newly discovered facility suggests it is no longer adhering to its self-imposed restraints.

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