Iran’s continued and open refinement of ballistic missile technology poses a serious threat to the Middle East, Europe, and the United States and the country has become a major proliferator of weapons and technology to terrorist organizations. Coupled with the country’s missile capabilities is its robust civil nuclear program; the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) curtailed Iran’s nuclear program but faces uncertainty following the U.S. withdrawal from the Agreement, and there is a possibility Iran may resume its nuclear development program again in the near future. This uncertainty, coupled with Iran’s rhetoric on their nuclear and ballistic missile programs gives the world a cause for concern.

Iran’s Current Missile Technologies

Iran’s ballistic missiles could be used as a political weapon against rival states and the continues to flaunt its arsenal with acts of intimidation like the 10-day war drills executed at the end of June 2011.

The utility of Iran’s missiles is limited due to poor accuracy and TEL availability and delays. War games coordinated have promoted the ‘made in Iran’ label, but also revealed an unexpected look at underground silos. These tests showcasing Iran’s missile forces are likely meant as a show of force to the West. More recently, on January 22nd, 2018, Iran continued its annual series of large-scale war exercises in the Strait of Hormuz. Codenamed Mohammad Rasoulallah, during the series Iran both tested its infantry and fired several precision missiles at targets in the Sea of Oman in order to demonstrate its ballistic missile power.

Iran’s message has been one of growing self-sufficiency despite the establishment of the Iranian nuclear deal. Although the extent of Iran’s military arsenal is unknown, many defense analysts note that Iranian engineers have had decades to copy and modify designs obtained from abroad, receiving missile technology from countries such as North Korea, Russia, and China.

Investments to develop a local liquid-propellant missile industry began with Iran’s missile purchases in the 1980s. They began production on their own version of the Scud-B missile, the Shahab-2, in 1994. Iran began receiving the No Dong missile from North Korea in the mid-1990s and began developing their own version of the missile, the Shahab-3. The first successful test of this new missile was in 1998. The Iranians have conducted multiple successful tests of the Shahab-3, and in 2004 began work on modifying the Shahab-3 to be more accurate, and harder to track in flight. The Iranian objective to develop the Shahab-3 without assistance resulted in the production of the longer-range Ghadr-1. In recent years, Iran has also developed a finless version of the Shahab-3, known as the Zulfiqar missile. Used in June of 2017 against the Islamic State, the short-range ballistic missile is thought to have a range of about 700km. Iran’s ability to produce and improve its technologies has been steadily increasing over the years.

Iran has also been making steps forward in its space program. Using multi-stage variants of the Shahab-3, known as the Kavoshgar and Safir rockets, Iran has used both to send satellites into low orbit, and recently claimed to have successfully sent living organisms into space. Since 2008, Iran has conducted multiple successful tests of the Safir launch vehicle and has also revealed the larger two-stage Simorgh space-launch vehicle. Iran’s space-launch program provides the country with information critical to its ballistic missile capability. Indeed, the information provided by the employment of space-launch vehicles can directly translate to intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Iran has also developed a solid-propellant version of the Shahab-3, known as the Sejjil missile system. This is a more accurate version of the Shahab-3 and has a longer range as well. The solid-fueled system makes the Sejjil a more reliable attack option for Iran, and therefore makes them a more formidable player in the region.

Iran, despite limitations on their missile testing laid down in the Iranian nuclear deal, has continued to test ballistic missile technology. The deal prohibits Iran from testing any missile designed to carry a nuclear warhead for a period of eight years, but not from testing other missiles. Iran has pushed this framework on multiple occasions, most recently on June 18th, 2017, when Iran tested the Khorramshahr missile. The specifications of the missile are unknown, and therefore it is as yet unclear if the test violated this agreement.

Iran’s missile strikes against targets in Syria and Iraq (June 18, 2017, and September 08, 2018, respectively) suggest a pattern to Iran’s missile attacks. In both strikes, an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) was sent over the target area to conduct a battle damage assessment, one liquid-fueled ballistic missile and around six solid-propellant ballistic missiles. Current conflicts in the Middle East have served as proving grounds for new missiles and practice for Iranian missile forces.

As far as nuclear facilities, Iran’s abilities were limited by the JCPOA nuclear deal. Currently, Iran only has one facility, Natanz, in which they are permitted to conduct uranium enrichment. The Iranian facility at Arak continues to produce Heavy Water, but is no longer permitted to enrich Plutonium, and is under monitoring by the International Atomic Energy Agency. In January of 2016, Iran announced they had removed the core of the Arak reactor, and filled it with concrete, an important stipulation of the deal.

Most recently, Iran unveiled a new missile, the Khaibar Shekan, that has been reported to have a range of 1,450 kilometers or 900 miles. The Khaiibar Shekan uses a solid fuel propellant and is claimed to have been produced domestically.

Iran’s Missile Production and Deployment

The distance from  Tehran to our military bases in Baghdad, Iraq is around 712 kilometers or 442 miles; to Kuwait City is 784 kilometers or 487 miles; to Manama, Bahrain is 1062 kilometers or 660 miles; to Kandahar, Afghanistan (near Helmand) 1394 kilometers or 866 miles; to Doha, Qatar, the distance is around 1164 kilometers or 723 miles.

According to the INF Treaty, a short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) is defined as one with a “range capability equal to or in excess of 500 kilometers but not in excess of 1000 kilometers”, while the Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missile (IRBM) ranges from 1000 kilometers up to 5500 kilometers. Iran has stated that it already possesses missiles with ranges up to 1,240 miles or 2,000 kilometers.

Though the distances listed on our website represent theoretical air distances and flight trajectories may vary, further advancement of Iranian weapons capabilities places our allies as well as our bases in the Gulf in great danger.

Future Outlook

Iran’s ability to produce new liquid-propellant missiles is constrained by their ability to develop new liquid-propellant engines. Seeing that Iran’s primary supplier of such engines is Russia and Ukraine, who follow Missile Technology Control guidelines, Iran must rely on themselves. Building a missile with a longer range requires a larger missile; therefore, the most logical configuration for Iran to produce a long-range weapon is to produce a liquid propellant missile or a space-launch vehicle with enhanced performance.

More concerning is Iran’s growing solid-fuel capabilities. In 2008, Iran test-launched the new Sejjil ballistic missile, which is a solid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile that has a payload-range capacity that represents a marked improvement over the country’s liquid-propelled Shahab-3. In addition to improved range and capacity, the Sejjil has improved battlefield capabilities as well, requiring less time to be erected and launched than a liquid-fueled missile. Testing and production of the Sejjil also have significant strategic implications, underlining Iran’s shift away from liquid-fueled missile engines–that are heavily reliant on foreign technology–and towards domestically designed and produced solid-fuel rocket motors. As of February 2022, Iran has continued its shift to solid-fuel propellants with the introduction of the Khaibar Shekan. Iran’s improving ability to produce solid-fueled missiles domestically highlights the country’s determination and ability to advance its missile capabilities while becoming more self-sufficient. Iran has now tested the Sejjil-2, a more stable rocket, with improved accuracy in comparison to the Sejjil-1, and Shahab model rockets.

It is likely that Iran will develop an intercontinental-range ballistic missile using technology produced indigenously, either from the country’s ballistic missile or space launch program, instead of solely relying on outside technical assistance from countries such as North Korea. Iran is approximately a decade away from obtaining an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. homeland. Under the framework of the JCPOA deal, Iran was banned from developing or testing any rockets capable of carrying a nuclear warhead for eight years. After the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA, however, Iran has stated it will resume its missile development if Europe is unable to guarantee stable Iranian oil sales. The lack of plutonium enrichment allowed under the Iran deal also limits the progress Iran can make in developing a weapon cable to deliver a nuclear payload to the United States; however, this is limited by the effectiveness of the monitoring done by the UN. Despite the JCPOA deal, U.S. forces and allies in the Middle East still remain under threat from Iranian ballistic missiles.

In an attempt to continue growing Iran’s space program, Iran tested the Zuljanah satellite carrier on June 26, 2022, to publically demonstrate its ability to deploy satellites.

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Arsenal

Close-Range Ballistic Missiles (CRBM)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (km)
Fadjr-5 Aero Solid High Explosive/Chemical Deployed/Road-Mobile 75
CSS-8 (M-7) Solid/Liquid Conventional/Nuclear-Capable Deployed/Road-Mobile 150

Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (km)
Fateh-110 Solid Conventional/WMD Capable Deployed/Road-Mobile 200-300
Fateh-313 Solid Conventional Deployed/Road-Mobile 500
Shahab-1 (Scud-B) Liquid High Explosive/WMD Capable Deployed/Road-Mobile 300
Shahab-2 (Scud-C) Liquid High Explosive/WMD Capable Deployed/Road-Mobile 500
Zulfigar/Korramshahr Solid Cluster Deployed 700
Qiam Liquid Conventional Deployed/Road-Mobile 700-800
Raad-500 Solid Unknown Deployed 500

Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM)

Model Propellant Warhead Type Deployment Range (km)
Shahab-3 Liquid High Explosive/Nuclear capable Deployed/Silo & Road Mobile 1,000-1,300
Sejjil Solid Conventional Deployed/Road Mobile 2,000
Emad Unknown Conventional/Nuclear capable Testing/Road Mobile 1,700
Khaibar Shekan Solid Unknown Testing/Road Mobile 1,450

Land Attack Cruise Missiles (LACMs)

Model Warhead Type Cruise Missile Type Range (km) Launch platform/Targets Country of Origin Status
Soumar Conventional Long-range land-attack cruise missile 2,500 Surface/Surface Iran Unknown
Meshkat Conventional Long-Range land-attack cruise missile 2,000 Land, Sea, Air/Surface Iran In Development

Source: National Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat ” 2013

Iran’s Nuclear Program Overview

Facilities of Key Concern

Facility Type Purpose Status
Natanz Uranium Enrichment Plant Fissile Material Production Currently producing up to 5% low-enriched uranium

Production of up to 20% enriched uranium is suspended per the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)

Natanz is the only facility that can be used to enrich uranium to peaceful levels (3.67%)

Fordow Uranium Enrichment Plant Fissile Material Production JCPOA suspended all enrichment and nuclear R&D at the facility
Parchin Military Research Facility Suspected high-explosives research center

Possible nuclear weapons research activities

Satellite imagery indicates increased construction at the site

IAEA cites “credible” intelligence that Iran has engaged in nuclear weapons research at Parchin. The site may have been cleansed to conceal activities from the IAEA

 IR 40 (Arak) Heavy Water Nuclear Reactor Research Reactor

A potential source of plutonium for the manufacture of nuclear weapons

Decommissioned as a possible producer of Plutonium as part of the JCPOA.

In January 2016, the core of the reactor was removed and filled with concrete. Additionally, members of the P5+1 have agreed to assist Iran in redesigning the facility to produce and research isotopes for medical purposes.

Source: IAEA Board Reports on Iran 2011-2014

Iranian UAV Threat

The Iranian military’s Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) arsenal consists of multiple types of UAVs; possibly more than 20. Most of the UAVs used by the Iranian military are poorly made, but it does have some more advanced types.

The most capable and advanced UAVs in the Iranian arsenal are based on the designs of U.S. and Israeli UAVs that were shot down in Iran. Advanced UAVs that Iran is known to have shot down and recovered include the U.S. MQ-1 “Predator”, which was displayed by Iran on October 01, 2016. Iran’s Shahed-109 is a close copy of Israel’s Hermes 450. The Shahed-109 specifically has been operated in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq and has a 24-hour endurance capability.

Iranian Missile Defense Overview

Although Iran’s missile defense architecture is currently reliant on imported Russian technology, its deployment near key Iranian nuclear facilities poses an operational challenge to the United States and its allies, primarily with regard to potential military options in the case of an Iranian nuclear breakout.

Bavar-373 Land Development Cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and aircraft
S-300V Land Deployed Aircraft (SA-12A Gladiator interceptor); tactical ballistic missiles and cruise missiles (SA-12B Giant interceptor)

Bavar-373 The Bavar-373 is Iran’s version of Russia’s S-300 surface-to-air defense system. It is said that the Bavar-373 encompasses technology that is “more advanced” than the S-300. Iran’s system is intended to intercept cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, as well as other airborne targets. Iran unveiled the domestically-produced Bavar-373 system in 2016.

S-300V In 2016, Russia delivered S-300 air defense systems to Iran that have been deployed at Iran’s Fordow nuclear site, which is an underground facility formerly used to enrich uranium. Although the facility has been inactive since the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in 2015, Iranian military officials claim the systems will be fielded to “protect Iran’s nuclear facilities under any circumstances.”

Countering the Iranian Threat

The Iranian ballistic missile threat puts at risk U.S. forces, partners, and allies in the Middle East and Europe. In response, the United States, along with key U.S. partners and allies in Europe and the Middle East, has undertaken a variety of measures to mitigate the risk posed by Iran’s improving ballistic missile arsenal.

Regional U.S. Countermeasures

To protect U.S. forces, allies, and partners in the Middle East, the United States began deploying missile defense systems throughout the region in the 1990s and 2000s to counter the threat posed by the proliferation of ballistic missiles in nations like Iran. Over time, advanced hit-to-kill systems such as Patriot/PAC-3 and the SM-3 equipped with Aegis BMD-capable vessels were deployed in the region.

Missile Defense and the Gulf Cooperation Council

Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, also began purchasing Patriot/PAC-2 air and short-range missile defense systems from the United States. As Iran’s ballistic missile and nuclear programs improved, so to did the missile defense capabilities of the Gulf States. Today, the United States is leading substantial efforts to increase missile defense cooperation within the Gulf Cooperation Council (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates) to create a region-wide BMD architecture that, in conjunction with U.S. systems, is capable of regional defense and early warning.

U.S. Missile Defense Cooperation with Israel

The U.S. Congress has also continued to authorize financial and technical support for Israel’s ballistic missile defense program, which is designed to counter ballistic missiles and projectiles from Iran, as well as Iranian-backed groups such as Hezbollah. Historically, the relationship between Israel and Iran has been one of antagonism, and the rhetoric of Iranian leaders has reflected this. Regional tension between the two nations culminated in 2005 when former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stated that he wanted to wipe Israel “off the map.” Bilateral missile defense cooperation between Israel and the United States is a staple of regional stability and security in the Middle East and will likely remain strong for the foreseeable future.

The European Phased Adaptive Approach

Iran’s growing long-range missile and nuclear programs have triggered security responses from the U.S. in Europe, which initially pushed for the deployment of U.S. silo-based missile interceptors in Poland and tracking radar in the Czech Republic to defend against potential Iranian ballistic missiles. This initial U.S. strategy has been altered by the Obama Administration, which created the European Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) that–over the next ten years–aspires on installing regional missile defense in Europe through the deployment of Aegis sea-based BMD and Aegis Ashore. This new approach uses spiral development that includes existing capabilities such as SM-3 and rapid-ground base missile development to defend Europe against Iran’s improving long-range ballistic missile capabilities.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action

In July 2015, the E3/EU+3 (China, France, Germany, the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom, and the United States, with the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy) and Iran agreed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which is designed to ensure Iran’s nuclear program remains exclusively peaceful. Implementation of the JCPOA marked a diplomatic high point between the United States and Iran and has succeeded in curtailing Iran’s nuclear weapons program. However, not limited by the agreement is Iran’s ballistic missile program, which continues to progress and threaten U.S. forces, partners, and allies in the Middle East and Europe.

The recent withdrawal by the United States has put the JCPOA at risk, but Iran assured its European counterparts that it will continue to adhere to the agreement if Europe is able to promise an open market for Iranian oil and no sanctions of any kind. Iran has also stated the parties cannot get involved in regional affairs and their missile programs, allowing for their program to develop while still assumedly stopping their civil nuclear enterprise.

Recent News

  • On July 7, 2022, the U.S. and U.K. governments announced that they confiscated surface-to-air missiles and cruise-missile rocket engines that originated from Iran in February. A U.S. Navy guided missile worked with the Royal Navy in the Gulf of Oman to seize small boats attempting to smuggle the Iranian weapons to the Houthis in Yemen.

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  • The White House released recently declassified documents that suggest Iran intends to deliver and train the Russian military with hundreds of “weapon capable” drones. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said, “Information indicates that the Iranian government is preparing to provide Russia with up to several hundred (unmanned aerial vehicles), including weapons-capable UAVs on an expedited timeline…Our information further indicates that Iran is preparing to train Russian forces to use these UAVs, with initial training session slated in as soon as early July. It’s unclear whether Iran has delivered any of these UAVs to Russia already”

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  • In July 2022, Iran revealed its first ever “drone-carrier division.” The drones in this division are capable of being launched by both ships and submarines.

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Missile Threat and Proliferation