Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States
Appendix III: Unclassified Working Papers
Aaron Karp 1 : "Technological Pathways to Ballistic Missiles in Iran"
America's previous debate over missile proliferation surrounded the
National Intelligence Estimate NIE-95-19 "Emerging Threats to North America
During the Next 15 Years," issued in November 1995. Although this document
dealt with global threats, the debate it catalyzed focused almost entirely
on the missile projects of one country--North Korea. Since then North
Korea's projects have slowed and lost their erstwhile urgency.
Today's debate is propelled instead by revelations over Iran. Once again a
regional rocketry program has become a kind of intellectual prism,
refracting issues that go far beyond immediate technical matters. Of
central importance are broader questions regarding non-proliferation
objectives, missile defense and Middle East strategy. Equally salient are
foreign policy questions about relations with Iran, engagement of difficult
regional actors in general and the prospects for policies based on
sanctions and export controls.
When judged on technical criteria alone, other programs are no less
provocative. Iraq has abandoned none of its long-range rocketry ambitions,
including a 3000 km weapon. Saddam is only waiting for a second chance to
scour the international market for useful hardware and materials. North
Korea's TaepoDong projects may have subsided, but it apparently has gone
back to concentrate on the NoDong series. Egypt appears to be receiving new
installments of technical assistance from North Korea, probably supporting
improved Scuds. India continues development of the Agni, with a 2000-3000
km version currently being prepared for flight test. Pakistan has renewed
its long-stymied missile program through the 1500 km Ghuari, reportedly a
version of the North Korean NoDong.
Missile proliferation clearly remains a global problem, but the focus on
Iran is justified and useful nevertheless. Although we are accustomed to
treating Iran as a revolutionary state, an exception in every way, its
missile projects are ironically typical of regional long range rocketry.
Among all current missile proliferators, Iran best illustrates the general
issues. Egypt is ambivalent at best about long range rocketry. Iraq remains
shackled by UN-sanctions. North Korea is at the center of a unique
strategic milieu dominated by the question of its very survival. Neither of
the Indian or Pakistani weapons introduce radically new capabilities as do
Iran's intermediate range systems, a capability that goes far beyond its
The New Politics of Technology Suppliers
The most important question regarding the flow of ballistic missile and
dual-use technologies to Iran is entirely political: What are the export
policies of China and Russia? They are Iran's most important technology
suppliers, the only suppliers capable of transforming Iran into a
long-range missile power. Both clearly are supplying equipment, development
assistance and manufacturing facilities. Both also are extremely difficult
for Washington to deal with, sharing a well-known pattern of officially
denying involvement, then promising to halt further assistance, and finally
A typical cycle of this pattern began in the Fall of 1996 with the first
public report that Iran was developing intermediate-range ballistic
missiles. In February of 1997 Israeli sources revealed that Russia was
involved. Russian officials initially denied involvement Iranian ballistic
missile programs, but later claimed that Iran efforts to acquire Russian
technological assistance had been thwarted. On 27 October 1997 Foreign
Minister Primakov said that "there is no basis to rumors that the Iranians
are receiving missiles from Russia." Subsequent reports suggest technical
assistance does continue. The United States met the same pattern repeatedly
since the late 1980s when dealing with China.
The Chinese and Russian pattern of transfer-deny-pledge-continue can be
explained in at least three different ways, each based on a different view
the nature of their national governments. Proliferation policy is part of
larger constitutional questions about the future of the Chinese and the
Russian state. There is mounting evidence that export control and
non-proliferation policy in Beijing and Moscow is determined not by
official decision-making, but by the deteriorating salience of their
Does the central government still call the shots, or do individual
exporters? Three alternate explanations for decision-making in China and
Russia can be summarized as transferring with formal authorization, through
informal acquiescence, or in contravention of policy.
* Formal authorization: China or Russia may be transferring ballistic
missile technology with explicit and formal authorization from their
central governments, which may even positively encourage such
If so, their promises and assurances to the contrary are disinformation for
foreign consumption. The implications are very disturbing for diplomacy,
since the integrity of their leaders comes into question. On the other
hand, the outlook for future control is not so discouraging, since the
formal institutions of government remain effective. Strenuous American and
allied diplomacy should work. Pressure must be strong and expensive
incentives may be necessary.
* Informal acquiescence: The governments in Beijing and Moscow may be
unsure of their national interests and unwilling to act decisively.
Their policies may be essentially passive, based on a blind eye,
tolerating transfers which serve some clear and immediate national
interests--such as the welfare of key technological sectors--while
potentially harming only speculative and long term security interests.
If so, the statements and pledges of their officials may represent genuine
intentions, but they are not sufficient to make policy. In this case, the
objective of Western non-proliferation policy must be to compel their
leaders to make decisions and regularly reiterate them, both in highly
visible declarations and through official regulations and inter-agency
consultations to insure compliance throughout the government.
* Contravention of policy: The authority of central governments in
Beijing and Moscow may have deteriorated to the point that policy is
unenforceable. Agencies and firms no longer respond to regulations and
follow their own inclinations. Regional and economic interests have
overwhelmed the ability of the state to regulate economic behavior.
If the state is essentially incompetent in non-proliferation, and the will
of national leaders is all but irrelevant, there is little to be
accomplished through traditional diplomacy. Instead, to be effective,
measures must deal directly with the immediate agents of proliferation, the
offending firms and laboratories. Some of these actors benefit only from
sales to proliferators like Iran; they have no interest in cooperating with
Washington. Consequently, the only way to end their activities may be
The implications of these question are so troublesome or grave for outside
powers like the United States that usually we avoid even acknowledging
them. Yet there is mounting evidence that neither Russia nor China can be
dealt with in the traditional manner of orthodox states and regimes like
If the Chinese and Russian states--their central governments--no longer are
the cynosure of non-proliferation policy-making, then traditional
non-proliferation mechanisms like MTCR diplomacy and demarches may have
passed the point of marginal returns. If so, Iranian proliferation can be
halted only by shifting our focus from supplier countries to individual
firms and laboratories, or by dealing directly with Iran.
Iran's need for Chinese, Russian and other foreign technology have changed
considerably over the years. After over 25 years of rocketry research, Iran
has a considerable technical endowment. The essential equipment to create
long-range missiles--mostly of mid-1950s vintage--appears to be nearly
complete. While selected imports might accelerate development and improve
performance, the success of the overall program no longer relies on
specific hardware imports. The most challenging bottlenecks, rather, are in
the soft technology--the human skills, management expertise and
economics--of missile development.
Since starting in the mid-1970s, Iran has established an ability to make
small-diameter solid motors, best suited for use in unguided artillery
rockets. Solid motor experience is based on Chinese assistance. This has
led to numerous examples, none completely satisfactory. The most recent is
the 200 km range NP110, a large artillery rocket with a 450mm diameter
The artillery rocket experience appears to have been frustrating for Iran;
its projects betray poor design, exceptional redundancy and lead to limited
deployment at best. Even so, the effort must not be discounted. These are
very large artillery rockets and could be mass produced. Armed with
chemical or biological agents they could easily saturate any defensive
system. But they seem unlikely to lead Iran to larger weapons.
Until recent revelations about Russia, liquid propulsion was thought to
come from North Korea under an arrangement started in 1985, based on Scud
technology and possibly the NoDong. But North Korean support has been
disappointing for the Iranians, who have scant practical results to show.
After building a Scud-facility with North Korean help, according to DoD
"the Iranians are now able to produce the missile themselves." One of the
greatest enigmas of Iran is why they have not made use of this capability.
Japanese officials maintain that North Korea has gone back to the NoDong
project, a belief partially confirmed by reports that the Ghauri missile
launched by Pakistan on 6 April 1998 actually was an imported NoDong. This
raises the possibility that Iran may turn to North Korea again soon. But
there are serious limits to North Korean technology and Iran has strong
incentives to look elsewhere for assistance.
In the mid-1990s Iran started two new projects to develop long range
ballistic missiles, the Shahab-3 and -4:
* Shahab-3 is reported to be a solid-fuel weapon capable of carrying a
700 kg payload to a range of 1300 km. This would place it between the
capabilities of the 1970s-vintage Soviet SS-22 or SS-23, both
eliminated under the 1987 INF Treaty. There is no comparable Chinese
weapon, which probably--but not certainly--rules out China as a source
(the closest Chinese counterpart is the DF-25, a 1700 km solid-fuel
missile which China reportedly canceled in 1996). According to Israeli
reports engine development for the Shahab-3 is nearing completion and
the missile could be flight tested in roughly 18 months as of March
1998, meaning sometime in 1999-2000.
* Shahab-4 appears to be a liquid-fuel weapon based on and possibly
copied from the 1950s Soviet SS-4 (also known as the R-12). The latter
could carry a payload of 1360 kg to a range of 1940 km. Best known for
its role in the Cuban missile crisis, it too was banned by the INF
Treaty. A series of static engine tests undertaken in Iran in late
1997 mostly likely involved a liquid motor (under favorable
conditions, liquid motors can be run over and over, while solid motors
usually must be replaced completely). This could have been the engines
for the SS-4. The SS-4 was powered by the 65,000 kg thrust RD-214, a
typical Soviet 4-nozzle design of the period. The possibility also
cannot be excluded that Iran's liquid propulsion is based on North
Korean supplied Scud-versions, including the NoDong.
Neither project is being managed like an American or NATO-country
procurement program. Instead, they appear to be essentially opportunistic.
Like most regional rocketry projects, they organized not by strategy but by
the availability of technology and resources. In lieu of reliable
suppliers, they are based on improvisation. They progress not smoothly but
in fits and jerks interrupted by long pauses. They exist because they are
possible, and they will be completed when ever it is feasible.
Rather than being driven by strategic goals or a rigorous time schedule,
they are the result of a general Iranian desire to have long range
ballistic missiles and the sudden availability of key technologies. It
almost certainly is enough for Iran leaders that the weapons would serve a
variety of purposes and their development is feasible. Further planning may
be neither necessary nor desirable. Neither project resembles a systematic
program, since essential components and sub-systems are absent or lag far
behind. Iran will complete these weapons if and when its possible; it is
doubtful even their project managers specify milestone dates in terms more
rigorous than a periods of several years.
The opportunistic and improvised nature of Iran's long range rocketry makes
it virtually impossible for outside powers to stop them altogether. But
their dependence on foreign technology makes then vulnerable to
interruption. In the end, however, only a shift in the supporting consensus
among the Iranian leadership can bring them to a halt.
It is likely that some of the traditional technological bottle necks of
large rocket development already have been overcome. Based on news reports
about the beginning of static tests last Winter, liquid propulsion could be
sufficiently advanced for flight testing to begin within the next two
years. Large solid motors have been much harder for all countries to master
and may take considerably longer for Iran. Guidance also may have been
dealt with, probably by circumventing the need for inertial platforms and
relying either on radio-command techniques or adaptation of strap-down
* The most serious remaining hardware problems are likely to be in
warhead development, since Iran still cannot produce fissile materials
for nuclear warheads. Instead it would have to rely on conventional
explosives or highly speculative CBW warheads. Another question
concerns re-entry vehicles. Unless Iran has a foreign-developed
re-entry system, the range of its first IRBMs will be limited to
approximately 1000-1200 km (greater ranges involve higher re-entry
speeds and concomitant heating and instability, necessitating more
* There may no longer be a hardware barrier to IRBM development and
deployment. If its engine was successful in initial static tests this
Winter, and other basic components can be made ready, a prototype
flight article of the Shahab-4 could be ready within a year. An
unproven, "stove-pipe" weapon could be deployed within two years. A
minimally reliable weapon (50% or less) based on approximately 6
flight tests could be deployed in about 5 years from today or the year
2003. A high reliability weapon (75% or better) would require at least
12 test flights and approximately 8 years to develop and deploy in
* Development and deployment of a solid-fuel rocket like the Shahab-3
will depend largely on the problems of casting large solid-fuel grains
(diameter of approximately 1 meter). If a solid motor of suitable
diameter can be mastered, a weapon like the Shahab-3 could be deployed
slightly faster than its liquid-fuel stable mate, since less flight
testing would be necessary. If its is ready for flight test in
1999-2000, and all-out push might make deployment of a small quantity
(2 to 6 missiles) at minimum reliability possible in 2001. More could
be deployed with higher reliability in 2003.
* For either system, the pacing equipment no longer appears to be
propulsion, but is more likely to be guidance, re-entry and warheads.
* Regarding warheads, Iran could readily improvise a chemical or
biological warhead, but their destructiveness would be unknown until
actual use. A nuclear warhead would be strategically desirable, but
Iran's nuclear program does not appear to be accelerating to match its
* Regarding ICBM potential, Iran still faces enormous technical
barriers. Although IRBM development is a vital stepping-stone to
larger systems, ICBMs require much greater levels of support and
entirely new technologies. Iran would have to master the completely
foreign engineering problems of engine clustering and multiple
staging, it would have to acquire INS and a highly-destructive
warhead. For Iran to overcome these problems would require at least 15
years and may be totally impossible without massive foreign aid.
* All of these estimates, however, assume that essential problems of
soft technology, outlined below, can be overcome.
The most difficult barriers may have nothing to do with equipment in any
case. They are more likely to be in realm of soft technology, especially
finding adequate numbers of skilled managers, engineers and technical
personnel, as well as financing. In rocketry as in other aspects of its
military industrial program such as armored vehicles and artillery, Iran
has proven its ability to create new prototypes, especially by relying on
1950s vintage technology. It has been much harder to bring these designs to
series production, most likely due to a combination of inadequate personnel
and finances, and high-level indecision.
* Poor decision-making has slowed Iranian missile development since the
mid-1980s. Above all, Iranian political leaders have been unwilling or
unable to streamline the nation's rocketry projects. With numerous
projects under way simultaneously, resources cannot be concentrated
for maximum effect. Because of their unprecedented scale, this problem
will be most severe for the Shahab-3 and -4. The critical decision for
Iran may be to pick a clear preference, something it historically has
avoided. Eventually the Iranian Government will recognize that the
MTCR is not the only enemy of the Shahab-3 and -4; each one is the
enemy of the other. It is when we see Iran making a choice between
them that we should become most alarmed.
* Shortfalls of skilled personnel limit Iran's ability to absorb foreign
technology, both dual-use and dedicated missile design and production
equipment. Iran's missile program appears to have fully competent
engineers on top, but its human resources grower progressively weaker
as one goes down the chain of command. Thus it is unable to execute
otherwise suitable programs. Design may be adequate, but development
is poor, system integration worse, and production extremely difficult.
This problem is responsible for Iran's well-known efforts to create an
educational center for missile training. According to press reports two
Russian institutions have led these efforts, the Bauman National Technical
University in Moscow and the Baltic State Technical University in St.
Petersburg (before 1990 the Military Mechanical Institute Imeni Ustinova).
The latter is establishing a joint missile education center in Persepolis
under the direction of Iran's Sanam Industries Group which reportedly
directs the nation's solid-fuel rocketry program. Sanam is an arm of the
Iranian Defense Industries Organization (DIO), also known as Department 140
or the Missile Industries Group.
Closing down these training centers must be a high priority. But this may
be difficult; Russian agencies will claim that they engage only in routine
tactical missile maintenance training. Until they can be closed, efforts
must be made to assure that theoretical training stays to a minimum, that
the new centers do not become vehicles for dispatching Russian rocketry and
missile experts, and that they do not facilitate transfers of
* When bringing Russian exerts to Iran is too sensitive, it still may be
feasible for Iran to subcontract specific tasks to Russian groups for
assistance. For example, another Iranian agency in ballistic missile
development, the DIO's Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG)
reportedly has enlisted the services of the Russian Central
Aerohyrodynamic Institute for design and development support.
* n addition to Russia, there are other sources for human assistance.
North Korea already has supported Iran's missile program, and has
supplied substantial Scud missile infrastructure. Transfers probably
include partial engineering for the still incomplete NoDong. North
Korean transfers have slowed tangibly since 1993. This roughly
coincides with the US-North Korea Agreed Framework and preliminary
missile talks. There still may be North Korean missile engineering
More support could come following the collapse of the North Korean state,
which would release a flood of scientists and engineers.
* Finances will remain a serious problem for years to come. According to
ACDA, Iranian military spending fell from an estimated $11.5 bn in
1986 to $3 bn in 1994 (in constant 1994 US dollars), leaving military
planners with virtually no latitude for expensive new programs. The
prospect of new oil deals with Western petroleum firms is offset by
the unstable price of oil. Unless new funding or new elasticity in
government spending can be found, budgets are unlikely to permit
anything beyond prototypes and very limited deployment of new weapons.
Financial problems will not halt Iranian rocketry. But unless budgets rise
swiftly and consistently, finances will slow down technical progress,
delaying deployment by several years.
The Commission represents the most important event in the rise of the
latest manifestation of the national debate over the threat of ballistic
The first stage, which lasted roughly from 1988 through 1991, centered on
the discovery of the missile proliferation issue. This was a largely
analytical debate, concerned mostly determining the nature of ballistic
missile proliferation. It was largely descriptive and analytical, outlining
the scale of the problem. It also dealt primarily with the regional
rocketry programs that were most dependent on foreign technology and
consequently most vulnerable to the MTCR. In retrospect it was the easy
days of missile non-proliferation, when weak or highly dependent regional
programs were quelled through the straight-forward application of the MTCR.
After rapid series of revelations and MTCR successes, the issue drifted off
the national agenda.
The second debate which merged in 1995 and lasted through early 1997 was
entirely different, dominated not difficult to stop regional missile
programs and threats to the territory of the United States. It emerged out
of synergy of several things including: the discovery of the TaepoDong-1
and -2, the latter potentially able to reach targets on the extreme Western
periphery of the United States; the publication of NIE-, which concluded
that no new country would emerge with an ability to attack the United
States with a ICBM within the next fifteen years (i.e., before the year
2010); and the Defend America Act, which led supporters of National Missile
Defense to justify an accelerated effort to develop and deploy a protective
missile shield for North America.
This debate ended when all three catalysts lost their ability to provoke.
Soon after it was discovered the TaepoDong program stopped making visible
progress. After the roll-out of mockups and initial static engine tests,
the program made no additional news and simply disappeared. Meanwhile the
older and less ambitious NoDong project also stopped. In the United States,
NIE- provoked a series of Congressional hearings and a Congressionally
Commissioned investigation. The latter upheld the key findings of the NIE.
Last, the Defend America Act never attracted sufficient support to become
law and it too gradually disappeared.
How the issues aroused by Iranian missile ambitions are resolved will be
determined much more by the answers to political questions than purely
hardware-oriented matters. The role of Iran's missile projects and its
efforts to acquire technology is to shape are...
What is the Iranian missile threat to Israel and American regional
interests in the Persian Gulf and the Eastern Mediterranean? The question
is not without irony, coming at the same moment that Israel is approaching
deployment of the Arrow TMD system and the United States is re-evaluating
its relationship with Iran.
1. Aaron Karp is a Senior Faculty Associate, Graduate Programs in
International Studies, Old Dominion University, Norfolk, Virginia. Teaches
graduate programs on ethnic conflict, weapons proliferation and
international politics. Has published on weapons proliferation, ballistic
missile proliferation, arms transfers and arms control.