Last month, the deputy head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards warned Europe that if threatened, Tehran would increase the range of their missiles to exceed 2,000 kilometers.
Iran has long said that its missile program is defensive and non-negotiable despite the United States claim that the missile test is in violation of UN Resolution 2231, which endorsed Iran’s nuclear deal and called upon Tehran to cease testing of its missiles designed for delivering nuclear weapons.
The issue has come to a head after remnants of four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia by Yemen’s Houthi militias this year showed signs of being designed and manufactured by Iran.
To understand the context of Iran’s missile program, Al Arabiya English sat down with Dr. Karim Abdian who has was the Director at CenterScope Technologies, Inc and worked at the Project Office Value Engineering in defense and space, US Department of Defense.
Al Arabiya English: Even if it’s not physically possible yet, how do you see Iranian missiles presenting a risk to Europe and the United States?
Yes! It certainly does present a risk as it can hit any of the US friends and allies within the range of 2,000km. The Iranian missile program poses an immediate threat to the United States’ allies in the Gulf states, to the security of its European allies as well as to US interests in the region and the Greater Middle East.
This threat covers a great number of US allies and many East European countries, which are members of the European Union. In my opinion, the most important issue is the unaccountability and total impunity Iran seems to enjoy. This should be a concern.
Why should Tehran remain unpunished for the use and proliferation of missiles technology, especially when it is exporting them to warring sides? This presents a huge challenge to the international community. So, I think Iranian ballistic missile program must rank high in the US national security priorities.
Al Arabiya English: Can you walk us through the history of missiles manufacturing in Iran? How accurate are they now than their earlier versions? Should the world expect new and advanced versions from Iran or much of the same with the inclusion of Shahab 3, the Ghader 110 and the Imad?
Iran began looking for missile technology and decided to augment missiles into its armed forces and the Revolutionary Guard forces in mid 1980s during the Iran-Iraq war.
With the technical support of China and North Korea, it acquired the first shipment of Korean-assembled, former USSR/Russian designed Scud B, and later Scud-C,through Libya in 1985.
Several hundred IRGC technicians received training on these missiles from Libya and Syria. The Libyan training was short-lived but the six-month long training courses by the Soviet-trained Syrian engineers and technicians actually started the first initial core of Iran missile fork force and the know-how. Then, the North Koreans took over the main task of training for Scud missiles in Korea.
The same year, Iran acquired ship-launched Silk Warm missile from China. All these were imported missiles with operational and maintenance training of Iranian revolutionary guardsmen by North Korean, Russian and Chinese technicians. Iran did not have indigenous manufacturing capacity or capability for the first 10 years. It did not develop its manufacturing capability until 1997. Around this time, Iran inaugurated a missile technology training center with the technical help from Russia, China and Korea for the first time inside Iran. The Russians built the first high-alloy steel, or so called super-alloy processing technology for the manufacturing of missile components that can withstand extreme heat. They began manufacturing single-stage, liquid-fueled missiles that can be launched from fixed locations or from road mobile to allow it a higher degree of operational flexibility.
Iran called these ballistic missiles Shahab 1, Shahab 2 and finally Shahab 3, with up to 1,300km range but highly inaccurate, up to 500 meters away from the target. A later version of Scud, based on Russian-designed Scud-4 with a range from 1,500-1,800km, was developed which Iranians also called Kowsar, Zulfaghar, Safir, Sejil, Ghader and various other names. Again, these missiles are two-stage, solid fuel, surface-to-surface missiles. They all were manufactured by Iran Aerospace Industries Organization under the auspices of IRGC.
The Emad is also another variant of Scud with a range of 1,700 to 2,000 km that can carry a payload of 750-1000 kg, conventional or nuclear head.
Ghder is also a medium-range ballisticmissile designed by the revolutionary guard with the assistanceof Koreaand China with a range 1,800 km to 2,000 km. Its accuracy was however improved down to 100 meters. Later versions can also be adapted with multiple heads.
In mid-2000s, Russians provided Iran with the Soviet–designed SS-N-6, single-stage, liquid-fueled ballistic missile with a range of 2000-3000km that can be launched from submarines.
In early 2015, Iranian Revolutionary Guards unveiled a missile called Soumar with a range of 2,500 to 3,000 km, a copy or a slightly modified version of Russian-deigned Raduga Kh-55. This missile has an accuracy or a margin of error of 10meters, which can be classified as very accurate at this range. Iran last year for the first time publicly tested a missile called Musudan, a version of North Korean BM-25 ballistic missile, but it exploded after launch and during the test run.
This year, Iran announced its latest missile — a nuclear-capable Sumar (also called Khorramshahr) with a range of 2,000 to 3,000 km. This can indeed be a game changer in ballistic missile proliferation and a serious challenge to countries in the Middle East and Europe.
Also after a decade of much controversy, Russians have started supplying Tehran with S-300 surface-to-air missile defense system, in spite of objections by the international community.
Al Arabiya English: What can be a feasible solution to stop Iran from furthering its ambitions in terms of arms manufacturing and supplying them to proxy actors like Hezbollah and the Houthis? Are sanctions and diplomacy enough?
Well, these missiles are obviously intended for offensive purposes. Therefore, strict visual and physical, on-the-spot inspection, must be considered. Also,a watchful eye must be kept on Iran by dedicating more spaced-based monitoring resources.
Missile inspection should be includedin conjunction with the current on-going Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear inspection regime conducted by the IAEA.
I believe Iran should be expelled outright from the UN and all international organizations, if it supplies any warring countries, actors or its proxies with ballistic missiles. In my opinion, it is pursuing a double standard in being a member of the international community and still not abiding by international rules on missile proliferation and in spreading terrorism and sectarian violence.
Iran has developed a very sophisticated means and network for evading international sanctions, inspection and monitoring. Therefore, I would argue that diplomacy will not suffice in dealing with Iran.
Al Arabiya English: If you were advising Trump’s administration and his defense secretary, what would be the three points you would make?
First, to resist the pressure from the highly influential and well-funded Iranian lobby group in Washington, D.C. that falsely propagates and argues that taking on Iranian missiles or nuclear program issue would assist the hard liners in Iran.
I would also advise him to expose Iran for its illegal export of missiles to terrorist organizations, just as US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has recently done. As a person, I have worked for decades in the defense industry and in the Pentagon. I have worked for various missile commands, including US Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM). I can tell you that the US is quite capable of monitoring Iran’s missile activities from its deployed monitoring and spy satellites. The US should share the outputs of these assets with the international community to reveal the dangers the trajectory of Iran’s ballistic missile development poses.
Iran’s missile program is developing more precise missile capabilities that present a threat to the security of the region. Iran does not view or accept restrictions that was placed on it by the UN. The US should prove that the program is beyond Iran’s legitimate defensive needs. Finally, Defense Secretary Mattis can and should be allowed to confront the Iranian threat in the region.
Al Arabiya English: The US has been has pioneered the designing of THAAD anti-missile defense systems. Are there any updates from a defense point of view in changing the technology as many allied countries seek to defend themselves against Iranian missiles?
Well, this is a sensitive but also a misunderstood and misleading issue. While the accuracy of this system may have been improved and evolved since I retired from the US Department of Defense (DOD, during my tenure with the US Army Missile Command — that developed this system first in Saint Louis in late 1980s and later in 1990s in Huntsville, Alabama, the hub of the US missile technology — it was still an evolving technology.
Nevertheless, I will argue that there is a misconception — a hype if you will — about anti-missile defense systems solely and totally protecting a country’s airspace from an incoming missile.
I have overseen testing by Lockheed-Martin and other contractors on test ranges and have seen many misses. I also have been on many Navy aircraft carriers that deployed THAAD and seen failures in hitting targets. Again,I would say it’s not a silver bullet for shooting down enemy missiles. I can tell you THAAD and all other anti-missile systems effectiveness have been highly exaggerated and their hit rates and its accuracy often overstated. I have been on missile ranges and observed half or even as high as 7-8 miss out of 10.
I think any missile defense should be looked upon as a tool, one of the tools, to monitor a county’s air space. It should be augmented and be a part of the defensive capability regime including developing indigenous and regional air defense system.
It should be integrated with other defense and intelligence capabilities to counter the threat posed by Iranian missiles. But THAAD or any other anti-missile system cannot be seen as the ultimate goal in this regard. Missing the target by a km or two is normal for these systems.
Al Arabiya English: While the world’s attention has been focused on the plausibility that Houthis are firing Iranian-made missiles, is it perhaps time now to ask how Iran is doing so? What supply routes and mechanisms the IRGC are using to do so?
Iran uses the air routes utilizing its civil aircraft to ship disassembled missiles and parts to the Houthis. Perhaps now that the coalition forces are more vigorously enforcing a better control, it may be less so. Also, Iran uses its commercial marine fleet by disabling its ship transponders, which are required by international maritime law to have a satellite tracking device on board when travelling at sea, to camouflage its whereabouts, locations and navigational routes to deliver these missiles or missile parts and components. They then reassemble these missiles under the guidance of Iranian Revolutionary Guard advisors.
I believe, the missile attack on Riyadh should have been discussed much more that it has been, at least in the defense and security circles. After all, it was a very obvious Iranian plan to hit the population centers in and around Riyadh.
Moreover, in violations of the UN resolutions, Iran was caught red-handed to export missiles to warring factions, and to threaten its neighbors. If Iran has done that deliberately and was well aware of the consequences, then it must have been discussed in depth.
If it’s true that the responsibility of any country is first and foremost the protection of its citizens, Saudis have every reason to begin a case against Iran, may be embark on a process of expelling Iran from the United Nations and from all other international organizations. The end result of this should be to treat Iran as a pariah state by the United Nations with the support of the entire international community. On the other hand, the US with all sorts of multi-sensor satellites capability should have known from its trajectory and heat signature at the moment of launch that it meant to reach Riyadh, a path of some 800km. It should have shared these findings transparently with the international public opinion in order to expose Iran’s dangerous missile launching games against its peaceful neighbors.
The Saudis are lucky that they intercepted it - as it isn’t always the case. Hitting the body of these Scud-type missiles can still leave the missile warhead fly unimpeded along its trajectory for some distance and potentially cause a great deal of damage.