In the 10 months since the Iran nuclear agreement was signed, the Islamic Republic has increased the frequency of its ballistic missile testing, according to researcher Michael Elleman, who testified before a US senatorial committee this week.
Iran is primarily focused on increasing the accuracy, not the range, of its missiles, Elleman said.
Elleman, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank, was called to speak Tuesday before the US Senate Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs, which is investigating the effects of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the official name for the Iran nuclear deal signed in July 2015.
Since then, Iran’s ballistic missile program has become a central issue in the debate surrounding the nuclear deal, with opponents of the agreement saying test launches violate the terms of the JCPOA, while proponents argue missile tests are “inconsistent” with United Nations resolutions but not necessarily illegal.
According to the UN decision, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology,” until October 2023.
As they’re only “called upon not to” test missiles, but not expressly forbidden from doing so, Iran has used that loophole to increase its testing with impunity.
“[The US has] engaged in a lot of hue and cry over Iran’s missile capabilities, but they should know that this ballyhoo does not have any influence and they cannot do a damn thing,” Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei said this week.
According to Elleman, in the almost year following the signing of the agreement and the removal of sanctions, Iran has performed at least eight missile tests — three in 2015 and five thus far in 2016.
In 2005, 2013 and 2014, however, when negotiations for the deal were in full swing, Iran did not perform a single test of a “nuclear-capable missile,” the IISS fellow testified.
After talks fell through in 2005 and before they resumed in 2013, the Islamic Republic “averaged roughly five test launches per year,” according to Elleman.
Though the increase from an average of five to eight missile tests a year seems dramatic — it’s a 60 percent increase, after all — Elleman offered perspective by comparing that to the US and Soviet missile testing programs during the Cold War, which averaged “about one test a week,” or nearly 10 times as many tests per year.
Tactically speaking, ballistic missiles have little value other than as a means of delivering a nuclear warhead, Elleman pointed out.
In May, an Iranian official claimed the country had tested a missile capable of reaching Israel, which had almost unheard-of accuracy for Iran.
“We test-fired a missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers and a margin of error of eight meters,” Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi was quoted as saying at a Tehran science conference.
However, this was swiftly denied by the Iranian defense minister on the same day.
“We’re still trying to get to the bottom of what exactly transpired,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest said at a press briefing.
“We are aware of Iranian claims of an additional ballistic missile launch. We’re also aware of statements from the defense minister indicating that such a launch did not take place,” he said.
Accuracy over range
Whether or not the test took place, the emphasis on the rocket’s margin of error points to a renewed focus on the accuracy of Iran’s existing arsenal of missiles, rather than on the development of farther-reaching projectiles.
“Iran seeks to improve the accuracy of its missiles, a priority that supersedes the need to develop longer-range missiles,” Elleman told the Senate committee on Tuesday. “Iran has repeated said that it does not need missiles with a range of greater than 2,000 kilometers, or 1,200 miles.”
At that range, Iran could easily reach any target within Israel, which is just under 1,000 miles away.
At this point in time, however, Iran’s missile technology is far from accurate enough to reliably hit a predetermined target, and changing that will not be easy or quick, Elleman said.
“Substantial improvements in missile accuracy will take years, if not a decade, to materialize,” he said.
As with so many things, he most important aspects of a military attack are location, location, location. A missile — even a nuclear-tipped missile — landing in the Arava desert would have an incomparably lesser effect than a missile landing on, say, Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv.
“Iran’s ballistic missiles have poor accuracy. The successful destruction of a single fixed military target, for example, would probably require Iran to use a significant percentage of its missile inventory,” Elleman told the Senate committee.
That inventory consists of over 300 missiles considered “nuclear-capable,” according to the international Missile Technology Control Regime monitoring association, which defines it as any missile capable of delivering a 1,100 pound (500 kg) warhead a distance of 186 miles (300 km), Elleman said.
Slow progress on ICBM technology
In terms of increasing the range of its ballistic missiles, the senior researcher said Iran has not made great strides in that effort.
“I have seen no evidence to suggest that Iran is actively developing an intermediate- or intercontinental-range ballistic missile (IRBM or ICBM, respectively),” Elleman said, but he added, “I cannot speak to a covert program.”
The most recent test that could be related to ICBMs appears to have been the launch of the Simorgh rocket, which is believed to have been conducted last month. US and Iranian officials have not publicly acknowledged the test, though Russian revealed that the launch popped up on one of their radar stations.
The Simorgh rocket is designed to launch satellites into space. However, Elleman told the Senate committee, “Without question, rockets designed to boost a satellite into orbit and long-range ballistic missiles employ many of the same technologies, key components, and operational features.”
But it’s not likely that the Simorgh itself would be used as a weapon because of the considerable effort that would be required to convert it into a reliable ICBM. Rather, the information gleaned from the space rocket would be applied to create a new type of missile, Elleman said.
“Iran’s ambitious space program provides engineers with critical experience developing powerful booster rockets and other skills that could be used in developing longer-range missiles, including ICBMs,” he said.
The production of those long-range missiles, which would be capable of striking the United States, is still years away, assuming Iran continues on its current course.
According to Admiral William Gortney of the North American Aerospace Defense Command, Iran is anticipated to have an operational intercontinental ballistic missile by the year 2020.
Meanwhile, Elleman, who has interviewed Russian and Ukrainian scientists who worked in the Iranian missile program, estimated the Islamic Republic would not be able to produce an operational ICBM until “2022, at the earliest.”
In his testimony, the senior IISS researcher also discussed an interesting piece of modern history, namely that Israel is partially responsbile for the Iranian missile defense program, which was created before the 1979 revolution when the two countries were still allies.
“Ironically, the shah teamed with Israel to develop a short-range system after Washington denied his request for Lance missiles,” Elleman said.
“Known as Project Flower, Iran supplied the funds and Israel provided the technology. The monarchy also pursued nuclear technologies, suggesting an interest in a delivery system for nuclear weapons,” he said.
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