Weapons researchers have identified activity at a remote secret facility in the Iranian desert that points to the covert development of long-range missiles that could potentially be used to attack the United States, The New York Times reported Wednesday.
Satellite images appear to show, among other things, activity around a tunnel leading underground and evidence of powerful rocket engine tests that scorched telltale marks in the desert sand near the city of Shahrud, the report said.
Although there are no restrictions in place on the range of Iranian missiles, US President Donald Trump had insisted that limitations be placed on Tehran’s missile program as a prerequisite for Washington remaining in the landmark 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He ultimately pulled out of it on May 12.
According to the report, researchers from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey watched a recent Iranian documentary about rocket scientist Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, a leading figure in the country’s missile development program, who was killed in a devastating 2011 explosion at Iran’s main research facility near the town of Bidganeh. Based on details in the film, the researchers came to the conclusion that before his death Moghaddam had helped set up another facility, which is still operational.
Another key clue came when one researcher, reviewing material from an Iranian journalist association, saw an undated photo of Moghaddam, who was a commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, that included in the background a box marked “Shahrud.”
The Shahrud site, located about 350 kilometers (220 miles) east of Tehran, was used for a missile test firing in 2013 and was thought to have remained largely unused since. However, satellite images of the site showed a steady increase in the number of buildings there over the past few years, the report said. Curiously, the buildings were painted an aquamarine color, the same shade that Moghaddam had ordered be used at the destroyed Bidganeh site, researchers noticed.
Large marks on the desert floor appeared to be the result of rocket engine test-firings, and the marks had appeared in 2016 and 2017, the report said. Rocket engines can leave a big scorching shaped like a candle flame on the ground.
Analysis of the concrete stands that would have held the engines during the firings suggested the motors had somewhere between 62 and 93 tons of thrust — consistent with the kind of power needed for a long-range missile. Other test structures, apparently also used for engine tests, were reportedly even larger.
Additional imaging from sophisticated sensors also showed traffic at the opening of an underground tunnel, indicating a large structure buried in the sand, the report said.
Researchers came to the conclusion that the site was working on advanced rocket motors and rocket fuel.
The report said that five experts who reviewed the research material agreed it strongly indicated work on long-range missiles. However, the report also noted that “it is possible that the facility is developing only medium-range missiles, which Iran already possesses, or perhaps an unusually sophisticated space program.”
The US and its allies have been demanding that Iran curb its production of ballistic missiles, which can reach parts of Europe and could soon reach the US as well. Western officials have maintained that the only reason Tehran could have for manufacturing such missiles would be to fit them with non-conventional, including atomic, warheads.
Tehran insists that it sees the missile program as crucial to its defensive posture, and says its existence is non-negotiable.
Iranian leaders have also said they are not working on missiles with a range beyond the Middle East. It has so far produced a missile with a range of 2,000 kilometers (1,240 miles), putting all of Israel in range as well as much of Eastern Europe.
The 2015 nuclear deal saw heavy sanctions lifted on Iran in return for Tehran freezing much of its nuclear program. Having pulled out of the deal in May, the US has vowed to apply the “strongest sanctions in history” on Iran.
United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which affirmed the Iran nuclear deal, called on Iran to refrain from developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. Iran has maintained that it never intended to develop nuclear weapons and therefore its missile development doesn’t violate the agreement.
However, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last month presented a vast archive of Iranian documents, obtained by the Mossad spy agency, which he said detailed Iranian efforts and research programs specifically aimed at producing an atomic weapon.
Netanyahu said at the time the evidence proved Iran had “lied” about its nuclear ambitions. In announcing his withdrawal from the nuclear agreement, Trump cited the Israeli intelligence haul as among the reasons for his decision.
Agencies contributed to this report.