Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program

Despite concerns over Iran’s nuclear program, the Obama administration has assessed that Tehran is years from a developing a long-range missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon. But past Iranian secrecy and testing bombast have led some experts to remain skeptical of Tehran’s capabilities and ambitions.

Last updated July 23, 2012 8:00 am (EST)

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U.S. President Barack Obama cited the rising threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program as a key driver in his decision to alter course on a Bush-era missile shield for Europe. Tehran’s arsenal is now "capable of reaching Europe," the president said in September 2009. Less than two weeks after that assertion--and hours after world powers disclosed a secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom--Tehran’s Revolutionary Guards staged a full weekend of test firings, blasting a series of medium- and short-range missiles in a show of military strength (NYT). Western defense analysts say the missiles tested have a range sufficient to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, while Iranian General Abdullah Araqi claimed that Iran’s arsenal now has the ability to "hit any place from which a threat is posed to Iran." But many questions remain about Iran’s ballistic missile program. Western analysts can’t say for sure how far Iranian technology has advanced, and experts frequently question Tehran’s assertions on range and payload size. And much like Iran’s nuclear program, international observers are largely left to guess at Iranian intentions.

The Rise of Iran’s Arsenal

Ballistic missiles--armaments that achieve suborbital spaceflight to hit their targets thousands of miles away--have been stockpiled in Iran since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran maintained a healthy fleet of combat aircraft under the shah, but after 1979, relations with the West frayed and access to technologies needed to maintain its air force dried up. According to a 2005 report published by the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Tehran’s program was launched in part to make up for these deficiencies. Dinshaw Mistry, author of Containing Missile Proliferation, writes that Iran’s missile program evolved in several phases (Arms Control Association). Beginning in the mid-1980s, as Iraqi missiles rained down on Iranian cities, Iran purchased short-range Scud missiles from North Korea. Steven A. Hildreth, a missile defense specialist with the Congressional Research Service, a nonpartisan U.S.-funded agency, assesses that Iran’s ballistic missile program was in full development by the mid-1980s (PDF), and during the Iran-Iraq War, "reportedly launched more than 600 ballistic missiles." By 1998, Iran had built and tested a medium-range missile, the Shahab-3, a single-stage liquid-fueled missile modeled after the North Korean Nodong. Since then, Iran has embarked on a number of other missile projects, with advances in solid-fuel and multistage missile systems, theoretically enhancing survivability on the ground and range in flight. In early July 2012, Iranian media reported that the Revolutionary Guard had test-fired several ballistic missiles, including the Shahab-3. The missiles reportedly traveled distances up to 800 miles during the tests, capable of hitting U.S. naval forces in the region and Israel.

Current Weapons Stocks

Defense analysts say despite Iran’s public pronouncements and frequently publicized test firings, assessments of Iranian hardware are largely speculative. Indeed, many Western reports offer contradictory findings, with different missile names, ranges, inventory numbers, and other characteristics for even the most commonly cited systems. The Federation of American Scientists, an advocacy group that promotes disarmament, for instance, estimates the maximum range of the liquid-fueled workhorse of the Iranian arsenal, the Shahab-3 medium-range missile, at 1,500 kilometers, while, a project of the conservative Claremont Institute, puts the maximum range at 2,500 kilometers. But beyond technical characteristics, experts are in general agreement on trends, especially regarding Iran’s short- and medium-range systems. In November 2008, Iran allegedly tested a new multistaged solid-fuel missile, the Sajjil. Unlike the Shahab, its liquid-fueled predecessor, the Sajjil is easily transported and quickly readied for firing; it can be readied in minutes versus hours, estimates Charles P. Vick, a senior technical analyst with But Theodore Postol, an expert on Iranian missile systems at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says while development of the Sajjil advances the Iranian missile program (PDF), "it does not mark an immediate or dramatic shift in the nature of the potential missile threat from Iran."

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Another milestone was reached in February 2009, when Iran successfully orbited its Omid satellite aboard a Safir rocket. While some analysts downplayed the launch’s significance, Uzi Rubin, former head of Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that the launch demonstrated a "fair amount of sophistication" for Iran, from mastery of multistage separation to use of various propulsion systems.

Other missiles and capabilities believed to be part of the Iranian arsenal include:

Questionable Capabilities

For a decade U.S. intelligence agencies have predicted a looming Iranian missile threat ( to the United States. In 1999 and again in 2001, intelligence experts put 2015 as a possible date for development of an Iranian ICBM. Coupled with the belief that Iran covets a nuclear weapon, this assessment has long driven U.S. interests in a workable missile defense system, at home and for Europe. Yet while many analysts say Iran is making incremental progress (BBC) toward a viable long-range missile program, there remains considerable dispute over what kinds of systems Iran possesses, how capable the systems are, and whether advancement is possible without significant foreign assistance. Hildreth says "there is little transparency in Iran’s ballistic missile programs," making judgments difficult. Adding to the uncertainty, Hildreth says, are Tehran’s frequent attempts at deception. "Iran has a demonstrated history of lying, misleading, and misinforming about their missile- and space-launch tests," he says. "It’s clear that they have done that in the past." One blatant example involved altered photos (NYT) that emerged following a July 2008 Shahab-3 test launch; pictures released by Iranian news agencies showed more missiles than were actually fired during the exercise. Other examples include tests that may or may not have happened, or claims on range and capability that cannot be verified, experts say.

"Iran is now poised to project power globally. If alarm bells aren’t yet ringing for the Obama administration, they should be." -- Uzi Rubin, former director of Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization

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In shifting course on a planned missile shield for Europe, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates concluded that intelligence officials believe the threat from Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missiles "is developing more rapidly than previously projected," while "the threat of potential Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities has been slower to develop than was estimated in 2006." Some lawmakers, including the top Republican in the House Armed Services strategic subcommittee, Rep. Michael Turner (R-OH), have challenged the Obama administration’s analysis. But Philip E. Coyle, III, a missile expert and an assistant secretary of defense during the Clinton administration, says that while Iran is making progress in its short- and medium-range capabilities, that technology is not transferrable to long-range systems. And he sees no evidence that Iran is working to change that. "I don’t see them going to special materials, lighter-weight materials that they would need for an ICBM," Coyle says.

Help from Abroad

A number of analysts agree that Iran has received assistance from entities in Russia, China, and North Korea. Many assess that the Iranian Shahab-3 is based on the North Korean Nodong design, and Iran is believed to have modified this system further. Yet it’s unclear whether support for Iran’s missile program is officially sponsored, or funneled through illicit criminal networks. Hildreth says Iran’s testing of the short-range Sajjil missile surprised a lot of people, and "seems to have been a leap in technology by as much as several generations. The question is, ’How did they do that?’" The assertion, of course, is that Iran received help from abroad, possibly from Russia (though most experts are loath to point fingers directly at Moscow). Postol, in his technical assessment of the Sajjil, notes that "is it almost certain" Iran was provided with "extensive technological help from abroad." He does not spell out possible acquisition scenarios, but instead suggests U.S.-Russia cooperation is vital to stop the transfer of missile technology.

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Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


Crisis Guide: Iran Aside from bilateral cooperation, the United States could seek to broaden dual-use UN-type sanctions that were somewhat effective in halting Iraq’s missile program under Saddam Hussein. Congress already authorizes penalties against Russian entities for transfers of missile technology to Iran. Additionally, the May 2009 joint threat assessment (PDF) by the EastWest Institute suggests both Russia and the United States should work to strengthen the voluntary Missile Technology Control Regime. But Rubin, former head of Israel’s Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, points out, Iran’s recent success--specifically its February 2009 space launch--suggest international efforts to control missile technology transfers are not working. "Iran is now poised to project power globally," Rubin writes. "If alarm bells aren’t yet ringing for the Obama administration, they should be."


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