Within Striking Distance

The unveiling of the Iranian nuclear documents may have not provided a "smoking gun," but it has revealed some measure of the Iranian missile program, which could establish Iran as a significant nuclear power in the region. Special review

Iranian missiles displayed in Tehran (Photo: AP)

The unveiling of the "Iranian Nuclear Program Archive" by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (on April 30, 2018) generated much interest and triggered a worldwide response. Many commentators acknowledged the operational achievement of the Mossad, while others used the materials (of which very few were released – while some were even censored) presented at the massively covered press conference as a tool for attacking the conciliatory policy of the USA and Europe toward Iran.

Although the material presented at the press conference was not a "smoking gun," namely undisputed proof that Iran violated the agreements of the JCPOA, it was evident, even based on the small measure unveiled, that Iran's plans to manufacture a nuclear weapon were not merely a theoretical research project. Instead, the Iranian effort addressed numerous elements that had not assumed an actual shape, including the building of models and components required in order to manufacture a nuclear weapon on the one hand, and for the fitting of such a weapon into the warhead of a ballistic missile on the other hand.

Without referring to the physical aspects of the nuclear weapon issue – regarding which a substantial amount of material is readily available in the open source domain – we should pay attention to one particular drawing presented by Prime Minister Netanyahu. That drawing shows the preliminary design for the warhead of a Shahab-3 ballistic missile containing a nuclear weapon.

The media normally refer to these and other missiles as "capable of carrying a nuclear warhead." What does that actually mean? Any ballistic missile meeting the following criteria (jointly) will do: a sufficient carrying capacity (the weight of a nuclear weapon normally amounts to several hundred kilograms, according to the technical expertise and experience of its builders); a sufficient warhead capacity; effective thermal protection (the warhead must withstand the extreme temperatures of the atmospheric reentry stage), and effective range.

Iran's ballistic missile, from the Shahab-3 through the Sejjil to the Khorramshahr all meet the aforementioned criteria. Notably, thermal protection is mandatory for any ballistic missile, even if it only carries a conventional warhead containing high explosives.

The only drawing from "Project 111" (the Iranian codename for one part of Project AMAD – the development of a nuclear warhead for a ballistic missile) presented publicly shows the design of a cone-configured warhead for a first generation Shahab-3 missile. The nuclear device fits into the warhead along with the electronics unit attached to it. This unit enables the precision timed initiation of dozens of explosive charges that cause the fissile material to collapse, thereby triggering the nuclear explosion. Since the Iranians had introduced their Shahab-3 missile publicly, they have presented several more advanced warhead configurations, and it is possible that they designed nuclear warheads for these configurations as well.

It is worth noting that the North Koreans had originally developed and produced the Shahab-3 missile, originally designated Hwasong-7 and more widely known as Nodong. As North Korea has been involved in the global distribution of missile technologies and weapon systems for many years, they sold this missile not only to Iran but to Pakistan as well. The Pakistani designation for this missile is Ghauri.

As Pakistan is an open, self-proclaimed nuclear state, it is safe to assume that this missile, too, carries a nuclear warhead. The question one should ask in this context, however, is whether North Korea had exported to Iran the knowledge required to manufacture and fit a nuclear collapse mechanism and adapt it to the warhead of the Shahab-3 missile.

Over the years, the world has learned about the cooperative alliance between the nuclear network of Abdul Qadeer Khan from Pakistan, who sold the knowledge and expertise he had acquired, for hard cash, to the highest bidder. Khan sold uranium enrichment centrifuges, the fruits of his know-how, to several countries including Libya, North Korea, and Iran. It is possible that Khan was also responsible for the design of the nuclear weapon itself.

Moreover, the public unveiling of a North Korean design for a thermonuclear device (a hydrogen bomb) and the detonation of such a device in the sixth nuclear test North Korea performed made it possible to measure the magnitude of such a powerful device very accurately. They also raised the question of whether it is possible, in principle, to fit a device of this type into an Iranian missile.

The answer to this question is yes. In this context, we should note that Iran has officially unveiled the existence of their Khorramshahr ballistic missile, which is an Iranian version of the North Korean ballistic missile Hwasong-10, more commonly known as BM-25 or Musudan. This missile is a reincarnation of a Soviet missile originally designed for launching from a submarine. The range of this missile is more than 3,000 kilometers.

The above does not suggest that Iran is hard at work developing a hydrogen warhead for its ballistic missiles. Suffice is to note, however, that each and every country known for certain to have developed nuclear weapons, without exception, added the capability of hydrogen bombs to its nuclear arsenal eventually. Hydrogen bombs are dozens of times more powerful than nuclear fission devices. However, the missile potential of Iran, which had not been addressed in any way in the context of the JCPOA agreements, could enable – albeit theoretically – the establishment of a significant nuclear power in the future, should Iran choose to abandon the agreements (which the USA has already abandoned) and initiate a full-steam effort to develop nuclear warheads of various types.

Whether the renewal of the sanctions imposed on Iran leads Iran to devise and consolidate new agreements or – God forbid – to embark on a race toward the development of military nuclear capabilities, the world must consider the ballistic issue, contrary to the past.

Avoiding to destroy certain missile categories and to supervise the production, testing, and development installations of the Iranian missile program will be the equivalent of leaving the door open for the Islamic Republic to acquire devastating offensive capabilities, which could wreak disaster onto the entire region. 


Tal Inbar is Head of the Space & UAV Research Center at the Fisher Institute for Air and Space Strategic Studies


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