Experts divided over Iranian missile capabilities

Iranian Revolutionary guards fire Shahab 3 test missiles during a war game outside the city of Qom southeast of Tehran.
Iranian Revolutionary guards fire Shahab 3 test missiles during a war game outside the city of Qom southeast of Tehran. Parspix / Abaca Press

CAIRO, Egypt — Yes, Iran has medium-range ballistic missiles that could reach American air and naval bases in the Persian Gulf and possibly hit Israel or southern Europe.

No, there's no proof Iran is developing — or has — nuclear warheads for its missiles.

The Iranians may have some longer-range missiles. Or maybe their arsenal contains little more than faulty North Korean, Russian and Chinese knockoffs, some of which are descendants of Germany's World War II V-2.

The yes, no and maybes are about all international defense analysts can offer when it comes to separating proven capabilities from propaganda in the debate over Iran's ballistic missiles — weapons with ranges from a few miles to thousands that travel into outer space before falling back to earth to strike a target.

President Bush repeatedly has pointed to an Iranian ballistic missile threat as the main reason for building a billion-dollar missile-defense system in Eastern Europe to protect Europe and the United States.

As international concern spreads over the American-Iranian game of brinkmanship, it remains difficult to say with any certainty what weapons Iran possesses or how well they'd perform. The only time such arms are seen in public is during Tehran's carefully orchestrated military reviews, where they sit on trucks.

"It's all based on conjecture and news stories and leaks from the intelligence community, and quite a bit of that might be right," said Philip Coyle, a former director of the Pentagon's weapons-testing office and now a consultant to the Center for Defense Information. "But I don't think that means what the administration says it means, namely that Iran is preparing to attack the United States or Europe."

Nevertheless, the president has warned that Iran could create better and longer-range missiles within the next decade that could reach most any Western target. That threat is compounded by fears that Iran is secretly developing nuclear warheads for the missiles.

"Our intelligence community assesses that, with continued foreign assistance, Iran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the United States and all of Europe before 2015," Bush said last month in a speech at the National Defense University in Washington.

A recent publication by the Congressional Research Service, which provides nonpartisan reports on political issues to members of Congress, however, suggests that Bush is overstating what U.S. officials know.

The CRS report, dated Nov. 8, said there's no international consensus on the range, number or effectiveness of Iran's ballistic missiles. It underscored the paucity of real, or at least unclassified, intelligence on Iran's missile program.

"Some observers argue that although the U.S. position may be based upon a realistic assessment, it is also a worst-case analysis of the potential threat from Iran. They argue that 'with rare exception, this level of threat has rarely turned out to be the historical reality,'" the report said.

Iran's ballistic missile program began in the late 1970s, just after the U.S.-backed shah was deposed and Iran became a Shiite Muslim theocracy. The CRS report said that the program was in full force by the mid-1980s, when Iran reportedly launched more than 600 missiles in its eight-year war with Iraq.

But Tehran's secrecy about the program, coupled with the fact that most U.S. intelligence on the program is classified, means that experts can make only educated guesses about what Iran's ballistic arsenal looks like today.

"There is little disagreement among most experts that Iran has acquired some number of ballistic missiles from other countries and has developed other ballistic missile indigenously or in cooperation with others," the report stated. "...At the same time, however, there has been considerable public disagreement over precisely what kinds of ballistic missile systems Iran has or is developing."

For example, the report notes, on the issue of short-range ballistic missiles — those that travel 600 miles or less — there's wide disagreement on how many missiles Iran has, what their capabilities are and even what they're called.

Similar disputes also surround Iran's medium-range missile, the Shahab-3, a derivative of a North Korean missile, the No-Dong 1. A medium-range missile travels between 600 and 1,500 miles.

Few experts think that Iran now has long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of striking most of Europe or the United States, and U.S. analysts disagree over how long it might take Iran to develop such a capability, the CRS reported. "Some argue that an Iranian ICBM test is likely before 2010 and very likely before 2015," the report said. "Other U.S. officials believe, however, that there is 'less than an even chance' for such a test before 2015."

Critics of the U.S. proposal to build a ballistic missile shield in Poland and the Czech Republic describe the project as, in Coyle's words, "a system that doesn't work for a threat that doesn't exist." They say the shield would stop only an "unsophisticated threat," meaning one or two missiles that were launched without decoys.

"Do you think Iran would attack Europe or the United States with just one missile and sit back and see what happens?" Coyle said.

Making matters more confusing, analysts say, are Iranian officials' statements that they've developed missile systems that could strike U.S. facilities in Iraq, Afghanistan and throughout the Gulf region. Military analysts think many of Iran's claims are exaggerated and that much of Tehran's hardware is unreliable and ineffective.

This week, the Iranian defense minister announced the creation of a ballistic missile with a range of 1,200 miles, according to Iranian news reports. No photos of the weapon were made available, however.

"The Iranians overstate their current capabilities, but we all know this is done for internal propaganda more than for telling the people outside," said Wael al Assad, the senior disarmament specialist at the Arab League in Cairo. "But, at the same time, this kind of language they are using is being used in turn by the American administration to overblow the necessity of a preemptive strike on the Iranians. It's extremism feeding extremism."

The Bush administration's fixation on Iran also worries Western officials eager to avoid the embarrassment of another Iraq-style preemptive strike based on incomplete or bogus intelligence, some of it from exile groups with obvious agendas.

Iran is four times larger than Iraq and has three times the population of its war-torn neighbor. It has close relations with armed groups sprinkled throughout the Middle East and enjoys the support of large Shiite communities in Sunni-ruled Gulf states such as Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Those countries in particular are worried about the fallout from a potential U.S. strike on Iran.

Both Western and Arab officials fear a U.S. strike on Iran — based on little hard intelligence and without broad international support — could plunge the region into chaos and send oil prices, already nearing $100 a barrel, through the roof. Any overt Israeli involvement in such an operation could unleash what one senior Egyptian official called "the Armageddon scenario, when Iran would arm Hamas to the sky and suicide bombings would become hourly events."

"Nobody is going to believe that hogwash about WMDs, not anymore, not after Iraq," the senior Egyptian diplomat continued, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss Iran publicly. "The U.S. would be alone on this one. Nobody can afford another such dangerous adventure."


Short-range missiles (600 miles or less):

  • CSS-8, Chinese design, 90-mile range
  • Fateh A-110, believed to have been developed in Iran with Chinese, Syrian and North Korean involvement, 120-mile range
  • M-11/CSS-7, based on a Chinese model, about 170-mile range
  • SCUD-B/Shahab 1, among a number of missiles Iran is believed to have received from Libya or North Korea, 120-190-mile range
  • SCUD-C and Shahab-2, developed with help of China and North Korea, 300-420-mile range
  • M-9 variant/DF-15/CSS-6, reportedly from China, 480 mile range
  • Medium-range missiles (between 600 miles and 1,500 miles)

    • Shahab-3/Zalzal, based on a North Korean design, 600-900-mile range
  • Shahab-3 variants, 900-1,500-mile range
  • Fajr-3, radar-evading missile Iran claims it tested successfully last year, though Western defense officials are skeptical, unknown range
  • Long-range or intercontinental (greater than 1,500 miles):

    • Most defense analysts agree it's highly doubtful that Iran has built or acquired longer-range ballistic missiles, though many believe that is Iran's long-term goal.

    Source: Congressional Research Service, Defense Intelligence Agency Missile and Space Intelligence Center, CIA report, various government and media reports.

    (Jonathan S. Landay contributed to this report from Washington.)