FAQ after allegations of another ballistic missile test by Tehran

Iran watchers and missile experts may be going ballistic this week. Here’s why:

On Sept. 22, the Islamic Republic of Iran paraded a previously unseen medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) atop a transporter-erector launcher (TEL). Hours later, authorities in Tehran claimed to have conducted a successful flight-test of the very same missile, which numerous Iranian and Western news agencies soon re-reported. Some even carried video of the launch.

However, in the afternoon on Sept. 25, a Fox News correspondent citing “two [unnamed] U.S. officials” reported that the launch was a “fake.” Instead, the article said that the video was from a failed flight-test in late January, indicating that no Iranian MRBM had been tested in September. Later that same day, CNN cited an unnamed “Trump administration official” who confirmed that “US intelligence radars and sensors” did not detect any new missile test from Tehran.

Either way, the bottom line is that this ballistic missile was tested at least once in 2017.

Contradictory open-source information has and likely will continue to hinder both policymakers and pundits from developing a nuanced understanding of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities and intentions. But like any analytical endeavor, a prerequisite to obtaining the right answers is asking the right questions.

What’s in a name?

The projectile in question is a surface-to-surface missile (SSM) dubbed the “Khorramshahr,” named after a south-western Iranian city near the Iraqi border whose fabled liberation in 1982 had an outsized effect on the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Iranian elites have long referred to the Iran-Iraq War as “Defa-e Moqadas,” or “the Sacred Defense.” Every September, the Islamic Republic commemorates the commencement of that conflict by holding a week-long military parade for “Sacred Defense Week.” Tehran uses these parades to display new military hardware of admittedly questionable effectiveness. It was during the 2017 parade that the Khorramshahr missile was first publicly unveiled.

Is the Khorramshahr nuclear capable?

Iranian outlets claim that the Khorramshahr is a single-stage liquid-fueled missile capable of traveling up to 2,000 kilometers while carrying a warhead that can weigh up to 1,800 kilograms. Iranian officials similarly tout that the Khorramshahr “can carry several warheads, instead of one.” According to guidelines established by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the Khorramshahr’s reported range and payload specifications are enough to classify it as a “nuclear capable” ballistic missile.

Based on publicly available images of the Khorramshahr, a single large conical warhead appears married to the missile’s body. Although Iranian outlets claim to have developed multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), it is much more likely that the Iranian press is hyperbolizing their growing ability to equip missiles with sub-munition payloads with which to shower targets. Other Western research institutions, like the Center for Strategic & International Studies, appear to agree.

According to Brigadier General Amir-Ali Hajizadeh, the Commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace Force (IRGC-AF), the Khorramshahr is “13 meters long.” This makes the Khorramshahr somewhat shorter than some of Iran’s more recent additions to its missile inventory, such as the Emad MRBM. However, based on the appearance of the Khorramshahr, the diameter of the missile appears to be larger than any ballistic missile known to be in Iran’s possession. When paraded in Tehran atop a TEL, the engines of the Khorramshahr were noticeably covered, as first described on Twitter by Israeli missile experts. This is likely intentional, seeking to inhibit the sort inference-making needed to learn about Iranian engine design. Previously, researchers have been able to use such imagery to make inferences about structural similarities between North Korean and Iranian Satellite-Launch Vehicle (SLV) engines.

When did we first learn of the Khorramshahr?

The earliest reports of an Iranian ballistic missile called the Khorramshahr date back to Sacred Defense Week in Sept. 2016, when officials forecasted that they would be unveiling a new missile with that name the next year. In Jan. 2017, Western media outlets reported that Iran tested a ballistic missile with that same name, but that it failed its flight-test and “exploded after 630 miles (1,010 km).” This flight-test was then cited by American, British, French, German, and later, Israeli delegates to the United Nations as being contrary to Annex B of United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which codifies the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal of 2015. For their part, Iranian officials took a divergent stance on the Jan. 2017 test. According to NBC, “Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif didn’t confirm or deny the launch,” whereas Iran’s then-Minister of Defense, Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan, gave credence to the test without referencing the name of the missile. Iranian officials provided no indication that the test was a failure.

Where did the Khorramshahr come from?

There are debates in the open-source community as to the origins of the Khorramshahr MRBM, and if it could be seen as the newest measure of ongoing missile cooperation between Pyongyang and Tehran. The same Fox News correspondent who broke the story of the recent sham Khorramshahr test also reported in July 2016 that Iran had tested the North Korean BM-25 Musudan, an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM). In a 2011 report on Iran’s missile capabilities, an Israeli missile expert re-upped claims based on German reporting from the mid-2000’s that Iran had obtained the BM-25 from North Korea. The BM-25 is a liquid-fueled IRBM reportedly derived from a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) that was converted to an SSM. But the Musudan (also known as the Hwasong-10) matters for those interested in tracing the chronology of the Khorramshahr. In Reuters’ Jan. 2017 report on Iran’s failed [Khorramshahr] test, an unnamed U.S. official said that “the last time this type of missile was test launched was in July 2016.” This quote not only gives credence to the July 2016 Fox News story about last summer’s Musudan test by Tehran, but bolsters allegations of the Khorramshahr’s North Korean origins.

The Islamic Republic’s failed July 2016 Musudan and Jan. 2017 Khorramshahr tests are also consistent with the timeline of North Korea’s failed Musudan testing. According to reports, the Kim regime’s April 2016, Oct. 2016, and March 2017 Musadan tests also failed. But even if Tehran did obtain the Musudan from Pyongyang, it may not be the exact same version. The Iranian Khorramshahr missile is finless, something the Iranian press has extensively reported on, since Iran only has one other finless ballistic missile, called the Qiam-1 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM). Iran’s finless ballistic missiles could imply the possession of an advanced guidance system, albeit one that is still likely inertial. Conversely, the North Korean Musudan has grid or lattice fins at the tail end of the missile. And lastly, while Iranian outlets have hailed the Khorramshahr as a “long-range” missile, by attesting that it can travel 2,000 kilometers, they vindicate past assessments of U.S. officials who classified the missile in January as an MRBM, not an IRBM.

Although not enough information is available on the Khorramshahr missile yet, if additional North Korean connections come to light, they would be another dangerous marker of missile ties between the two rogue regimes.

Why does Tehran feel the need to publicly flex its muscles?

In addition to the military benefits of missile testing such as improved battlefield readiness and reliability, Tehran has political incentives to publicly test missiles.

One reason Tehran publicly tests missiles is to bolster the regime’s deterrence, leading adversaries to believe that an attack on the Iranian homeland or checking of Iranian interests abroad carries the risk of kinetic reprisal. Another reason is to bolster the regime’s coercive apparatus, even its diplomacy. By having a large and mobile missile force, Tehran could seek to bully its regional rivals into accommodating, rather than contesting, Iranian influence in the region. Lastly, Iranian missile tests continue to constitute a mutually intelligible signal to two different audiences – regime elites and the domestic population, as well as adversaries abroad. To the domestic audience, a missile test is a signal of commitment and resolve to continue pursuing the revolutionary cause no matter the cost. And to international audiences, it is a signal of defiance against rules established by a world order it rejects.

All three of these incentives to test missiles have been accentuated by the JCPOA nuclear deal implementation-era.

Why “test” now?

Despite reporting that the Khorramshahr missile was not tested in September, the Iranian media and defense establishment has continued to act as if the missile was successfully tested then. While it is tempting to see the video as a response to President Trump and President Macron – both of whom cited Iran’s ballistic missile program as a problem in their floor speeches at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) – this may not have been the primary force driving Tehran to pass off the never before seen footage of its January launch as proof of a September test. Rather, the motivation was likely more domestic, just as it was when Tehran fired six SRBMs into the Syrian theater in June 2017.

During last year’s Sacred Defense Week military parade, Iran unveiled an upgraded single-stage solid-fueled SRBM called the Zulfiqar. Shortly after the unveiling, Iran tested the missile. That was also around the same time a promise was made by Iranian defense officials that next year, a new missile called the Khorramshahr would make its debut. Given all the commentary by Iranian officials from September 2016 – September 2017 about the need to increase their missile power, it would have been odd for Tehran to not unveil and/or test any missiles during the one time of the year they are most expected: a military parade commemorating the Iran-Iraq War. As a reminder, it was amid the Iran-Iraq War that the newly formed Islamic Republic laid the foundations for its ballistic missile program by drawing on Syrian military assistance and Libyan and North Korean missile technology. Fast forward to 2017, and according to the new Director of National Intelligence (DNI), Iran now has “the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.” This is an assessment the previous DNI shared as well.

Why would Tehran lie?

Iran’s incentive to misrepresent its missile power should not be underestimated. In the past, Tehran has even doctored images and video of its missile and rocket tests, looking to intimidate adversaries while justifying its investments in the missile program to a domestic audience. Yet, none of this means Iran’s missile arsenal doesn’t constitute a threat. Rather, the Islamic Republic likely aimed to make good on its promise to unveil the Khorramshahr, as well as continue to hype the Sacred Defense Week parades in the JCPOA implementation-era. Moreover, by re-upping a key dividend of the Iran-Iraq War – ballistic missiles – regime elites could be looking to prepare the public to harken back to other virtues of the conflict, such as national sacrifice and self-sufficiency.

However, if the test had been real and occurred in September, it would indicate a marked escalation by Tehran. Since being put “on notice” by the Trump administration in February, Tehran has not flight-tested a nuclear-capable MRBM with a functioning reentry vehicle. Feigning a missile test by re-upping an old video that inhibits making a battle damage assessment is one way to signal resolve to your domestic audience without crossing redlines or tripwires as established by your foreign adversary. However, the U.S. should not rest assured. This situation will almost certainly not be permanent, and Tehran has a demonstrated track record of testing red lines to see if they have faded and turned pink.

How many missiles has Iran launched since inking the JCPOA?

Since agreeing to the JCPOA in July 2015 until the Trump administration’s “on notice” warning, Tehran launched up to 14 ballistic missiles. This number is inclusive of all Persian and English language reporting on launches (failed or successful) of non-nuclear and nuclear capable short, medium, and intermediate range SSMs with a ballistic trajectory and SLVs. It is thus inclusive of the January 2017 Khorramshahr test. Since then, Tehran has launched two Hormuz-2 anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) at its own barges in the Persian Gulf, fired six SRBMs into the Syrian theater, and once tested another SLV. Using the same criterion (which ignores the ASBMs) brings the number of launches by Tehran from July 2015 – to present up to 21. Had the Khorramshahr been actually tested by Tehran in September, then that number would now be 22.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Senior Iran Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

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