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Iran Lauds Development of Solid-Fuel Missile
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Peter Crail

Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar announced Nov. 27 that Iran has developed a new, 2,000-kilometer-range ballistic missile. At that range, the new missile, named Ashura after the Shiite holy mourning ceremony, could strike targets throughout the Middle East, Turkey, and southern Europe. Although this range is comparable to other Iranian ballistic missiles, the Ashura makes use of two technologies, solid-fuel propellant and staging, which are critical to more advanced systems.

Najjar did not make any reference to a test of the Ashura but there are indications that an unsuccessful test occured in November. During a Dec. 6 press conference in Washington, Chief of Russian General Staff Yuri Baluyevsky said that he was told in meetings with the Department of State and National Security Council that Iran tested the Ashura on Nov. 20. A Russian diplomat told Arms Control Today that the test was not successful.

The claimed range for the Ashura matches that of two systems that Iran has previously developed, the Shahab-3 and the Ghadr. Tehran declared in 2005 that a variant of its liquid-fueled, single-staged Shahab-3 has a range of about 2,000 kilometers. In an apparent prelude to the development of the Ashura, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani announced in 2005 that Iran had successfully tested solid-fuel motors for its Shahab missiles.

Solid-fuel propellants offer a number of advantages over those relying on liquid fuel, and most advanced ballistic missile systems rely on solid-fuel technology. Among the advantages are a shorter launch time, easier handling and storage, and the possibility of deploying smaller missiles.

Iran has conducted substantial work on solid-fuel technology over the last two decades. Although this work has focused on shorter-range unguided rocket systems, more recent experience in developing larger rocket systems might have provided a base for the Ashura system. Uzi Rubin, a former Israeli Ministry of Defense official told Arms Control Today Dec. 14 that the Ashura is likely homegrown due to “the experience gained on large-diameter solid propulsion in nonguided heavy rockets of the Zelzal lineage.” Iran developed the Zelzal-2, its largest- and longest-ranged rocket, in the late 1990s.

In the past, Iran’s development of a solid-fuel motor industry is believed to have largely benefited from Chinese assistance. The 1998 Commission to Assess Ballistic Missile Threats to the United States stated that China “has carried out extensive transfers to Iran’s solid-fueled ballistic missile program.” It is unclear whether Beijing continues to provide solid-fuel assistance to Tehran and whether the Ashura directly benefitted from Chinese know-how.

Najjar’s claims of missile staging, which entails multiple engine systems that fire at different times during the missile’s flight, would also mark an advance. Staging allows missiles to cover much longer ranges. Iran has previously conducted work on staging the Shahab line of missiles, including a failed test of a two-stage liquid- and solid-fueled Shahab-3 in 2000.

Still, Iran has yet to test a multiple-staged missile successfully. Naijar indicated in the Nov. 27 announcement that the Ghadr, which has not been flight-tested, could also fly 2,000 kilometers. That corresponds with analysts’ estimates of the maximum distance that a solid-fueled single-stage variant of that system could fly. (See ACT, October 2007. )

Reacting to the Iranian claims, Lt. Gen. Henry Obering, head of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, said Nov. 29 that the missile “shows continuing progression,” claiming that the Pentagon was “surprised” because the missile was “different.”

Similar concern was expressed by French Foreign Ministry spokesperson Pascale Andréani, who told reporters Nov. 27 that the new missile “illustrates the need to be extremely vigilant with regard to Iran’s actions and intentions.”

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Posted: January 25, 2008