Forget Future Nukes: What About Iran's Missiles?

Forget those atomic anxieties: Iran's missile program could create some interesting challenges if a conflict ever occurred. 

Last Monday, the international community and the Islamic Republic of Iran extended the deadline for negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. This extension signified failure to reach an agreement, while leaving some hope for the future. But whether or not the United States and Iran can come to an arrangement on the nuclear program, the conventional struggle for power in the Persian Gulf will continue. Like China, Iran has dedicated substantial resources to the development of anti-access/area denial systems. Unlike China, it’s trying to do so on a shoestring budget.

Iran’s anti-access systems have trailed those of Russia and China, but in some sense are more interesting than developments in the two larger countries. The idea that Russia or China, continental powers with massive defense-industrial bases and huge economies, should have the military wherewithal to deny military access to the United States is not, in itself, all that remarkable. Only the extraordinary dominance of the United States over the past twenty-five years has made the question of anti-access/area denial remotely interesting.

But Iran, a medium-sized country with access to enormous energy resources, is not one of the world’s wealthiest or most powerful nations. If a country like Iran can develop an anti-access system sufficient to deter the United States, then the balance of offensive and defensive technology has surely shifted.

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Like China and Vietnam, Iran has attempted to create a multifaceted anti-access/area denial system, including land-based, sea-based and air-launched missiles. This article examines four missiles that help constitute this system of systems and evaluates how these systems might work together in case of war.

Raad Air Defense System

An anti-access system is no better than the surface-to-air missiles that can protect it from destruction. If U.S. and allied aircraft can operate with impunity, then they will destroy Iran’s missile launchers, whether on land, aircraft or ships, in the first hours of any conflict. To this end, the Iranians have deployed a wide variety of surface-to-air missile systems.

Most of these systems are “veteran,” and not in a good way. However, the Iranians have recently fielded the Raad mobile SAM system, a development from older Russian technology. It can purportedly track and hit targets at up to 50 km, although Iranian claims of effectiveness are rarely reliable. The Raad system has capabilities very similar to those of the Buk SAM system that destroyed Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 earlier this year. This represents a significant, if evolutionary, improvement on the Vietnam-era defenses Iran had relied upon into the last decade. Iran also has a variety of short-range point-defense systems, but these won’t deter a concerted, long-range U.S. attack.

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Iran has failed to convince either Russia or China to help upgrade its aging SAM system. If Iran took possession of a Russian S-300 or S-400 system, or a Chinese HQ-9 system, its prospects of defending against an American attack would improve dramatically.


The most important cruise missile in the Iranian arsenal is the C-802 and its variants. Originally acquired from China, Iranian industry has developed the capacity to replicate and modify the missile. The C-802 is a subsonic, sea-skimming missile that carries a 165 kg warhead, enough to do serious damage to any warship. Several types of Iranian surface ships can fire the C-802, including very small fast-attack boats. Fighter and attack aircraft can also carry C-802 variants, as can Iranian Mi-17 helicopters.

In addition to missiles procured directly from China, Iran has developed two variants, the Noor and the Qader. The Noor has a slightly longer range (200 km), while some reports indicate that the Qader is optimized for land-attack. Given the wide range of platforms that can launch these missiles (including land-based batteries), they would certainly play a role in the opening stages of any war in the Gulf.

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The Iranian navy could conceivably launch C-802s from its flotilla of three Russian Kilo-class submarines. However, although Kilo-class submarines in many navies operate anti-ship cruise missiles, there is no indication that the Iranians have developed such a capability. Reasons for this include the lack of access to high-technology equipment from Russia and China, as well as the difficulty of operating submarines within the Persian Gulf.