Does Iran Have a Missile That Could Someday Deliver a Nuclear Weapon?

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November 6, 2020 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Blog Brand: The Reboot Tags: IranIRGCICBMMissilesTechnology

Does Iran Have a Missile That Could Someday Deliver a Nuclear Weapon?

Iran apparently does not possess a rocket that can strike the United States from Iranian soil. But Iran can strike U.S. interests in countries near Iran.

Here's What You Need To Remember: The rocket, possibly used in the January 2020 attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq, is 59 feet tall, could travel as far as 1,250 miles, and could one day carry a nuclear payload.

Iranian media have broadcast the first-ever footage of an operational Sejjil medium-range rocket in its underground bunker.

The same February 2020 broadcast includes what apparently is new or at least rarely-seen footage of trials involving the Sejjil.

The 59-feet-tall Sejjil could be a leading candidate to carry atomic warheads, if and when Iran develops them. The new imagery is a reminder that Iran apparently has deployed the Sejjil even before completing the rocket’s development.

Fabian Hinz, a researcher at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, part of the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey in California, circulated the Iranian broadcast on Twitter.

“The status of the Sejjil has been under question for a while,” Hinz tweeted. “Seeing new footage of its deployment and new testing footage is quite a surprise.”

Iran in all deploys around 55,000 surface-to-surface missiles. Most of them are shorter-range models such as the Shahab-1 and Fatah-110. The country also possesses Qiam rockets that can travel as far as 500 miles.

Sejjil is the country’s farthest-flying ballistic missile. The rocket reportedly can travel as far as 1,250 miles, in theory allowing Iran to strike targets across the Middle East, Eastern Europe, East Africa and South Asia.

Iran apparently does not possess a rocket that can strike the United States from Iranian soil. But Iran can strike U.S. interests in countries near Iran.

Iranian forces on Jan. 7, 2020 fired around 30 ballistic missiles at two Iraqi bases housing U.S. troops, injuring dozens of Americans but killing no one.

The attacks were Tehran’s retaliation for the United States’ Jan. 2, 2020 assassination of Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps militia and one of the country’s top military leaders.

A U.S. Special Operations Command MQ-9 drone fired on a vehicle carrying Soleimani and a deputy militia commander at Baghdad’s international airport, killing both men.

Jeffrey Lewis, a missile expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies, studied photos of wreckage from the January 2020 strikes and concluded that the rockets involved in the attacks likely were Qiams.

The Qiam like many of Iran’s short-range rockets is a variant of the Soviet Scud rocket. The Qiam’s high-explosive warhead reportedly weighs around 1,700 pounds.

The Sejjil by contrast is a purely Iranian design. Along with other advancements, it packs a warhead as heavy as 2,200 pounds.

“Its use of solid propellant, in particular, is due to fuel technology advancement made in conjunction with the Zelzal program during the 1990s, the development of which is believed to have been aided by China,” the Washington, D.C. Center for Strategic and International Studies explained.

Though the missile has a similar size, weight and range to the Shahab-3 variants, its use of solid-propellants is a major improvement on the Shahab design. Solid propellants allow for a near-immediate launch time, leaving the missile much less vulnerable during launch.

Because solid-propellant missiles do not have to be fueled immediately prior to launch, they are easily transported. On the other hand, solid propellant missiles have particular performance characteristics that make them more difficult to guide and control.

How Iranian engineers have overcome these hurdles is unknown, but it seems likely that they have modified Shahab guidance systems and/or received considerable foreign assistance.

“Because the design is new, Iran will probably have to subject it to a great deal of testing before putting the missile into regular operation,” CSIS stated in reference to the Sejjil.

“Assuming that the Sejjil project moves at about the same speed as foreign missile development projects, Iran could not have declared the missile operational until at least 2012. However, this still has not formally occurred,” CSIS added. “The missile has not been tested since 2012, leaving its deployment status uncertain.”

If the February 2020 broadcast is any indication, we can more safely assert that at least a few Sejjils are operational in their underground bunkers.

David Axe serves as Defense Editor of the National Interest. He is the author of the graphic novels  War FixWar Is Boring and Machete Squad. This article first appeared in February 2020.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.