By Dina Esfandiary, Research Associate, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme

A US Pentagon report from January 2014 (but only released in early July) seems to have revised earlier US intelligence assessments that Iran could test an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by 2015. Indeed, although Iran has an advanced missile programme, the state of its current industrial base, research and development, and decades of being under sanctions led the IISS to assess in a 2010 Strategic Dossier on ‘Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities’ that Tehran will not have a militarily viable ICBM before the end of the decade.  The IISS confirmed this assessment in a Strategic Comment in November 2013.             

As described in detail in the 2010 Dossier, Iran has successfully developed a range of deployable liquid-fuelled short- and medium-range missiles based on imported Scuds. Iran’s most advanced system is a medium-range, solid-propellant missile, the Sajjil-2, which is potentially capable of delivering a 750kg warhead to a range of about 2,200km. No other non-nuclear weapons country has developed a missile of this reach. But the Sajjil-2 has yet to be fully flight tested and deployed to military units. The last known test was in February 2011. 

Tehran has the technical know-how and infrastructure to assemble an ICBM, but the IISS estimates that it is unlikely that an operational Iranian ICBM will materialise before 2020. Iranian officials have made a series of statements reiterating that they do not want to develop missiles with a range greater than 2,200km. Even if Iran’s intentions changed, sanctions and export controls have made it increasingly difficult for Tehran to obtain a reliable source of ingredients for the fuel for the Sajill and for other foreign parts and components for its missile programmes.

The Pentagon change in assessment comes as Iran and the six major powers meeting in Vienna are seeking to negotiate a final comprehensive deal concerning Iran’s nuclear programme by a July 20 deadline. The US insists that any deal must also address Iran’s missile programme, because UN Security Council Resolution 1929 demanded that Iran suspend any activities related to the testing and development of ballistic missiles that could carry nuclear weapons. ‘Addressing’ the issue does not necessarily mean that Iran’s missile programme must be shut down. In February 2014, Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman stated, ‘if we can get to the verifiable assurance that [Tehran] cannot obtain a nuclear weapon…then a delivery mechanism, important as it is, is less important’. 

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Iran's Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A net assessment

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