Are Pyongyang and Tehran collaborating on ballistic-missile development? Michael Elleman, IISS Consulting Senior Fellow for Missile Defence, looks at the science behind recent speculation, offering a detailed analysis of the missile designs employed by each country to ascertain whether such collaboration is indeed taking place.

© Michael Elleman

By Michael Elleman, Consulting Senior Fellow for Missile Defence

North Korea’s ground test of a powerful, liquid-fueled engine on September 20, and the launch of three modified-Scud missiles earlier this month renewed allegations that Pyongyang and Tehran are collaborating on ballistic-missile development. The accusations are mostly speculative, based largely on the apparent similarities of ballistic missiles and satellite launchers appearing in both Iran and North Korea. A detailed examination of the designs employed by the two countries casts doubt on claims that the two countries are co-developing missiles and satellite launchers, exchanging detailed design data, and testing prototypes for each other. Pyongyang and Tehran may share test data on a limited basis, and perhaps trade conceptual ideas. But there is little evidence to indicate the two regimes are engaged in deep missile-related collaboration, or pursuing joint-development programs.

During its war with Iraq in the 1980s, Iran’s cities and petroleum infrastructure were repeatedly attacked by Baghdad, which possessed a sizable arsenal of Soviet-supplied aircraft and Scud-B ballistic missiles. Lacking reliable access to the skilled technicians and spare parts needed to maintain and fly its Western-supplied aircraft in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Iran was unable to respond to and punish Iraq for the assaults. Tehran was thusly driven to acquire ballistic missiles and artillery rockets from willing exporters for its counter-strike capabilities. Libya and Syria initially shipped a limited number of Scud-B missiles to Iran, which allowed the Islamic regime to target Baghdad and other large Iraqi cities in the mid-1980s. In need of a much larger arsenal of missiles, Iran turned to North Korea for its longer-term requirements. Pyongyang shipped between 200 and 300 Soviet-built Scud-B and Scud-C missiles to Iran during the latter years of the war and into the early 1990s. Iran renamed the missiles Shahab-1 and -2, respectively.

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