Iran's second test of the Shihab-3 intermediate range ballistic missile last month has brought the country one step closer to developing a viable strategic threat to Israel. A derivation of North Korea's Nodong-1 surface-to-surface missile, the Shihab-3 is a single stage, intermediate range ballistic missile powered by liquid fuel. It has a range of 1,300 km (780 miles) and can carry a warhead weighing up to up to 800 kg (1,760 lbs). The Shihab-3 travels at about 7,000 kph, and measures 17 meters in length.
Both the launch site and target destination for the test were within Iranian territory. Iran conducted a previous, test of the Shihab-3 in July 1998, but the missile exploded shortly after the launch. Most observers at the time called the launch a failure, but informed sources later indicated that Iranian scientists detonated the missile by remote control because they were satisfied with the results of the test.
It is not clear how many of the missiles Iran plans to build and deploy. There is no evidence that it has set up a production line to build the large number of missiles that would be needed to overwhelm Israel's Arrow 2 anti-ballistic missile system (which was successfully tested earlier this year). An Iranian air force official said after the launch that Teheran currently possesses five additional prototypes of the Shihab-3, but The Shihab-3 prototypes are reportedly equipped with a North Korean-manufactured engine (the recent test indicated that Iran has succeeded in integrating the engine with locally-designed missile subsystems). Teheran is known to have received a shipment of these engines from Pyongyang last November, but the exact number is not known. In any case, Iran has proven adept in the past at copying the design of imported military components and developing its own indigenously-produced replicas, so it could probably build them on its own.
The Shihab-3 may not go into production at all--the production and testing of the prototypes could be merely an interim phase in Iran's ongoing development of the Shihab-4, which will have a range of about 2000 km and larger payload capacity. Unlike its predecessor, the Shihab-4 is the product of exclusively Russian ballistic technology and can carry biological, chemical or nuclear warheads (it's ostensible purpose is to launch satellites into orbit). Development of the Shihab-4 is expected to be completed within 2-3 years. Experts have also estimated that Iran will develop a long-range ballistic missile, the Shihab-5, capable of reaching targets in the United States, by 2010.
Iranian foreign minister Kamal Kharrazi said said shortly after the launch that the Shihab-3 test "was done to boost the country's defensive capability and as a deterring force." An unidentified Iranian official later told Radio Teheran that the missile "does not, in any way, pose a threat to other countries."
Israeli and American reaction was rather mixed. "The strength of the IDF and the strengthening of Israel by peace agreements are together our answer to this launch," said Prime Minister Ehud Barak, while Air Force Chief Maj.-Gen. Dan Halutz said he did not believe that Israel will be a "prime" target of Iran. However, Deputy Defense Minister Ephraim Sneh argued that "as a state that Iran says is the devil and must be eradicated from the world, [Israel] cannot be apathetic . . . we have to go up one, two or even three levels in our defense abilities."1 US National Security Council spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters that the test "underscores the proliferation concerns that we have in the region. If we are ultimately able to achieve an official dialogue with Iran, this is an area that we would want to talk to them about."
The Shihab 3 is of negligible value as a conventional weapon, as it is incapable of striking military targets with any precision. The only conceivable value of the Shihab-3 is strategic: the delivery of nuclear, chemical or biological agents of mass destruction. Iran has well-known chemical and biological capabilities, and is believed to be anywhere from two to ten years away from developing nuclear weapons--largely depending on whether it acquires the necessary components abroad or develops them on its own. Russia has expanded its level of nuclear cooperation with Iran, ostensibly for civilian commericial purposes, which now include the transfer of heavy water and graphite technology. Earlier this year, the Central Intelligence Agency issued a new assessment to senior Clinton administration officials indicating that Iran might have already achieved the capability of building a nuclear weapon--a worst case scenario based primarily on uncertainties about the flow of nuclear materials and technology from Russia.2
However, arming the Shihab-3 with nonconventional warheads is a difficult undertaking. Developing nuclear warheads small enough to fit on the missile is possible, but unlikely to be attempted--by the time Iran has completed its nuclear program, the Shihab-4 (with its much larger payload) will be in service. Developing a reliable biological warhead is also difficult, because of the need to insulate the components from degradation when the missile re-enters the atmosphere (Iraq, however, was said to have made remarkable progress in overcoming this problem). Fitting the Shihab-3 with chemical warheads is much easier, but would require additional test launches.
1 Jerusalem Post, 16 July 2000; IsraelWire, 17 August 2000.
2 "CIA Tells Clinton an Iranian A-Bomb Can't Be Ruled Out," The New York Times, 17 January 2000.