Ballistic Missiles in Iran's Military Thinking
Ballistic Missiles in Iran's Military Thinking
These remarks were prepared by Kamran Taremi. The opinions in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center.
Ballistic Missiles in Iran's Military Thinking
The last three decades of this century have witnessed the proliferation of ballistic missiles among developing states. The governments there first purchased complete systems, then embarked on modifying them and are increasingly designing and producing their own missiles. Consequently, more than twenty developing countries now possess ballistic missiles in their inventories and the number is increasing. Thus, once the prized possession of major powers, ballistic missiles, like combat aircraft many years before, are fast becoming an integral component of the armories of developing states.
The deployment of ballistic missiles in the armies of developing countries has had major strategic implications both at the regional and international level. The most important is diminishing the importance of geography. To wage war on each other Third World states no longer need to be contiguous. This newly acquired ability to project force beyond their immediate surroundings is likely to increase the incidence and scope of conflict. The 1990-1991 Gulf War, for the first time, showed a glimpse of what the greater strategic reach afforded by missiles might mean in future local hostilities. Moreover, at the pace the range of ballistic missiles is increasing within a few years some developing states will be able to hit countries of the North. This means that for the first time in the modern age North-South conflicts may also be fought on the turf of the North. This has caused alarm in the North and precipitated the search there for effective countermeasures. Further, the increasing availability of highly accurate guidance technologies to developing states means that their missiles will soon become sufficiently precise to strike at point targets. Therefore, they will be much more than instruments of terror usable only against civilian targets. This promises to multiply exponentially the military utility of ballistic missiles. The full extent of the significance of the proliferation of ballistic missiles becomes clearer once it is viewed in the context of the spread of the weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Long-range missiles will make developing states' WMD weapons that much more potent.
Despite their importance until early 1990s the strategic implications of these developments went largely unnoticed. Preoccupation with the Cold War was certainly the major cause. The end of the Cold War, however, has allowed more attention to be given to the threats emanating from the South, including the menace posed by ballistic missiles. By demonstrating the disproportionate impact that a few missiles in the hands of a developing country can have the Gulf War also helped to shift the spotlight of world attention on ballistic missiles in the South.
Nowhere has the proliferation of ballistic missiles been as rapid and extensive as the Persian Gulf region where they have entered service with the armies of all major powers and have also been extensively used in two wars. Because the Persian Gulf currently provides approximately forty-one percent of world's crude oil exports, a rate which is expected to rise to fifty-six percent by 2020, there is great concern that in case of conflict ballistic missile there would give belligerents the ability to do extensive damage to each other's oil installations thereby precipitating a global economic crisis.
One of the Persian Gulf countries whose ballistic missile program has caused deep anxiety in the West is Iran. This paper focuses on the reasons for Iran's adoption of ballistic missiles. It argues that the emphasis that the Iranian defense posture puts on deterrence, asymmetric warfare, and military self sufficiency have combined to drive Iran to acquire ballistic missiles. This paper consists of three sections. The first which covers the years from 1980 to 1988 examines the impact of the Iran-Iraq War on Iran's decision to acquire a ballistic missile capability. The second considers the domestic and external factors which have driven Iran's ballistic missile program in postwar years. The final part which serves as the conclusion explores the future course that Iran's missile program is likely to take given the nature of the threats that confront Iran.
Islamic Iran and Ballistic Missiles
The revolutionary regime that in February 1979 replaced the monarchy lacked a clear defense policy of its own, but it resolutely rejected its predecessor's deterrence posture and the arms acquisitions that went with it. Therefore, it dropped the plans drawn up under the Shah to acquire ballistic missiles. This situation, however, did not last long. The Iraqi invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the long and bloody conflict that ensued led to a drastic reassessment of Iran's security environment and the development of a strategy to deal with it. The new strategy that began to emerge during and after the war emphasized conventional and nuclear deterrence. In that context, it gave a special place to ballistic missiles and put a high priority on the development of an indigenous ballistic missile industry.
Iran's first attempts to obtain ballistic missiles date back to the last years of the Shah's regime. In the early 1970s the Shah approached the United States with a request for Lance short-range surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) which Washington had already sold to neighboring Turkey. When this request was turned down the Shah approached Israel for the joint development of a ballistic missile capable of carrying conventional and nuclear warheads. In the spring of 1977, the two countries signed a secret agreement under which Iran was to contribute $1 billion towards the costs of research and development of the missile, as well as provide a test site. In parallel, the Shah's regime pursued covert efforts to acquire a nuclear capability. The missiles were meant to serve as a means of delivery for Iran's nukes. Although Iran did make part of its financial contribution to the program, the collapse of the Shah's regime in February 1979 put an end to Iran's efforts to attain a ballistic missile capability.
Whilst the clerical regime that replaced the Shah's felt under threat from all sides, its leaders did not have a clear understanding of the nature of threats that Iran faced. Nor did they develop a coherent and well thought out military strategy to meet these threats. Consequently, the new regime did not see the need for a nuclear capability. Hence, the Shah's plans to produce the bomb were shelved. As a result, Iran's ballistic missile program lost its main rationale and was naturally abandoned.
The Outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War and the Need to Deter Attacks on Iranian Population Centers
From the start of the conflict the Iraqi army resorted to the bombardment of Iranian civilian centers with the frequency and intensity of these attacks increasing as the war progressed. The need to deter Iraq was a primary impetus behind Iran's decision to acquire ballistic missiles. The regime hoped that missile strikes on enemy towns and cities would compel its adversary to halt its targeting of civilians. The difficulties that Iran encountered in obtaining missiles, prompted it to focuse its efforts on building an independent capacity to design and produce missiles. Thus, Iran's wartime experience played a crucial role in shaping its initial perceptions of the utility of missiles in conventional warfare.
From the very beginning of the war one of the tactics that Iraq employed was to attack Iranian towns and cities. At first Iraq hoped that targeting innocent civilians would break the Iranian will to resist thereby precipitating surrender. When fierce resistance to the invasion continued, initial hopes of rapid victory dissipated, and a war of attrition set in, Baghdad still persisted with targeting residential areas in Iran but the aims and patterns of attack changed. The attacks sought to disrupt normal life by forcing people who had no access to shelters to leave home for fear of their lives. More than anything else by terrorizing the population Iraq hoped to compel Iran to settle for a negotiated peace, rather than persist with the military option. To hit Iranian civilian centers Iraq used mortar, artillery, aircraft and ballistic missiles namely Frog-7 and Scud-B systems supplied by the Soviet Union.
Iraq modified its pattern of attacks too. Whilst in the first years of the war attacks had taken place throughout the year and were concentrated on Iranian towns and cities near the border, from 1985 onwards Iraq carried out most of its attacks during limited periods of time concentrating mostly on towns and cities far from the battle fronts like the capital Tehran as well Isfahan and Shiraz. These periods of intense attack came to be known as the "war of the cities," the first of which began in March 1985 and ended in the same month. During the first war of the cities Iraq hit nearly 30 towns and cities with aircraft and missiles. The second round began in January 1987 when Iraq struck 35 Iranian towns and cities by aircraft, missiles and artillery. The third round began with Iraqi bombardment of Tehran on 29 February 1988 and lasted until 1 May. This was the most intense war of the cities lasting 52 days. According to some reports nearly a million people fled their homes in Tehran immediately and several more millions fled by late April. Iranian reports indicate that the attacks led to the death of 4,000 civilians and the injury of 12,000 more.
Iran initially abstained from retaliating in kind. The regime believed that targeting civilians went against the teachings of Islam. In this regard, Ayatollah Khomeini said in October 1980, "We think of Islam and wish to act according to Islamic teachings." Hence, he asked the military to "do nothing to harm the cities which have no defense. Our hands are tied, because we do not wish the ordinary people, the innocent people to be hurt." Instead the regime declared that it would respond by hitting Iraqi military units stationed in the battle zones. The regime argued that its enemy was not the people of Iraq who supposedly loved the Islamic Revolution but the Ba'ath regime and its military machine. In time, however, as the hoped for popular uprising against the Ba'ath did not materialize and Iraq continued its attacks on civilians, Iran's commitment to its moral stance faltered. So, in 1984 the clerical regime reached the decision to respond in kind so as to deter Iraq from targeting civilians. However, once that decision was made the regime realized that it lacked the means to effectively strike at Iraqi towns and cities. Whilst Iraqi population centers were generally closer to the border than those of Iran, Tehran could not exploit this advantage because they lay outside the range of Iranian artillery. Further, the regime did not want to risk the few operational aircraft it had on missions which had low priority and were dangerous given Iraqi air superiority. Also, unlike Iraq, Iran did not have any ballistic missiles in its inventory that it could use for these missions in place of aircraft. Therefore, in 1984 the Iranian government made the decision to acquire ballistic missiles.
To deal with the immediate need for ballistic missiles for use in the ongoing war the regime decided to purchase complete systems from abroad. Hence it approached Syria and Libya in 1984 and later North Korea to obtain Scud-B missiles. However, as the number of Scud-Bs Iran could obtain on the black market was limited the regime decided to procure technology and equipment from Beijing to produce Chinese Type-83 artillery rockets that were designated as Oghab (eagle) in Iran. Oghab had a range of 40 kilometers and carried a 70-kilogram warhead. On a more long-term note, the regime took urgent steps to set up an independent ballistic missile industry.
However, Iran's new tactics of targeting Iraqi civilians did not succeed in deterring Iraq because Iran could not match or surpass Iraq in terms of the numbers of missiles that it could launch. While Iraq found a willing supplier in Soviet Russia, Iran had to scour the international market for a few dozen missiles. The disparity in access showed itself in the numbers used in the 1988 war of the cities. Whereas Iraq fired 190 Scud-Bs and its variants, Iran's Scud-B launches were limited to 70 to 75. Although Iran did launch nearly a hundred Oghabs, their range was too short to reach Iraq's major towns and cities and their payload too small to cause much damage to the targets they could reach. Further, Iran could not rely on its air force to compensate for the smaller number of missiles at its disposal. With most of its aircraft grounded for lack of spares by 1984 Iran had ceded air superiority to Iraq which it used to attack Iranian cities at will. Consequently, as Chubin has explained, Iran's disadvantage "put Iraq in a position of control over the escalation of the missile and air wars." He summed up the political costs of Iran's failure to deter Iraq in these terms:
By taking the war to Iran, Iraq terrorized the civilian population, which began to clamor for shelters and to desert the cities in large numbers. Iraq thus imposed a political cost on Iran's leadership for continuing the conflict. The Iranian government's conduct of the war became politically damaging, especially as it was unable to offer the population any defense or to riposte in kind.
The lesson that Iranian leadership drew from the war experience was that a strong retaliatory capability was vital in enabling Iran to deter missile attacks. In practice this capability required maximum possible independence from foreign suppliers in manufacturing missiles. It also called for maintaining a large stock of missiles as well as transporter, erector, launchers (TELs) at all times so that Iran could maintain a high rate of fire over an extended period of time thus depriving the enemy of control over the escalation of missile wars. From then on establishing an indigenous ballistic missile industry became a top priority for the Islamic regime as the clerical leadership came to perceive missiles in general as "the most important weapons today."
Perceived UN Partiality and the Need to Develop an Independent Deterrent Capability
Iranian leaders drew two lessons from Iraq's invasion and its frequent and extensive use of chemical weapons on the battle fronts as well as against civilians. The first was that the United Nations was unwilling or unable to protect its members from external aggression. The second was that although by having member states accede to arms control conventions the UN had limited their ability to defend themselves, it would not come to their assistance when they were subjected to attacks by the very same weapons that it had outlawed. In both cases the conclusion was the same; ultimately Iran could only count on its own resources for self-defense. Therefore, the Islamic regime set out to acquire an independent capability to produce weapons of mass destruction (WMD) which it believed would not only deter future invasions of the country but also preclude the possibility of WMD attacks or the threat to do so. In this context, ballistic missiles were seen as a suitable delivery vehicle for the biological, chemical and nuclear weapons under development.
There were several reasons for Tehran's adverse perceptions of the UN. When Iraq invaded Iran in September 1980 the Security Council failed to condemn Iraqi aggression and take the measures necessary to ensure the immediate and unconditional withdrawal of Iraqi forces from the territories they had occupied in Iran. Instead the first Security Council Resolution on the war, adopted on 28 September 1980 (R. 479), called for "an immediate end to the use of force and a peaceful settlement to the dispute and urged both sides to accept any appropriate offer of mediation." At a time when the Iraqi army had penetrated deep inside Iran and was holding large chunks of Iranian territory, Iran's compliance with the UN call for ceasefire would only have put Iran in a weak position from which to negotiate with the aggressor. It follows that in any such negotiations Iran would have been the party that had to give concessions. Iranian belief in the partiality of the UN was confirmed again on 12 July 1982 when after Iran had expelled Iraqi forces from its territory and occupied parts of that country, the council passed the resolution 514, calling for the withdrawal of all forces to the internationally recognized borders. The resolution was perceived in Iran as an attempt by the Security Council members to save Saddam from complete defeat at a time when his armies were on retreat on almost all fronts.
However, the most important reason for Iran's distrust of the UN was the Security Council's reaction to Iraqi use of chemical weapons against Iranian military forces and civilian population. Although, as a signatory to the 1925 Geneva Protocol, Iraq had pledged not to use chemical weapons, it resorted to chemical agents extensively against Iranian military forces and even went so far as using them against civilians both in Iran and in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the UN inspections teams sent to Iran in 1984 and 1985 reported Iraqi use of chemical weapons, the UN Security Council refused to condemn Iraq much less punish it. Iranian leaders believed that by maintaining silence in the face of Iraq's flagrant violation of the protocol the UN Security Council had condoned Iraqi action.
The conclusion that the Islamic regime drew was that Iran could only rely on its own capabilities for its defense. To deter future use of WMD in the mid-1980s the Islamic regime resurrected the Shah's nuclear program and complemented it with efforts to produce chemical and biological weapons. The decision to develop WMD had a direct impact on Iran's quest for ballistic missiles. These weapons needed a means of delivery; ballistic missiles could fulfill that role.
The Impact of Postwar Developments on Iran's Ballistic Missile Program
In the postwar years, Iran's missile program continued apace. Several factors drove this program namely, the persistence of old threats, the emergence of new ones, Iran's turn towards asymmetric warfare, and financial constrains. To meet these threats Iran, with foreign assistance, worked to build a stronger missile force armed with WMD warheads.
Although in August 1998 Iran accepted the Security Council Resolution 598 and a ceasefire came into effect, negotiations between the two countries for a peace treaty did not bear fruit with the result that relations with Iraq remained tense. Fearing a renewal of hostilities Iranian leaders continued their ballistic missile program. Another factor which spurred Iran's missile development was the need to match Iraqi advances in that area. During the war with considerable foreign assistance Iraq had set up facilities to design, modify, produce, and test missiles. It had taken long strides in building Scud-Bs at home and had successfully modified Scud missiles extending their range from 300 to 600 kilometers. By the end of the war there were at least 15 projects underway to build long range missiles. In the period between the end of the Iran-Iraq War and the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Baghdad continued work on extending the range of its missiles. By 1990 it had developed the Al-Hijarah missile which had a maximum range of 700 to 900 kilometers and could carry a payload of 100 to 300 kilograms. In response, with substantial outside assistance, mainly from North Korea, Iran set up a facility to produce the Scud-B. The necessary infrastructure was also set up to design, produce and test ballistic missiles inside the country. Work was also underway to produce an extended range version of Scud-B called Scud-C with a range of 500 kilometers that was developed in North Korea. Iran also sought and received Russian and Chinese help for its missile program.
Even after the 1990-1991 Gulf war and the destruction of a significant portion of the Iraqi military machine, imposition of UN sanctions on Iraq, and the beginning of a determined effort by the UN to rid Iraq of its weapons of mass destruction and long-range missiles Iran did not slow down its crash missiles program. If anything, the war and the resulting revelations about the extent of Iraq's missile and WMD program only served to boost Iran's efforts in the area of ballistic missiles and non-conventional weapons. UN reports indicating that Iraq had succeeded in producing chemical and biological warheads for its missiles, that it could locally produce engines for its Scud-B missiles, and that Iraq had taken great strides towards extending the range of its missiles to 2,500 kilometers came to Iranian leaders as a shock. They were also startled by revelations about Iraqi success in mastering the technology to build nuclear weapons. These disclosures clearly indicated that Iran was far behind Iraq in WMD and ballistic missile fields and there was a lot of catching up for Iran to do. Further, Iranian leaders were skeptical of the UN ability to defang Iraq. In their assessment UN missions had left the main element in Iraq's ballistic missile and WMD programs intact namely the human resources that the Ba'ath regime had successfully developed. Hence, Iranian leaders were of the view that once the UN sanctions were lifted Iraq would be able to rapidly resurrect its clandestine WMD and missile programs.
Aside from the disclosures that the war led to, it stimulated Iran's interest in ballistic missiles by demonstrating their political and military effectiveness. This effectiveness stemmed from the missiles' three important attributes: defense penetration, pre-launch survivability and long range. Defense penetration refers to the ineffectiveness of existing air defenses in intercepting missiles once they are launched. For instance, the performance of the version of Patriot missiles used in the Gulf War was described as not being "even partially successful." It arises from the fact that missiles fly at many times the speed of sound which means that there is little warning time of an attack making defense difficult. Consequently, they were the only weapons in Iraqi possession that could penetrate American and Israeli defenses. Pre-launch survivability alludes to the difficulty of destroying ballistic missiles before launch. Ballistic missiles and the transporter-erector-launchers (TELs) that they are placed on and fired from are road mobile and hence difficult to locate and destroy in wartime. General Schwartzkopf, the commander of the Allied forces in the Gulf War, likened the detection of ballistic missile launchers to finding a needle in a haystack. Iraqi attacks on Israel also demonstrated to Iranian leaders the strategic reach that missiles afforded to countries possessing them. They must have wondered what the war would have been like if Iraq had had missiles with sufficient range to reach the capital cities of the European allies of the United States. The ballistic missiles' potential to extend the strategic reach of the countries that wielded them became even more important when it was combined with their defense penetration and pre-launch survivability.
Although the first Gulf war did not eliminate the Iraqi threat, the war and the concurrent collapse of the Soviet Union did spur a significant shift in Iran's threat perception. As a result, Iran came to view the United States rather than the Ba'ath regime as the primary threat to its security. As Iranian leaders saw it, with the end of the Cold War, the United States had shifted its efforts to fighting Islamic radicalism. In that context, Iran was identified as one of the main hotbeds of Islamic fundamentalism which made its containment essential to the success of US efforts at defeating the Islamic menace. Further, the end of the Cold War meant that Iran had to contend with a superpower that could pursue its goals without being opposed, balanced, and checked by any other rival. The emerging unipolar international system offered less protection to weak states like Iran. Gone were the days when the United States had to restrain itself for fear of driving Iran into the arms of its Soviet rival. The first Gulf War was also a factor in heightening Iranian fears of the US. Iran saw close hand how Washington had built a coalition against Iraq, brought the UN on its side and overrun Iraqi forces in Kuwait and southern Iraq in a space of weeks; something that Iran had not managed to do in eight years of war. Iran could only watch helplessly as American cruise missiles flew over its territory en route to smash Iraq. The fear in Tehran was that after Iraq, it would be next in line. As time passed on the situation worsened. The advent of the Clinton administration brought with it a policy of "dual containment" which put Iran on par with Iraq as US enemies. The advent of a Republican administration into office in 2000 did not ease Iranian fears. In fact, bilateral ties took a turn for the worse. The main reason for this deterioration was the terrorist attacks on US territory in September 2001. As a result of these attacks, the United States identified international terrorism, particularly of the Islamic variety, and the spread of WMD as the biggest threat to American security. The United States found Iran wanting on both accounts. The Bush administration accused Iran of harboring al-Qaeda members who had fled Afghanistan after the collapse of the Taliban regime and of trying to develop nuclear with in violations of its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Based on that, the Bush Administration put Iran on the "axis of evil" along with Iraq and North Korea.
To deter a US attack, Iran turned towards asymmetric warfare (AW). The decision to adopt AW tactics stemmed mainly from Iran's wartime experience. The Iran-Iraq war taught Iran the significance of AW. During the later stages of the tanker war in 1987-88 Iran found itself confronting the US Navy in the Persian Gulf and the Sea of Oman. This was the direct result of the 1987 American decision to re-flag and escort Kuwaiti oil tankers. The technological and numerical superiority of the US fleet supplemented by naval vessels from other NATO allies was glaringly clear. Prior to that Iran had found it easy to attack GCC oil tankers using a variety of platforms such as aircraft and ships. With the US Navy in escort role those tactics were definitely no longer viable. So Iran began planting mines in the way of American convoys. This new tactic showed its effectiveness when on 27 July 1987 the oil tanker Bridgeton was hit. More spectacularly, the damage to Bridgeton forced the escorting vessels to take cover behind the oil tankers they were supposedly protecting. The roles were reversed. Later on, in April 1988 the same tactics succeeded in crippling the frigate USS Samuel B. Roberts on escort mission in the Persian Gulf. In sharp contrast, whenever Iran met US forces in a conventional manner the results were disastrous. This could be seen in clashes with the US Navy that took place in 1987-1988. Thus, the war implanted AW as a central plank in Iranian military thinking.
The first Gulf war reinforced these perceptions. It clearly illustrated the significance of ballistic missiles for AW purposes. They were the sole weapons Iraq possessed that could penetrate American and Israeli defenses. Because they needed little logistical support to launch and were mobile and easy to conceal they proved extremely difficult to destroy before launch and incidentally but equally importantly they managed to divert a good portion of allied aerial bombing which could have caused greater damage to Iraq if not bound up on Scud hunts. In short, ballistic missiles were Iraq's only winning cards. Iran did not fail to notice that. Hence it proceeded with ballistic missile development in an effort to enhance its AW-suitable arsenal. In the same context, Iran also continued its WMD program with full force, especially efforts to produce a nuclear device. Iranian leaders believed that nuclear weapons were the ultimate instrument of asymmetric warfare. They held that if Iraq had had nuclear weapons, the United States would never have attacked Iraq. Hence, in January 1995 Iran signed a contract with Russia for the completion of a nuclear power plant in the city of Busher which had begun by the Shah's regime but had been discontinued as a result of the revolution and the war. The resumption of work on the reactors also provided Iran with a pretext to begin building a complete fuel cycle with the aim of producing enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
To deter a US attack, Iranian authorities openly threatened the US with missile strikes on GCC oil facilities most of which are concentrated along the Persian Gulf coast. These attacks, they believed, would interrupt GCC oil production, refining, and exports precipitating a global economic crisis. If these attacks were conducted with nuclear tipped missiles, they would put GCC oil facilities out of use for years. The US cannot dissuade Iran by threatening retaliatory attacks against Iranian oil facilities as these would remove further supplies from the oil market aggravating an already critical situation. Iran cannot use aircraft for that purpose because in the presence of US carrier-based aircraft and strong GCC air defenses they would not be able to reach their targets on the other side of the Gulf.
Iranian leaders also believe that they can deter American attacks by showing that they can complicate US efforts to project force into the region. The US relies on GCC, particularly Saudi, military facilities to launch sustained operations of the kind needed against a major regional power like Iran. It is especially dependent on Saudi airbases near the Persian Gulf coast namely those located at King Fahd military city, King Khaled military city, and King Assad military city. The latter houses the AWACS, J-STARS, and refueling aircraft. As Story has argued, sustained missile attacks on such facilities could seriously interfere with large-scale aerial operations. Similar attacks with nuclear armed missiles would, of course, be far more effective in rendering these bases inoperative.
Iranian leaders hold that ballistic missiles can further strengthen their deterrence posture by enabling it to target not just American forces in the theater of operations but also in the US itself. According to Sheppard, "...civilian injuries and fatalities caused by missile strikes on the homeland of a country far removed from the theatre of war would have far greater impact on the psyche of a country than military casualties in theater." Although at present Iran does not have missiles with sufficient range to reach the United States, as Iran's development of Shahab-3 intermediate range ballistic missiles has shown the production of intercontinental ballistic missiles in future is not beyond Tehran's capabilities.
Iranian leaders are also of the view that ballistic missiles can reinforce Iran's deterrence posture by making it difficult or impossible for the United States to build a coalition against Iran as it has twice done against Iraq. Given that the Unites States usually assembles a coalition before embarking on an invasion, the threat of ballistic missile attacks on the home territory of potential coalition members can play an important