According to Ambassador John Bolton, in his 2007 memoir Surrender is Not an Option, arms control professionals in the State Department referred to the US-EU incentives-heavy policy on Iran’s nuclear weapons program as “Walk softly, and carry a big carrot.”
What are the political and operational implications of yesterday’s launch by Iran of her developmental Sajjil ballistic missile?
A quicklook analysis suggests the following major points:
1. Israeli experts are correct to assess that the 20 May launch does not signify a “new threat.” This is a valid perspective, and should be the one we start with. Iran conducted the first Sajjil test launch in November 2008, and Western analysts have been aware of the Sajjil program for some time.
The Sajjil, a solid-fueled missile intended to have at least the range of Iran’s workhorse liquid-fueled Shahab-3, represents a technological advance for Iran, and one that will be significant when the missile is fully developed, operational, and in production. That process will take several years, at a minimum. The Sajjil is an indigenous Iranian missile, not one back-engineered from a foreign design like the Shahab-3, and represents Iran’s most advanced effort of that kind. But this assessment was available six months ago, at the time of the first test launch.
2. That said, the pace of Iran’s progress is noteworthy, and should leave us in no doubt of her level of determination. Tehran has conducted two tests of the Sajjil in six months, with the second launch appearing – at least based on initial reporting – to show improved performance over the first. In the interim, Iran also succeeded, in February, in a long-term goal of putting a satellite in orbit, an effort that tests and demonstrates the same advances in rocketry that are applied to long-range missile development.
3. The point that the Sajjil is a solid-fueled missile, while not new, is significant, from three key perspectives. First, controlling the accuracy of a ballistic missile is easier with solid-fueled than with liquid-fueled variants. Second, using solid fuel produces more flight distance for less fuel weight. That allows for a larger warhead. Third, solid-fueled missiles can be kept ready-for-launch for extended periods, an important advantage for operational surprise and reaction time. Liquid-fueled missiles have to be fueled shortly before launch, a severe vulnerability for both responsiveness and secrecy.
4. The launch was perfectly timed – almost laughably so – to undermine the overall credibility of the EastWest Institute assessment, released on 19 May, of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. This assessment has gotten some brief attention for its analysis that the US missile defense sites proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic would not protect Europe against missiles launched from Iran. A reading of the document reveals clearly that its purpose was, from the beginning, to address the missile defense sites – in their role as a point of dispute between the US and Russia – more than to provide a definitive assessment of Iran’s programs.
This is perhaps as well, since the EWI assessment makes the following claim about the category of missile into which the Sajjil falls:
3.3 There are reports that Iran has developed solid propellant missiles with a range of 2,000 km. There is, however, no reliable information at present on the state of Iran’s efforts to develop solid-propellant rocket motors and therefore no basis on which to make an assessment in this report.
There are a half-dozen other comments along these lines, directly undermined by the 20 May Sajjil launch. Proponents of the missile defense sites in Europe could not have special-ordered a sequence of events on 19-20 May 2009 more favorable to their cause.
The EWI assessment is probably not off by more than a year or two on its projection that it would take Iran 6-8 years to field a long-range, solid-fueled missile capable of delivering a 1000-kg warhead to a target in Europe. Tehran’s determination and real progress notwithstanding, there are a number of steps left in the process, and Iran is a poor nation. It is a reasonable estimate that Iran is at least 4-5 years from making this particular capability operational.
That does not mean it will be 4-5 years before Iran could possibly be capable of projecting a nuclear threat. Delivering a missile against Israel, or a crude nuclear device via simple air drop, is a nearer proposition, at least in terms of minimum time requirements.
But the EWI assessment of how long it would take Iran to develop a credible nuclear missile threat against Europe is off only on the margin, not by an order of magnitude in any actionable sense. That said, the sheer impression made by the Sajjil launch is likely to consign the EWI report’s featured conclusions to the remainder bin.
For what it’s worth: the EWI assessment was clearly written as a brief against the missile defense sites proposed for Poland and the Czech Republic. Besides downplaying the potential imminence of an Iranian missile threat to Europe, the assessment’s argument against the defense sites as planned is that they do not yet represent a full-term capability like that envisioned in the US global missile defense concept. They are, in short, an interim capability, less than what the global system will eventually be capable of, and the EWI assessment uses that fact as an argument against deploying them at all.
Since the assessment will go down in history as the one that came out the day before the Sajjil launch that gave it a black eye, we have probably given it all the attention it merits – other than to issue the obvious warning that political factions in the US and Europe will no doubt still try to make use of it in their campaign against the missile defense sites.
5. Perhaps the most significant implication of today’s Sajjil launch is what it says about the utility to Iran of illicit international transactions to obtain controlled technology and materials. In another coincidence seemingly set up by interested fate, the Wall Street Journal on 20 May featured an Opinion article summarizing the recent Senate testimony of Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, about, among other things, gyroscopes, accelerometers, and the rare metal tantalum (used for shaped charge and explosively-formed penetrator linings) obtained by Iran through a scam of Manhattan banks by a Chinese citizen and his trading company, LIMMT. According to Morgenthau:
…the material shipped by LIMMT “included 15,000 kilograms of a specialized aluminum alloy used almost exclusively in long-range missile production; 1,700 kilograms of graphite cylinders used for banned electrical discharge machines which are used in converting uranium; more than 30,000 kilograms of tungsten-copper plates; 200 pieces of tungsten-copper alloy hollow cylinders, all used for missiles; 19,000 kilograms of tungsten metal powder, and 24,500 kilograms of maraging steel rods . . . especially hardened steel suitable for long-range missiles.”
Lest anyone think that these materials may have innocent uses, Mr. Morgenthau added that “we have consulted with top experts in the field from MIT and from private industry and from the CIA. . . . Frankly, some of the people we’ve consulted are shocked by the sophistication of the equipment they’re buying.”
The information outlined by Morgenthau certainly adds context to the announcement of Iranian Defense MinisterMostafa Mohammad Najjar that “the Sajjil-2 differs from the Sajjil missile because it ‘is equipped with a new navigation system as well as precise and sophisticated sensors.’ “
Putting Morgenthau’s testimony itself in context is a very useful analysis done by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), issued in February after the November 2008 initial test launch of the Sajjil. The entire analysis (two compact webpages) is well worth reading, but this passage in particular stands out (my emphasis):
Over the decades, a consistent and recognisable pattern has emerged of a country’s evolving capacity to build larger and more powerful solid-fuel motors. This might be expected to start with the production of motors containing a few hundred kilograms of solid propellant and to proceed by trial and error to increasingly larger motors. One-tonne motors with a 50-centimetre diameter might lead to two-tonne motors with a diameter of 60–70cm. These evolutionary steps generally take several years of sustained investment and effort.
Iran’s missile-development pattern seems to have broken from the incremental approach taken by France, China, India, Pakistan and others. In May 2005, the defence minister referred to the development of a solid-fuel equivalent to Shahab-3 and in November 2007 there was a reported test launch of an Ashura missile similar to the Sajjil. Iran appears to have made a significant jump from the two-tonne Zelzal motor to the Sajjil’s ten-tonne first-stage motor. This suggests it may have received technical assistance from foreign sources with experience of producing large solid-propellant motors, as well as having acquired export-controlled propellant-production equipment.
We should not overstate the rapidity with which Iran is likely to progress in her ballistic missile pursuits, but there is little excuse left for questioning whether she is obtaining outside support, and what that support means to her efforts. (Hat tip on this section, and the cue to the WSJ article: Karl at Hot Air)
One wonders what combination of events it will take to convince America and Europe that it may just be time to actually do something about Iran’s nuclear weapons program, and the relentless countdown to its realization through a missile threat.