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Iranian Ballistic Missile Program

By Mitchell Bard

Iran Violates UN Ban
New Sanctions
More Tests
A New Cruise Missile
U.S. Sabotage
Discovery of Secret Aluminum Factory
Iran Unveils New Missiles
The Iranian Missile Inventory
The End of the Embargo
A Growing Threat
A Missile With a Message
Sanctions Sunset
No Longer a Test

Iran Violates UN Ban

In violation of a United Nations ban on the testing of missiles that could possibly deliver a nuclear warhead, Iran tested a new missile known as the Emad in early October 2015. The Emad is a precision-guided long-range missile and is the first guided weapon in Iran’s arsenal capable of striking Israel. It is estimated that the missile has a range of over 1,000 miles and an accuracy range of within 1,600 feet. An Israeli official said, “The Emad represents a major leap in terms of accuracy. It has an advanced guidance and control system in its nose cone” (Reuters, October 11, 2015).

Shahab-3 Missile

The Security Council was told in a report that the Emad rocket could possibly deliver a nuclear warhead and that the test was a “serious violation” of UN resolutions against Iran. The United States agreed this was a violation of UN sanctions and Security Council resolution 1929.

The Iranians tested another rocket, the medium-range ballistic missile Ghadr-110, on November 21, 2015. The Ghadr-110 is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and is a new and improved version of the Iranian Shabab-3 missile.

The Security Council reached the conclusion that Iran had violated Resolution 1929 on December 15, 2015. In response, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan defiantly said Iran would not accept any limitations on its missile program. Deghan told reporters, “Since the nuclear deal we have not stopped our (missile)tests, production, and research even for a day, an hour, or a second... We tested Emad to show the world that the Islamic Republic will only act based on its national interests and no country or power can impose its will on us” (Reuters, December 16, 2015).

As the United States contemplated imposing more stringent sanctions on businesses and individuals associated with the Iranian government in response to their missile tests, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his Defense Minister to oversee the accelerated development and production of ballistic missiles. “As the United States seems to plan to include the names of new individuals and firms in its previous list of cruel sanctions in line with its hostile policies... the program for the production of the Armed Forces’ needed missiles is required to continue more speedily and seriously” (Fars News, December 31, 2015). Iranian state television subsequently aired footage of a previously undisclosed underground missile depot filled with Emad precision-guided missiles on January 5, 2016.

Democratic lawmakers, both supporters and opponents of the nuclear deal, signed a letter sent to President Obama on January 6, 2016, urging his administration to “immediately announce new, U.S. sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program to ensure Iran is held accountable for its actions.”

New security arrangements to monitor the arms embargo against Iran as well as restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and all other programs still active after the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) were established by the United Nations Security Council on January 21, 2016. These arrangements and procedures replaced the Security Council committee charged with monitoring Iranian violations of sanctions that were removed with the implementation of the deal. The resolution including these arrangements also provides for an automatic reimposition of sanctions on Iran should the Security Council find it to be in violation of the JCPOA.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, diplomats, policymakers, and experts published a statement on U.S. policy toward Iran in the weeks following the implementation of the deal. This statement explains that although the deal has been implemented there is still much work to be done, and encourages the Obama administration to reject Iran as an ally in the fight against ISIS as well as continue to closely monitor Iran to be sure it is not cheating the deal. The group statement recommends being completely willing to snap back sanctions, and bolstering ties to regional allies as ways to keep Iran contained.

French diplomats asked the European Union on January 27, 2016, to consider new sanctions on Iran over their recent ballistic missile tests. At the time, it was unlikely that new sanctions will be imposed by the EU, as other member states view the move as counterproductive to efforts to revive political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic.

Iranian Army commander Major General Ataollah Salehi told reporters in Tehran on February 4, 2015, that their missile tests were not a breach of the JCPOA, and the Iranian missile program will continue to develop. Speaking about the new sanctions placed against the Islamic Republic in response to their ballistic missile tests, Salehi stated, “We are neither paying any attention to the resolutions against Iran nor implementing them. We are doing our job and our missile program for the future will be stronger and more precise” (PressTV, February 4, 2016).

Iran test-fired two Qadr H missiles with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out,” emblazoned on the sides on March 8, 2016. The missile test coincided with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel to discuss upcoming aid packages. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) aerospace division, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, made it clear that the missile test was intended to intimidate Israel, stating “The 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) range of our missiles is to confront the Zionist regime. Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries and it will not last long in a war. It will collapse even before being hit by these missiles” (Time Magazine, March 8, 2016). The United States has Iran under “close watch,” after the missile tests, according to Vice President Joe Biden. The United States pressured the United Nations to condemn the missile tests as a violation of UN Resolution 2231 during the subsequent week. Russian officials sided with Iran, claiming that 2231 only “suggests” Iran stop test-firing missiles. Therefore, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin asserted the Iranian missile test did not violate 2231, stating to reporters that, “A call is different from a ban so legally you cannot violate a call, you can comply with a call or you can ignore the call, but you cannot violate a call” (Free Beacon, March 15, 2016).

New Sanctions

In response to these ballistic missile tests, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iranian defense firms, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s Mahan Air, and two firms in the United Arab Emirates. These sanctions targeted entities that aided Mahan Air in smuggling various supplies into Syria and played a supportive role in the country’s latest missile tests.

U.S., German, British, and French officials expressed their opinions that the missile test was “in defiance” of Resolution 2231 in a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on March 29, 2016. The letter stated that the missiles launched were “inherently capable” of delivering nuclear weapons, and encouraged the Security Council to respond appropriately to the Iranian aggression. Following the launch, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei offered support to the IRGC, bluntly stating, “Those who say the future is in negotiations, not in missiles, are either ignorant or traitors” (Reuters, March 30, 2016).

Iranian officials announced that they had tested a significantly more accurate ballistic missile with a 2,000-kilometer range on May 9, 2016. The missile tested in early May can be remote-guided to an accuracy of within 8 meters of its target, according to Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi.

Iran test-fired a North Korean BM-25 Musudan ballistic missile on July 11, 2016, which exploded shortly after launch.

Addressing the annual Iranian military parade in September 2016, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri, contested that “all military tests and war games will continue to be held according to the schedule and will not be suspended or delayed under any circumstances” (Tasnim, September 22, 2016).

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard displayed its sophisticated Russian-made S-300 missile system in public for the first time during a military parade in September 2017.

In May 2018, a press report disclosed the discovery of a secret site where researchers said it was likely Iran is developing the technology for long-range missiles. Such a project would not violate current restrictions on Iranian military activities but could ultimately threaten Europe, Israel, and the United States (New York Times, May 23, 2018).

In July 2018, it was revealed that in 1999, North Korea offered to stop selling missile technology to Iran and other enemy states if Israel paid Pyongyang $1 billion in cash. Israel offered food aid instead, but no agreement was reached (Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2018).

More Tests

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in August 2018 that “Iran continues to invest in developing ballistic missiles and in building an extensive network of facilities.” The report also said “Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests indicate that Iran is focused on increasing the accuracy of its missiles” (Congressional Research Service, August 1, 2018).

Shortly after the CRS report was released, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile for the first time in more than a year. The test coincided with a large-scale naval exercise by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces in the Strait of Hormuz (Fox News, August 10, 2018).

In December 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that Iran had test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that could reach parts of Europe. He warned of the “accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to restore deterrence” and called on European allies to impose tough new sanctions on Iran (AP, December 3, 2018).

In 2018, Iran test-fired at least seven medium-range missiles and five additional short-range and cruise missiles. The tests appear to have violated the nuclear agreement, which included Resolution 2231 and its ban on “ballistic missile-related activities designed to use nuclear weapons and “launches using such ballistic missile technology” (WELT, December 9, 2018).

Iran tested a Shahab-3 medium-range missile in July, which officials said flew approximately 680 miles inside Iran. This missile, which can carry a nuclear warhead, is not a new missile. The test may have been “meant to demonstrate that American efforts to sabotage the Iranian missile program, chiefly with bad parts, are not impeding its development” (New York Times, July 25, 2019).

A New Cruise Missile

On February 2, 2019, Iran unveiled a new cruise missile. According to IRGC officials, the Hoveizeh has a range of approximately 840 miles, which would allow it to reach targets in the East Mediterranean if fired from northwest Iran or almost the entire Arabian Sea if fired from Iran’s southern coasts. “Compared to ballistic missiles,” Farzin Nadimi noted, cruise missiles fly lower, are more difficult to counter, and can potentially be moved much closer to their targets before launch.”

In addition, Nadimi said the IRGC is producing a new ballistic missile called Dezful with a range of more than 600 miles. Such a missile “would allow Iran to hit targets deep inside Saudi Arabia (including Riyadh and missile defense sites) as well as northern Israel” from Iran and more distant areas if the weapons were deployed in Iraq or Syria (Washington Institute, March 29, 2019).

On February 4, 2019, the EU issued a statement expressing grave concern about Iran’s ballistic missile activity. “Iran continues to undertake efforts to increase the range and precision of its missiles, together with increasing the number of tests and operational launches,” the statement said. “These activities deepen mistrust and contribute to regional instability” (Reuters, February 4, 2019).

U.S. Sabotage

Iran succeeded in putting satellites into orbit in 2009, 2011, 2012, and 2015. The United States became increasingly concerned Iran was planning to launch spy satellites. Since then, Iran has failed to successfully test the newest generation of its satellite launcher.

President George W. Bush initiated a secret program to sabotage Iran’s missile and space program by slipping faulty parts and materials into Iran’s aerospace supply chains. The Trump administration has accelerated the project. It is uncertain whether the program has been successful, but Iran has repeated rocket failures. 

In January 2019, a suspected spy satellite was launched, but the rocket failed. According to the New York Times, over the past 11 years, “67 percent of Iranian orbital launches have failed, an astonishingly high number compared to a 5 percent failure rate worldwide for similar space launches” (New York Times, February 13, 2019). A year later, Iran failed for the third straight time to put a satellite into orbit (New York Times, February 9, 2020).

In August 2019, Trump tweeted a classified image of an Iranian rocket exploding on the launch pad taken by a reconnaissance spy satellite (NPR, November 18, 2022).

Click on the photo to enlarge

In 2021, it was reported that Russia has agreed “to deliver to the Iranians a Russian-made Kanopus-V satellite equipped with a high-resolution camera that would greatly enhance Iran’s spying capabilities, allowing continuous monitoring of facilities ranging from Persian Gulf oil refineries and Israeli military bases to Iraqi barracks that house U.S. troops” (Washington Post, June 10, 2021).

The Largest Missile Force in the Middle East

A Defense Intelligence Agency study released November 19, 2019, found that Iran has “the largest missile force in the Middle East” and “the size and sophistication of its missile force continues to grow despite decades of counterproliferation efforts aimed at curbing its advancement.” The report said Iran has missiles that have a range of 1,250 miles, which could reach Israel or Saudi Arabia. “Lacking a modern air force, Iran has embraced ballistic missiles as a long-range strike capability to dissuade its adversaries in the region – particularly the United States, Israel, and Saudi Arabia – from attacking Iran,” the report said (AFP, November 19, 2019).

In December 2019, France, Germany, and the United Kingdom urged UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to inform the Security Council that “Iran’s developments of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles” violates Resolution 2231, urging Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” (AP, December 4, 2019). This is similar to the letter they sent to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in 2016, which resulted in no action taken against Iran. Instead, Iran continued to improve its missile capabilities, which prompted the latest missive.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu argued the U.S. has good reason to be concerned with Iran’s missile development. “Take North Korea, a smaller country that has a fraction of Iran’s GDP. You understand what the arming of North Korea with ICBMs and nuclear weapons means to the United States. Iran is many times more dangerous than North Korea because it has a radical ideology. It chants death to America, death to Israel. They mean it” (Hudson Institute, December 4, 2020).

Discovery of Secret Aluminum Factory

It was reported that Iran has a secret facility run by the Iran Alumina Company near the city of Jajarm that has been producing aluminum powder, which is a key ingredient in solid-fuel propellants used to launch missiles. Reuters reviewed a letter believed to have been written in 2017 addressed to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei from a Revolutionary Guards commander whose brother is considered the father of Iran’s missile program. Mohammad Tehrani Moghadam described the Jajarm facility as a “project to produce missile fuel from metal powder” and said it played a significant role in “improving the country's self-sufficiency in the production of solid fuel for missiles” (Reuters, June 24, 2020).

Iran Unveils New Missiles

On August 20, 2020, Iran unveiled two new missiles, one named after Iranian Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani and the other after Iraqi military commander Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, who were both killed in a U.S. drone strike in January.

Iran said the Soleimani ground-to-ground ballistic missile is more compact, faster, and easier to deploy than its older missiles. With an 870-mile range, it can target Israel and its neighbors. The Abu Mahdi is a cruise missile with a range of 620 miles that increases Iran’s naval reach in the Persian Gulf (Wall Street Journal, August 20, 2020).

The Iranian Missile Inventory

Iran has the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East (U.S. Institute of Peace, February 17, 2021). 

Ballistic Missiles

Fateh Family: (120-880 miles)

Zolfaghar: (440 miles)

Qiam Family: (400-500 miles)

Emad: (900 miles)

Ghadr: (1,000 miles)

Sajjil Family: (1,200 miles)

Shahab Family (180-1,000 miles)

Khorramshar Family: (1,200-1,900 miles)

Cruise Missiles

Raad (200 miles)

Ya Ali: (400-500 miles)

Hoveyzeh: (800 miles)

Soumar (1200-1900)

The End of the Embargo

Following the end of the 13-year United Nations embargo on Iran buying or selling weapons, the regime wasted no time in implementing the military component of a 25-year deal signed with China in 2016. Iran will deploy North Korean weaponry and technology in exchange for oil, according to Simon Watkins. “Most notably,” noted Watkins, “this would include Hwasong-12 mobile ballistic missiles, with a range of 4,500 kilometers, and the development of liquid propellant rocket engines suitable for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) or satellite launch vehicles (SLVs)” (, October 19, 2020).

Iran test-launched its Zuljanah space launch vehicle on February 1, 2021. If Iranian claims are accurate, the three-stage rocket has the capability of placing a satellite in low-Earth orbit and increases its ability to deliver nuclear warheads. Jeffrey Lewis, an arms-control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in California, said a weaponized Zuljanah could carry a one-ton warhead and strike targets at a range of 3,100 miles (Forbes, February 1, 2021).

Israeli Ambassador to the United States and the United Nations Gilad Erdan sent a letter to the UN Security Council and UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres revealing that Iran has been testing missiles for several months in violation of Resolution 2231. For example, during a military exercise in January 2021, Iran tested missiles of various ranges, including the Sejjil and Qader ballistic missiles, which are capable of carrying a 1,400-pound warhead and have a range of approximately 1,200 miles (Israel Hayom, April 9, 2021).

A Growing Threat

According to Washington Institute fellow Farzin Nadimi, “Iran has unveiled ten new ballistic missiles and three new satellite launch vehicles (SLVs) since 2015, along with several new transport and launch systems and methods. It has also revealed the existence of multiple underground missile complexes, or so-called “missile cities”….Currently, almost every province is believed to have at least one deeply buried ballistic missile storage and launch site, with satellite imagery showing numerous construction and expansion projects across the country, mainly oriented toward the south and southwest” (Washington Institute, December 13, 2021).

Nadimi noted Iran has also developed an automated launch system and a more accurate missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead with a range of more than 1,200 miles (Israel is about 1,100 miles away). Iran has demonstrated its conventional missile capability in strikes on a meeting of Iranian dissidents in Iraqi Kurdistan (September 2018), Saudi Aramco facilities (September 2019), and U.S. forces at the al-Asad Air Base in Iraq (January 2020).

“In theory,” Nadimi says, “a conventional ballistic missile attack using highly accurate or precision-guided systems could replicate the geopolitical effects of a small nuclear weapon—provided they are combined with other advanced capabilities such as effective anti-missile defense countermeasures (e.g., low-observable material, separating controllable warheads, complex maneuvering flight profiles, hypersonic midcourse and reentry speeds) and/or complex attack tactics (e.g., synchronized use of loitering munitions to attack missile defenses).”

While Iran claims it is developing its missiles for self-defense, Nadimi observes that the “regime has no legitimate defensive requirement for a surface-to-surface missile range beyond 300 km. (about 186 miles).

The front page of the December 14, 2021, edition of the Tehran Times published a map of Israel covered with markings for potential rocket attacks with the threatening headline, “Just One Wrong Move!” Beneath the map, the paper wrote, “An intensification of the Israeli military threats against Iran seems to suggest that the Zionist regime has forgotten that Iran is more than capable of hitting them from anywhere.”

Click on the photo for an enlarged map

Major General Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of General Staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, said, “At the strategic level, we do not intend to strike anyone, but at the operational and tactical level we are ready for a decisive response and a quick and tough offensive against the enemy.”

The article also quotes Ayatollah Khamenei from in 2013, saying: “Sometimes the leaders of the Zionist regime even threaten us; they are threatening to strike militarily, but I think they know it, and if they do not know it, they must know that if they make a mistake, the Islamic Republic will destroy Tel Aviv and Haifa” (Tehran Times, December 14, 2021).

The map includes targets in Lebanon and cities in the Palestinian Authority. Missiles also appear to be aimed at Jerusalem, empty desert, and the border with Egypt.

A Missile With a Message

While negotiations continued in Vienna seeking to persuade Iran to reenter the nuclear deal, Iran unveiled its “Khaybar Sheikan” (Khaybar Buster) missile, which has a purported range of more than 900 miles, sufficient to reach Israel. The Washington Institute’s Farzin Nadimi noted, “The Khaybar reference, meanwhile, points to a seventh-century battle between Muhammad’s army and Jewish communities near Medina whose members refused to convert to Islam and were defeated after their hardened fortresses were overrun” (Washington Institute, February 11, 2022).

The message was not lost on Israelis that a missile likely targeting them was named for a battle where Muslims massacred Jews.

In November 2022, Iran announced it had developed a hypersonic missile that could “penetrate every missile defense shield” (Jerusalem Post, November 10, 2022). If true, this would significantly increase the threat to the region. Even if Iran has such a missile, Ukraine proved that hypersonics could be shot down (Reuters, May 16, 2023).

In May 2023, Iran said it successfully test-launched an upgraded version of the Kheibar ballistic missile, which it claimed has a potential range of 2,000 km. (1,243 miles) and can carry a 1,500-kg (3,300-pound) warhead (Reuters, May 25, 2023).

Iran now has missiles that can reach Israel in as little as six minutes. Many of them are stored in dozens of underground bunkers in a valley in Kermanshah (Jerusalem Post, July 2, 2023).

Sanctions Sunset

On October 18, 2023,  three components of Resolution 2231 will expire:

  • A provision under which Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
  • The requirement that countries obtain Security Council permission before transferring certain missiles, drones, and related technology to or from Iran.
  • The requirement that all UN member states freeze the assets of twenty-three individuals and sixty-one entities involved in Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

France, Germany, and Great Britain announced they would keep in place sanctions on the IRGC and on trade in ballistic missiles. However, this decision will not prevent the lifting of UN sanctions on ballistic missiles, opening the door for other countries, such as Russia and China, to work with Iran (Wall Street Journal, September 14, 2023).

On October 18, 2023, the Treasury Department “sanctioned 11 individuals, eight entities, and one vessel based in Iran, Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China (PRC), and Venezuela that are enabling Iran’s destabilizing ballistic missile and unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) programs.” The Department added:

Today’s action is taken as the UN’s restrictions on Iran’s missile-related activities under UN Security Council Resolution 2231 (UNSCR 2231) expire, and the European Union acts to retain the nuclear, conventional arms, and missile-related restrictions on Iran set to expire today under its nonproliferation sanctions regime. Despite the expiration of UNSCR 2231, the United States remains steadfast in its commitment to counter the threat posed by Iran’s procurement, development, and proliferation of missiles, UAVs, and other military weapons (U.S. Department of Treasury, October 18, 2023).

The Iranian Foreign Ministry said restrictions imposed on the Islamic Republic’s ballistic missile-related activities and its associated services and technology have “unconditionally” ended. It added that cooperation in all military and defense areas would be carried out without any restriction, based on the needs and discretion of the Islamic Republic of Iran (PressTV, October 18, 2023). 

No Longer a Test

Iranian-backed militias have been firing missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria. Another Iranian client, the Houthis in Yemen, began firing missiles at U.S. Navy and commercial ships in the Red Sea after the Hamas massacre of Israelis on October 7, 2023, started a war in Gaza. Hamas also fired rockets into Israel supplied by Iran.

These attacks were all conducted by Iranian proxies. Iran launched a direct attack on what it said was a terrorist group in Syria in January 2024. The deployment of its Kheibar Shekan missile drew the attention of national security officials because of its range and accuracy.

“It was quite interesting to see that system being used,” said Fabian Hinz, a Middle East expert at the  International Institute for Strategic Studies. He added, “There’s a question whether they might have chosen it to test one of their most advanced missiles under combat conditions, or send a message to Israel or potentially do both” (New York Times, January 18, 2024).

Iran is believed to have more than 3,000 ballistic missiles, and U.S. officials were increasingly concerned that it might begin to supply rockets in addition to drones it already was sending to Russia for its war with Ukraine.