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Iran’s Newest Old Missiles (updated)

by John Reed on November 29, 2010

So, remember the news a couple of weeks ago that Iran was claiming to have built its own version of the S-300 SAM. Well, we were skeptical about the Iranian ability to develop such a weapon. Especially since Tehran was so keen to buy that missile from Russia until the Kremlin killed the deal earlier this year.

Now, it appears Iran has actually got a hold of some serious offensive rocketry.  Apparently, Tehran has purchased 19 land-launched missiles from North Korea that are based on the Soviet R-27 missile — which was designed as a submarine launched nuclear missile in the 1960s and 1970s.

From The New York Times’ coverage of the latest Wikileaks release:

The North Korean version of the advanced missile, known as the BM-25, could carry a nuclear warhead. Many experts say that Iran remains some distance from obtaining a nuclear warhead, especially one small enough to fit atop a missile, though they believe that it has worked hard to do so.

Still, the BM-25 would be a significant step up for Iran.

Today, the maximum range of Iran’s known ballistic missiles is roughly 1,200 miles, according to experts. That means they could reach targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel, as well as all of Turkey and parts of Eastern Europe.

The range of the Russian R-27, launched from a submarine, was said to be up to 1,500 miles.

Rocket scientists say the BM-25 is longer and heavier, and carries more fuel, giving it a range of up to 2,000 miles. If fired from Iran, that range, in theory, would let its warheads reach targets as far away as Western Europe, including Berlin. If fired northwestward, the warheads could easily reach Moscow.

A range of 2,000 miles is considered medium or intermediate. Traditionally, the United States has defined long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles as having ranges greater than 3,400 miles.

The fuel for the advanced engines goes by the tongue-twisting name of unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, according to the secret cables. It is a highly toxic, volatile clear liquid with a sharp, fishy smell.

Yes, this may be a big leap ahead for the Middle Eastern country’s ability to reach out and touch its enemies, but don’t forget, the R-27 is an old design that was retired by the Soviets in the 1980s.

This is the same kind of missile that famously blew up in the launch tube of a Soviet sub in 1986. Whoops.

Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not deadly to actual enemies. Our Minuteman III ICBMs came online before the R-27 was introduced and they remain one of the U.S.’ primary nuclear weapons.

You have to wonder what impact, if any, this will have on NATO’s ability to persuade Russia to support the U.S.-led European missile defense shield? Oh, and that missile shield is set to be in place by 2020. Looks like it could be needed a little sooner.

It appears these missiles actually did have an impact on Russia’s willingness to get tougher on Iran via economic sanctions.

Here’s an interesting account in the Times of how the revelation that Tehran had missiles capable of hitting Moscow brought the Kremlin around:

Russia is deeply skeptical that Iran has obtained the advanced missiles, or that their North Korean version, called the BM-25, even exists. “For Russia, the BM-25 is a mysterious missile,” a Russian official said. (That argument was dealt a blow last month, when North Korea rolled out what some experts identified as those very missiles in a military parade.)

Whatever the dynamic, Mr. Obama had removed the burr under the Russians’ saddle, and in January 2010, one cable reported, a senior Russian official “indicated Russia’s willingness to move to the pressure track.”

The cables obtained by WikiLeaks end in February 2010, before the last-minute maneuvering that led to a fourth round of Security Council sanctions and even stiffer measures — imposed by the United States, the Europeans, Australia and Japan — that experts say are beginning to pinch Iran’s economy. But while Mr. Ahmadinejad has recently offered to resume nuclear negotiations, the cables underscore the extent to which Iran’s true intentions remain a mystery.

As Crown Prince bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi put it in one cable: “Any culture that is patient and focused enough to spend years working on a single carpet is capable of waiting years and even decades to achieve even greater goals.” His greatest worry, he said, “is not how much we know about Iran, but how much we don’t.”

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