Better Late Than Never
What's that old saying about a blind hog and acorns?
That axiom came to mind as we read this story out of Vienna. The U.N. nuclear agency has come to the same conclusion that many experts reached months ago: Iran is redesigning one of its missiles to accommodate a nuclear payload.
Officials at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) shared that assessment with representatives of 35 member nations on Tuesday. Analytical details were not provided, but the senior U.S. representative, Gregory Schulte, said the report shows that Iran has a weapons program.
In response, Tehran's senior emissary to the IAEA claimed that the information was "fabricated."
At this point, it's unclear which Iranian missile is being modified. But the "re-design" effort suggests a variant of the Shahab-3, Tehran's primary medium-range missile, and (officially) the only operational Iranian system capable of reaching Israel. Based on the North Korean No Dong airframe, the Shahab-3 was originally built to carry a conventional, chemical or biological warhead.
Iran has also acquired an intermediate range missile from Pyongyang, the BM-25. Designated as the Shahab-4 by Tehran, the longer-ranged system is based on technology from the Russian SS-N-6, submarine-launched ballistic missile. As you might have guessed, the SS-N-6 was designed to carry a nuclear warhead, although Moscow claims that information was never shared with North Korea (nod, nod; wink, wink).
You don't need to be an intelligence analyst to conclude that Pyongyang passed along that design data when it sold the BM-25 to Iran. So, if Tehran's intermediate range missiles can already handle a nuclear warhead (or accept one with minimal modifications), that would suggest that the redesign is aimed at Shahab-3 variants.
If that assessment is correct, it may also indicate continuing problems with the BM-25/Shahab-4. While Tehran has long claimed the intermediate range system will only be used as a space launch platform, but there's little reason to accept that explanation. Anxious to develop a family of long-range missiles, there's no way Iran would pass on the "weaponization" of the BM-25.
Still, there have been no reports of test launches involving the BM-25, despite the fact that the system has been in Iran for more than 18 months. That suggests technical or operational issues involving the missile, delaying its introduction.
But that may be the only bit of good news in this equation. Iranian continuing efforts to develop a delivery vehicle suggest an advanced nuclear program that is close to developing a bomb.
As we've noted in the past, a nuclear weapons effort is actually based on three concurrent programs: material processing, weapons design, and development of delivery platforms. And you don't start working on delivery systems unless you're confident that the other elements will deliver a finished bomb, and sooner rather than later.
Even the IAEA can grasp that concept.