Was Iran’s New Missile Born in North Korea?
Test timelines and public statements suggest a connection
by DAVE MAJUMDAR
On Feb. 2, 2017, in a tweet, Pres. Donald Trump put Iran “on notice” for testing a new ballistic missile. On Jan. 29, 2017, Tehran test fired what was thought to be a Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile from its test site near Semnan.
The weapon apparently exploded after flying 600 miles, according to Fox News.
“Iran has been formally PUT ON NOTICE for firing a ballistic missile,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “Should have been thankful for the terrible deal the U.S. made with them!”
Trump’s tweet echoed similar sentiments expressed by his national security advisor Michael Flynn. It is not exactly clear what the Trump administration plans to do in response or what being put “on notice” means precisely, but experts noted that it is highly unusual for a U.S. president to make such a proclamation on social media.
But what kind of missile is the Khorramshahr? And how much of a danger does it pose to the United States and its allies?
The answer is that, right now, Iran does not have a nuclear weapon. Thus, the danger primarily comes from conventional warheads.
“They don’t have a nuke,” Jeffrey Lewis, Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey said. “If they did, it would be compact enough for a Musudan.”
In June 2016, the North Korea successfully test fired a Musudan — also known as the BM-25 or Hwasong-10 — for the first time. The Khorramshahr is likely a derivative of the North Korean missile.
“That missile name [Khorramshahr] has been used exactly once, by the Defense Minister if I recall correctly,” Lewis added. “He provides no details in September, but said the missile would enter production in March .”
“Now, another — presumably different — official told Reuters that the missile was the same type as Iran tested in July . What did Iran test in July?”
“At the time, an official told Fox that it was a BM-25, which is the export name that North Korea gave the variant of the Musudan that it sold to Iran,” he continued. “So, if everyone is right — and let’s keep in mind that humans are frail things — then the Khorramshahr is a variant of the Musudan family.”
Assuming that Lewis is correct, if Iran possessed a compact nuclear weapon, a Musudan variant could carry such a warhead.
“All missiles are nuclear capable,” Lewis noted. “The only question is can you make the bomb small enough.”
“In this case, no question. The U.S. I.C. [intelligence community] estimated the range of the Musudan at 4,000 kilometers with a 500 kilogram payload,” he explained.
“Now, the version sold to Iran had a 2,500 kilometer range — that’s the 25 in BM-25,” he said. “But the Iranians might be testing an Iranian variant — so 2,500 kilometers is not certain.”
“However, the Soviet and North Korean versions are both nuclear-armed — or will be in the North Korea case.”
In addition, Lewis said it is important to note that North Korean and potential future Iranian nuclear bombs are better referred to as “compact” rather than “miniaturized” weapons.
“Two reasons. We’re talking about a first generation fission device that is physically small and compact distinguishes that from miniaturized thermonuclear weapons, which can be much smaller,” Lewis said. “Second, North Korea uses ‘lightweight’ to mean physically small — when they say miniaturized they mean lower yield.”
But in this case, the threat from the Khorramshahr is relatively limited for the time being since Iran does not have nuclear weapons. If and when Tehran does eventually develop a nuke, then it would become a more serious problem.