Jul 4, 2023
Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are a growing threat to Europe
However unsatisfying diplomatic and economic options against Tehran may seem, the failure to course-correct will signal the West is genuinely afraid to take any action.
As Europe struggles to combat Iran’s drone proliferation to Russia for use against Ukraine, it can ill afford to ignore improvements to an even greater unmanned aerial threat that may soon land on its doorstep: the country’s ballistic missile arsenal — the largest in the Middle East.
While Iran’s much reported potential transfer of short-range ballistic missiles to Russia is yet to materialize, the causal force behind this is likely not Tehran’s fear of transgressing some unwritten agreement that’s being secretly negotiated with Washington.
Instead, the Islamic Republic may well be waiting for the termination of U.N. prohibitions on ballistic missile testing and transfers this October, before further arming Moscow with precision-strike systems.
In fact, Iran may even want the move to be deemed “licit” to prevent any predicate for renewed pressure — but in the interim, it has not been idle.
In late May, Iran launched a new ballistic missile simultaneously dubbed the “Khorramshahr-4” and the “Khaybar.”
While the former name commemorates an Iranian city liberated during the Iran-Iraq War — a conflict that birthed the revolutionary regime’s interest in missiles as a supplement for airpower — the latter name comes from a Jewish stronghold in Arabia that was overrun by the Prophet Muhammad’s armies 14 centuries ago, a salient event for Iran’s current revolutionary leaders who seek Israel’s destruction.
The missile itself is based on an Iranian variant of a North Korean nuclear-capable platform known as the Musudan — a useful reminder of the long-standing military and missile cooperation between the two rogue regimes.
Since receiving the Musudan in the mid-2000s, Iran has refined the weapon, developing a variant with a lighter warhead that could travel up to 3,000 kilometers — a move that, in effect, took it from being able to target parts of Southern Europe to potentially being able to strike nearly all of Central Europe. Naturally, the development prompted the United Kingdom, France and Germany to raise concerns at the U.N. in 2019.
And while the newest Khorramshahr does adhere to Tehran’s self-imposed 2,000-kilometer range cap, Iranian officials traditionally caveat this with veiled threats against Europe, stressing that this limit isn’t a technical constraint — or permanent.
Meanwhile, there’s also the concern of the Khorramshahr’s 1,500-kilogram high-explosive warhead — which can allegedly carry submunition payloads — as well as the fact that the missile can allegedly maneuver in its midcourse phase of flight, thereby creating challenges for missile defenses in Europe built by the United States and supported by NATO.
Then there’s the issue of Khorramshahr’s new liquid-propellant engine, which reportedly employs self-igniting or hypergolic fuel. Created despite Iran’s revolution in the production of solid-propellant motors, this is proof that Tehran’s missile industry can now walk and chew gum at the same time.
Likely following in North Korea’s footsteps through a process called “ampulization,” the new Khorramshahr allows Tehran a way to fuel and store liquid-propellant platforms prior to their deployment, thereby cutting down on the time needed to prepare a projectile prior to launch, while making pre-launch detection and destruction harder for enemy air forces.
This refinement of the Khorramshahr builds on an already record-setting year for Iran’s ballistic program. In 2022, Tehran engaged in several cross-border missile attacks on Iraq, killed a U.S. citizen with a ballistic missile and developed its largest ever solid-propellant motor for use in a space-launch vehicle — a motor that could potentially be used as part of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
Late last year, Iran even boldly claimed to have developed a hypersonic missile, then followed through on the allegation last month, revealing and testing the Fattah — a new medium-range ballistic missile. Able to travel 1,400 kilometers at reported speeds between Mach 13 and 15, the Fattah is yet another variant from Iran’s Fateh family of solid-propellant precision-strike missiles, which the country has featured in regional military operations since 2017.
And though Tehran is likely engaging in sleight of hand by repackaging a maneuverable reentry vehicle as a hypersonic weapon, prudence dictates that the Fattah shouldn’t be dismissed as pure bravado. Iran has proven it has the capability and intent to develop more precise, lethal and survivable projectiles — and that it has no plans to stop. The fact that Pyongyang claimed to have tested a hypersonic ballistic missile in 2021 also necessitates further concern and caution.
A giant billboard bearing a picture of the ‘Fattah’ hypersonic missile, covers the side of a building in Tehran | Atta Kenare/AFP via Getty Images
In tandem with these developments, the Islamic Republic hasn’t given up on its tried-and-true methods either, such as illicit procurement to support its missile program.
In April, POLITICO reported Tehran was seeking large quantities of ammonium perchlorate — used as an oxidizer in solid-rocket fuel — from Russia and China. In May, the U.S. Department of Justice charged a Chinese national with violating U.S. sanctions for allegedly participating in a procurement ring that would provide isotonic graphite — used to develop ICBM nosecones and rocket nozzles.
And in early June, the U.S. Department of the Treasury sanctioned a network of persons and companies in Hong Kong, China and Iran for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program through the illicit procurement of dual-use goods, accelerometers and gyroscopes destined for its defense-industrial base.
Fortunately, these developments appear to be eliciting a response from Europe. A recent report citing unnamed European sources alleged, for the first time, that the bloc would seek to maintain a host of missile and nonproliferation sanctions on Iran that it was slated to delist this October — per the implementation timeline of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. To date, the European Union hasn’t publicly confirmed the story.
The entities that were slated for relief included the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Iran’s Ministry of Defense and one of its subsidiaries called the Aerospace Industries Organization, which produced the latest Khorramshahr missile.
But while stopping these penalties from lapsing would mean blocking Iran’s most prized missile procurers, producers and proliferators from being rendered sanctions-free across Europe, the move is more akin to stopping an own goal than actually scoring one.
A closer look at EU sanctions on Iran reveals that despite levying more penalties against Iranian targets for human rights violations, terrorism and the use of drones, the bloc hasn’t issued a new missile or nonproliferation sanction against the country since late 2012.
Rather than let this opportunity go to waste, EU policymakers need to be engaging in conversations and sharing intelligence with their American and British counterparts to better align transatlantic Iran sanctions and prevent the collapse of U.N. restrictions on Iran this October.
This can be done by invoking the Snapback mechanism at the U.N. Security Council, which would allow restrictions to be reimposed, and is only available for another two years.
However unsatisfying diplomatic and economic options against Iran’s ballistic missile program may seem, the failure to course-correct by restoring multilateral prohibitions and building on the existing sanctions architecture will signal that the West is genuinely afraid of taking any action — even non-kinetic action. And that, in turn, will serve as an accelerant for more breakthroughs in Iranian ballistic missile development as well as transfers abroad.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He is the author of “Arsenal: Assessing the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program.”