Iran built copies of a Soviet-era nuclear-capable missile without violating the nuclear deal
- Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution by unveiling a new land attack cruise missile called the Hoveizeh that looked just like an old Soviet nuclear missile.
- Iran under the nuclear deal can't produce nuclear weapons, but it is allowed to build and test all the missiles it wants.
- But nuclear-capable missiles may be just as difficult to produce as the nuclear cores themselves, and Iran seems to be chugging right along towards full missile capabilities.
- Ukrainian officials said Iran got some of the Soviet nuclear-capable missiles in 2001.
Iran celebrated the 40th anniversary of its 1979 Islamic Revolution by unveiling a new land attack cruise missile called the Hoveizeh that experts say looks like a knockoff of the Kh-55, a nuclear-capable Soviet missile.
A 2015 deal struck between the US, UK, Russia, China, France, Germany, the EU and Iran forbids Tehran from building nuclear weapons, but the deal places no real limits on Iran's missile program.While the UN and US have argued that Iran violates the spirit of the nuclear deal with its repeated missile launches, and France threatens additional sanctions on Iran if tests continue, Iran holds that the missile activity doesn't break with the letter of the deal.
The deal's shortcomings around missile testing and Iran's regional behavior led President Donald Trump to withdraw from the deal in 2017, though Iran remains compliant.
The nuclear pact does call on Iran to avoid "any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology," but this hasn't stopped Iran before.
The US has previously condemned Iran for testing ballistic missiles it said could carry nuclear warheads. In this area, Iran benefits from ambiguity around which missiles are nuclear-capable, as the size of nuclear weapons can vary as can the throw-weight of missile systems.
But with the Hoveizeh, the Iran deal doesn't matter since it's a cruise missile, and not a ballistic missile; a cruise missile typically flies within the earth's atmosphere while a ballistic missile launches like a rocket and travels well beyond it. Currently, Iran holds the Middle East's largest stockpile of missiles.The Hoveizeh, itself an update of the Soumar, originally came from the Soviet's Kh-55 nuclear-capable cruise missile, Behnam Ben Taleblu pointed out in the Foundation for Defense of Democracy's analysis of the missile. Other analysts routinely agree that the Soumar family of Iranian missiles closely resembles the Kh-55.
Iran obtained Kh-55 missiles from Ukraine in 2001, officials have admitted.
The Soviet Union built the Kh-55s to launch from their strategic bomber aircraft, but Iran has nothing of the sort. Instead, Iran's knockoffs launch from ground-based launchers.
"This cruise missile needs a very short time for its preparedness and can fly at a low altitude," Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami said of the new missiles, Reuters notes.
Iran pegged the Hoveizeh at a range of about 745 miles, or about half of the range of the Kh-55. Taleblu said this could owe to Iran's difficulty in domestically building the turbofan engines needed to launch these missiles.
While the payload of the Iranian missiles remains a mystery, it's entirely possible these weapons can carry nuclear warheads "specially given that they derive from a nuclear capable system which the Soviets did indeed intend for using to deliver such weapons," Taleblu told Business Insider.Read more: Iran says it's been holding a US Navy veteran for 6 months over 'private complaint'
Iran closes in on the missile, but not the bomb
The US first cracked the code of building nuclear weapons in 1945, meaning that atomic weapons are fully seven decades old. Building missiles, however, requires a strong domestic manufacturing base and often access to high-end markets or materials. It would take the US nearly another 15 years to field intercontinental ballistic missiles.
North Korea first tested a nuclear device in 2006, but took a full decade to start testing long-range missile systems.
Today, with nuclear know-how widespread and achievable even under the tight sanctions that grip Pyongyang, Iran has a pathway to create perhaps the hardest element of a nuclear program (missiles) totally unhindered by the nuclear deal.