Ariel Center for
Policy Research



NATIV   ■   Volume Fifteen   ■   Number 3 (86)  ■  June 2002   ■  Ariel Center for Policy Research





Iran and Weapons of Mass Destruction

Seth Carus

On August 4, 1998, Iran launched the Shihab-3, a 17-ton medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM), capable of carrying a 1.2-ton payload an estimated 1,300 kilometers. Only eighteen months before, a senior US intelligence official had told Congress that Iran might take as long as ten years to acquire a missile with such a long range. After the test launch, the US government recognized that ďthe Shihab-3 significantly alters the military equation in the Middle East by giving Tehran the capability to strike targets in Israel, Saudi Arabia, and most of Turkey.Ē

The Shihab-3 became operational in early 2000. Iranís development of the Shihab-3 is significant for two reasons. First, it gives Iran a delivery system capable of striking every important US ally in the region, including Egypt, Israel, and Turkey. Second, the system was clearly designed to deliver weapons of mass destruction. Iran currently has active programs to develop nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons. Although many of these programs began in the early 1980s, during Iranís long war with Iraq, the pace of development significantly accelerated in the early 1990s.

Iranís efforts to develop these weapons are having a significant impact on the strategic environment in the entire Middle East. In addition to undermining international nonproliferation norms, these programs pose a direct military threat to US friends and allies in the region and to US military forces deployed there. Significantly, the Iranians appear to have accelerated their work on NBC weapons and associated delivery systems in recent years. Some analysts appear to believe that Iran would use its NBC weapons and missiles only if the survival of the regime were in question. Unfortunately, the limited available evidence calls into question that thesis. Iranís storage of chemical weapons on Abu Musa, an island in the Persian Gulf off the coast of Dubai, suggests that Tehran would use such weapons long before the regimeís security was in doubt.

The development of NBC weapons and associated delivery systems has significant support in Iran. George Tenet, director of Central Intelligence, noted this in testimony to Congress earlier this year: ď[Iranís] reformists and conservatives agree on at least one thing: weapons of mass destruction are a necessary component of defense and a high priority.Ē

NBC Weapons Programs

Iranís progress in developing NBC capabilities varies considerably from program to program. Lack of money, difficulties in integrating complex programs, and constraints imposed by Western technology-transfer controls have slowed the programs. The chemical weapons program appears considerably more advanced than the nuclear and biological programs. Although Iran has made considerable progress in developing ballistic missiles, it is less clear that it has developed missile delivery systems for its existing chemical or biological agents. Nevertheless, unless significant changes occur in Iran, it is only a matter of time before Iran has an effective arsenal with deliverable nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons capable of reaching Israel and other US allies in the region.



ACPR Contact usNativ Index