Geoff FordenPCS#1: Iran’s Composites Infrastructure

Tehran University, one of the Iranian universities that has significant research in material sciences including advanced composite materials.

My previous two posts ( part 3 and part 4 of this series on a proliferation case study examining Iran’s possible indigenous production of Safir engine parts) discussed a framework for thinking about how proliferators get WMD and the means to deliver them. It was pointed out that the best way for proliferators to get the technology and industrial infrastructure for producing these new (to them) technologies was to purchase a turnkey production plant. It was also pointed that once that was done, the proliferator could “assimilate” the technology and progress toward more indigenous innovation. How quickly and efficiently this could be done, however, depends on the level of pre-existing knowledge related to the technology. Today’s post is going to examine Iran’s state of knowledge related to advanced composites.

A Wide Range of Contributing Knowledge

First, however, we have to discuss the range of prior knowledge that could assist in the assimilation of a given technology. Unfortunately, it is hard for the an outside observer to be aware of all of these technologies. So before turning to Iran’s infrastructure, I’m going to discuss more about that poster-child of turnkey proliferation and assimilation: India’s rocket/missile acquisition program. Many of these details can be found, at least in an introductory sense, in the wonderful book by Gopal Raj’s Reach for the Stars: The Evolution of India’s Rocket Programme. Raj details how India licensed the solid propellant technology for the Centaure II sounding rocket from France’s Sud Aviation that started them on the road to not only their space launch capabilities (such as the SLV-3) but also to the Agni guided missile.

The Centaure II uses relatively modest propellants (Polyvinyl Chloride—PVC—binder and ammonium perchlorate—AP—oxidizer) but licensing this technology enabled India to gain invaluable experience producing large-grain solid-propellant rockets. India was able to produce part of these chemicals by purchasing a PVC turnkey production plant from B.F. Goodrich but they first had to import AP. Interestingly, India was able to capitalize its preexisting electrolytic industry in the form of the West Indian Match Company (WIMCO) to jump from potassium perchlorate to ammonium perchlorate, which required an additional electrolysis stage. WIMCO was created as a joint venture where India licensed the technology from the Swedish Match Company in 1924 as a turnkey plant, Indian engineers had assimilated the technology by the 1960s so that they were able to modify it enough to produced ammonium perchlorate. (See The 13th Element for an amusing account of the “match wars” in the late 1800s that created the Swedish Match Company and helped motivate it to form joint ventures around the world.) So we are bound to miss some important sectors when we search for clues about a country’s existing infrastructure that can contribute to their technology assimilation ability.

Iran’s Academic Composites Infrastructure

Google Scholar searches for various terms associated with advanced composite materials and “Tehran” results in a great number of academic papers originating from Iranian scientists and engineers. These papers contain both “theoretical” and experimental work; the later is particularly important for engineering subjects since they demonstrate a significant level of “tacit knowledge” so necessary to actually producing things. (Please also see my post on missile development consortiums as well.) I am not qualified to judge these papers’ scientific merit, but note the range of universities and the extensive academic infrastructure devoted to material sciences linked to few papers I’ve seen (this definitely not an exhaustive list; see the Wikipedia listing for Iranian universities):

Amirkabir University of Technology
-Department of Polymer Engineering
-Mechanical Engineering Department
-Department of Mining and Metallurgical Engineering

University of Tehran

-School of Metallurgy and Materials, Faculty of Engineering

Iran University of Science and Technology

-School of Materials

—Ceramic Division

Tarbiat Modarres University

-Department of Materials Engineering

Islamic Azad University

-Department of Chemistry

University of Malek Ashtar

International University of Imam Khomeini

Kashan University

-Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology

Research Centers:

-Iran Color Research Center

-Iran Polymer and Petrochemical Institute

-Materials and Energy Research Center


Can it really be doubted that Iran is capable of producing its own advanced composite jet vanes? It has the scientific infrastructure and, by now, a large supply of very well trained scientists and engineers in this subject. If Iran did import the initial production line, it was only to minimize risk of failure much as the US did after World War II with V2 technology. They clearly have the know-how and infrastructure to assimilate this technology at almost any level and improve on it. (As an aside, this advanced composite infrastructure can be easily applied to Iran’s nuclear centrifuge production.) This is an example of the new proliferation environment that we must adapt to instead of stubbornly insisting that the old supply-side nonproliferation regimes are good enough.

Post Series: Proliferation Case Study #1

This series of posts consists of:
0) Do You Know What This Thing Is?

1) Iranian Furnances

2) The Jet Vane Hypothesis

3) The How of Proliferation, Part 1

4) The How of Proliferation, Part 2

5) Iran’s Composites Infrastructure


  1. hass (History)

    So in conclusion, Iranians should not learn math or chemistry because math or chemistry “could be used” to proliferate WMDs or will give them the “option” of making nukes…


  2. hass (History)

    Your forgot the Pasteur Institute of IRan, or the National Cell Bank of Iran, or the pharmacology department of Tehran University, or the Modarres University Department of Virology or National Research Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology… all of which “could be” used to make human-cyborg clones that will invade the world. Obviously, Iranians shouldn’t learn biology either. Hey, it “could” happen. Right? RIght? [point being, equating materials science with nukes is ridiculous]

  3. Geoff Forden (History)

    hass, I find it hard to understand how someone could so misinterpret what I have written.

  4. George William Herbert (History)

    Side comment – there’s a tendency to focus on composite vanes for thrust vectoring, because that was used in early liquid fueled rockets and many solids.

    Focusing on it to excess is a mistake. The startup companies in the US have often worked with jet vanes but all are now using gimbaled engines, with good success. The development path isn’t that hard.

    Gimbaling a solid motor nozzle is harder – you have to develop heat resistant elastomers for the nozzle joint – but plenty of US ICBMs demonstrate how it can be done.

  5. nick (History)

    Your list includes 2nd and third tier universities, that probably had nothing to do with the projects you are talking about. However, the quality of Iranian engineers from top schools is good enough to go beyond reverse engineering of key imported technologies, as witnessed by recent missile launches and IRn centrifuges that are far more advanced than the original P1.

  6. Anthony (History)

    If there was to be a strike on Iran by Israel, I wonder if they would go after these institutions as well?

  7. nukeman (History)

    I actually know quite a bit about research being done in the advanced materials area and would be willing to share that information. The Iranians have published quite a bit in this area and are very good researchers. The best way for me would be to put the references into a bibliography and have it posted on a website on others to use.

  8. gp

    Iranians living in the West are the richest and most educated minority.According to a study carried out by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Iranian scientists and engineers in the United States own or control around $880 billion. I will not be surprised if the best of them returned to Iran to work in space projects.,_scholars,_and_engineers

  9. Jochen Schischka (History)

    To George William Herbert:

    “there’s a tendency to focus on composite vanes for thrust vectoring, because that was used in early liquid fueled rockets and many solids”

    The real reason, in case of Iran (and North Korea and Pakistan), why we focus on jet vanes is because that is the solution they (all) use (almost – the upper stage of the Safir IRILV being a noteworthy exception) exclusively for thrust-vectoring. (BTW, i for my part am not so sure about the ‘composite’ issue; Maybe it’s more likely graphite with some sort of ceramic surface coating…)

    To nick:

    Is the IR-2-design more advanced than the P-2-design? Or the initial G-2-design, which was, if i understood that right, the basis for the P-2-design?

  10. nick (History)

    I don’t think Iran was able to procure enough maraging steel for IR2 designs, so probably they used carbon fiber. Although AQ Khan apparently was more successful, and even their P3 and P4 designs are maraging steel rotor based. I think Pakistanis now have the steel mill industry that makes it domestically.

  11. Azr@el (History)

    Nick’s understanding of the matter is on the mark, the Iranians switched to a bellowless carbon fiber rotor design due to their lack of expertise with maraging steel and their inability to produce thin maraging steel bellows.

    The P-1 is an inferior reverse engineered version of the original 1970’s deutsche design, the P-2 is equivalent to the deutsche design. In terms of SWU, the IR-2 is equivalent in throughput to P-2, 5 SWU per annum, except that it’s smaller and cheaper to produce.

    Overall, I have no idea how far advanced the IRI design is over it’s Deutsche and Pakistani predecessors, but it is accurate to term it more advanced. What is the proverb? “Necessity is the mother of invention”

  12. Mohammad (History)

    Sorry if my comment if not wonky as is prefered here, but as a Tehran-dweller I find your choice of the satellite image of Tehran University interesting since UT it is located at a very busy and crowded area and there are a lot of more informative photos of it around the Web, but the satellite image makes the impression that you’re talking about a secret, dangerous complex hosting some clandestine work. It’s funny to me (just imagine the same applied to MIT).

  13. Geoff Forden (History)


    No offense intended toward Tehran University, which is a world class institution of higher learning. But I can do more than just imagine MIT’s complex as seen from GoogleEarth:

    here is a larger version.

    I have marked some of the more subversive points.

  14. Mohammad (History)


    No offense intended too! (Maybe I shouldn’t have used the word ‘funny’)
    I wasn’t offended, I was just trying to express my feeling, as I’m fed up with so many satellite images from Iran in Western media, like they have resorted to satellite images since there’s no other image available to them. It reminds me of North Korea! (There’s an old but related The Onion article) Maybe I’ve got too sensitive.
    Also I like your sense of humor! Thanks for your kind response.

  15. no_name

    I have a question which may be a little bit irrelevant to this subject; but never the less I am curious:
    Does the technology necessary to produce these so called advanced composite jet vanes have anything in common with the technology necessary to produce turbine blades (for jet engines)?
    Would the ability to produce one “suggest” the ability to produce the other?

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