Jeffrey LewisIran Marketing Missiles?

I’ve been working on an absolutely gigantic and totally inconclusive post about Iran-Venezuela ballistic missile cooperation.  (Short version: They either are or they aren’t.  That concludes my prepared remarks. Thank you.)

In the course of digging through that mess, I came across this very interesting nugget in the  721 report for 2010:

“Iran has marketed at least one ballistic missile system for export.”

Really? This is in contrast to previous years, where Iran was merely accused of marketing components that might be used in a ballistic missile guidance system.  What does “market” mean? And who was the client?

As far as I can tell, this refers to Iran’s transfer of the Fateh-110 solid-fueled ballistic missile system to Syria. It is an interesting little story.

My initial instinct was to look over the list of 12 entities that the US sanctioned earlier this year. I doubt the US would sanction an entity for merely being offered a ballistic missile system, but I had a hunch that “marketed” meant a transfer had actually occurred.  In any event, the sort of business relationship that results in the offer of a complete ballistic missile system would probably be built on lots of sanctionable behavior.

By this logic, Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center was a very good candidate. And, as it turned out, a quick search on “SSRC, Iran and missile” returns a leaked cable (NSFW!) that contains this nugget:

[W]e assess Syria’s acquisition of the Iranian Fateh-110 solid-propellant missile system has allowed Iran to emerge as a key foreign partner in Syria’s ballistic missile program.

That’s got to be the “at least one” — there is no other example that is so clean and unambiguous.

Why didn’t the preceding reports mention the Fateh-110 transfer?  The cable clearly mentions successful flight tests in December 2007 and December 2008.  In fact, the Fateh-110 isn’t listed in Syria’s inventory in the 2009 edition of Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat either.

It is possible that the intelligence community was either uncertain about the transfer or that the intelligence was too sensitive for a either mere 721 report or NASIC slickee — until late 2009 when Israeli and US officials became very concerned that Syria might in turn provide the Fateh-110 to Hezbollah. Then gums started flapping all over the place.

In late 2009, General Yossi Baidatz and other Israeli officials told (Leaked cable! NSFW!) ASD/ISA Sandy Vershbow that “if the delivery [of Fateh 110 missiles to Hezbollah] were to occur, this would significantly alter Israel’s calculus. Under such a scenario, the looming question for Israeli policymakers then becomes: ‘to strike or not to strike.'”

Those warnings were duly passed along, ending up in public in the DEBKAfile — I know!  I know! — which quoted unnamed US official saying that “the secret transfer of the mobile surface-to-surface Syrian-made Fateh-110 (range 250km) missile to Hizballah …  was ‘very dangerous’ and ‘paved the way to war similar to Israel-Hizballah conflict of 2006.'”

Now, as it turns out, I am not sure Syria did transfer the Fateh-110 to Hezbollah.  A lot of people cite the DEBKAfile report, but that’s hardly credible.  There are two apparent confirmations:  This article in Ha’aretz citing “Israeli defense officials” on a Fateh 110 transfer and another story in the New York Times in which a “Pentagon official” told Michael Gordon the Hezbollah inventory included “some 40 to 50 Fateh-110 missiles … and 10 Scud-D missiles.” The problem is the Scud claim — other US officials have cast doubt on it, noting the intelligence is not very clear.  I think the proper conclusion is that we don’t really know for sure about either missile yet.  I observe that then-SECDEF Gates passed on a golden opportunity to give us a definitive answer earlier this year.

Regardless, the imbroglio seems to have loosened up talk about Iran’s transfer of the Fateh 110 to Syria.

The whole episode is interesting because it suggests that, for all the reasons that Josh ably notes in his magisterial paper (more) on North Korean missile exports, there is perhaps one more threat to North Korea’s market-share in illicit missiles: Competition from its erstwhile customer, Iran.

Update | 9:30 pm Josh observes he made this point about competition for North Korea’s market share on 38 North:

But if Burma is, in fact, the newest buyer of North Korean missile technology, it’s the exception within an overall trend of decline. Ironically, North Korea’s very achievements as a proliferator of missile technology may end up doing as much as anything to put it out of business. Under A.Q. Khan, Pakistan’s KRL is said to have marketed its own version of the North Korean Nodong missile, albeit without any known successes. According to the latest annual report to Congress, Iran has also begun marketing missiles. Syria, too, is becoming more independent as a missile producer, enough to become a proliferation concern itself. In fact, Syria already stands accused of transferring relatively advanced Scud-D missiles to Hezbollah, the armed group that now controls the government of Lebanon.

Taking into consideration these and other, better-established missile exporters, particularly Russia, there might even be more potential suppliers than buyers in the world market. The prospects for Pyongyang’s slice of the market, though once impressive, continue to diminish.


  1. Ataune (History)

    If I was you I would have weigh in what the surveys are portraying as the opinion of the majority of Americans on issues like the trustworthiness of the Congress and the degree they feel their government really represent them. This way you would most likely looked at any documents coming out of the government bureaucracy with a more skeptical eyes.

  2. John Schilling (History)

    It is also possible that the changing accounts simply represent disagreement or confusion as to what constitutes a “ballistic missile”. By most objective or technical definitions, the Fateh-110 would qualify, but at the low end of the spectrum. And it is similar in size, form factor, and heritage to the Zelzal-2/3, which being unguided are generally classified as artillery rockets rather than ballistic missiles.

    A rather fuzzy boundary, liable to subjective interpretation. And thus subject to the biases of the interpreter, if any.

  3. Jeffrey (History)

    Here is the relevant bit of the cable, entitled Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program:

    “Iran has been assisting Syria in the ballistic missile field since the early 1990s. In addition to the joint construction with Syria’s Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) of both solid- and liquid-propellant production facilities in Syria, Syria and Iran have entered into an agreement for the transfer of Fateh-110 production technology from Iran to Syria. By at least 2007, Syria began receiving missile parts and technical assistance from Iran related to this project and successfully flight tested two Fateh-110 missiles in December of 2007 and one in December 2008. Syria — and possibly Iran — has made available the 270-km-range Fateh-110 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) to Lebanese Hizballah, as part of Iran’s agreement to share Fateh-110 production technology with Syria. Hizballah personnel probably participated in Fateh-110 meetings and test launches in both Syria and Iran over the past three years. This is consistent with Iran and Syria’s past practice of supplying Hizballah with long-range rockets, which Hizballah used in the 2006 war against Israel.”

  4. Pirouz (History)

    Have you never seen Iranian marketing slicks? They used to give them out at Asian arms expos, and possibly African ones, too. If memory serves me correctly, they had them for the Fateh-110 and possibly the ZelZal.

    Again, if memory serves me correctly this was cited in a US objection to an Indonesian (?) arms expo a few years ago, and subsequently the Iranian arms booth was asked to withdraw.

    I apologize for not having citations.

    For their part, the Iranians consider the relevant UNSC resolution against their arms exporting as an example of how the nuclear issue is a pretext (it was attached to a nuclear related resolution). As such, they do not recognize it as legitimate.

    So I’m guessing you’re actually looking for examples of Iran successfully exporting ballistic missiles. There was a bunch of talk of Lebanon receiving Shahabs a couple years back but no actual evidence ever turned up. There were also IDF/AF claims of knocking out Zelzals in the 33-day war, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this, either. I recall there are one or two anecdotes of persons seeing Fatehs or Zelzals in Lebanon, but I’ve yet to see a photo or video backing up the claims.

    Good luck with your research.

    • PW (History)

      In 2008, when the UN sanctions on Iran included an embargo on Iranian missile exports and not yet on other arms, the Iranian military industry tried to market ‘missiles and missile system’ at an arms fair in Malaysia. They were kicked out of the arms fair when someone realized Iranian marketing of missiles was against the UN embargo.

      What kind of missiles were marketed remains unclear. Could have been anything from 20 km range artillery Shaheen rockets (such as Sudan has received somewhere in the past decade), Fateh-110 or Shahabs.

      Interestingly DIO does not list ballistic missiles on its website

  5. joshua (History)

    The report here —

    — features a still frame from al-Jazeera that purports to be the remains of a pre-empted Zelzal rocket in 2006.

    I can dimly recall seeing a televised video at that time that was described as one such rocket falling to earth after having been struck on the ground. Sorry — no luck finding it now.

  6. blowback (History)

    I know it’s not a reliable source(just who is Paul Scudetto and what exactly was his involvement in the design of the SCUD?) but Wikipedia claims that the Syrians are already manufacturing a “knock-off” of the Fateh-110 known as the M-600. Actually, this might be better than Syria legally buying the export version of the Iskander from Russia as the latter seems to be a far more capable, if expensive, weapon.

    And while we’re in that neck of the woods, let’s not forget that the French “proliferated” nuclear-capable ballistic missile technology to the Israelis in the form of the Jericho 1 which also incorporated US technology at a time when Israel was, I believe, the subject of an arms embargo.

    As for that Mossad fabrication that Syria has supplied Hezbollah with SCUDs, don’t they (Mossad) realize how stupid that makes them (Mossad) appear? Unfortunately for Mossad, the M-600 doesn’t have the same “brand recognition” as a SCUD.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I think someone was having a bit of fun with Wikipedia.

      “Paul Scudetto” — that’s hilarious.

  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    I’ve always wondered why 2nd tier nations buy these systems. They make sense if you have enough of them for a lightening strike against airfields, ports, marshaling yards, etc. However even for such an attack to mean anything you need to have some sort of accuracy, or a special munition to make up for the lack of accuracy. It also implies that you have something to drive the attack home with. In other words if you take out your enemies airfield, why did you do it? Do you have an air force that can take advantage of the damage you’ve just done to the enemy? Do we see this, do we observe conventional forces organized and drilled to take advantage of the aftermath of an IRBM attack? Not to mention you need to practice using these systems so your military knows how to effectively use them as weapons of war. Are these kinds of maneuvers observed?

    Do we see Syria flying missiles on a semi-regular basis as we see Iran doing? Or are many of the Iranian firings we see tests for paying clients? I find it hard to believe these systems are accurate and reliable enough to be used in attacks against a runway, a flight line, a specific hanger, or a ship in port. That tells me that if these systems were built and purchased with with a rationale, then special munitions are probably being mounted for use in war. Is this an outrageous line of thought? is accuracy really that good today? Or are these IRBM’s carriers for chemical or worse warheads?

    Or are these regional missile systems being purchased to suit the specific desires of the local governments and or military commands? Are they purchased for parades? If so I make this humble proposal. Take a lesson from history. Start a space program. Everyone who can be on the receiving end of your missile knows everything about what you have. Practice in the open by conducing trans atmospheric research. The vast majority of the life time of these systems is spent in peace time with the world shaking in their boots about what you have. You can see this in the form of articles on Arms Control Wonk about what you have and are trying to hide. The world is much more ready to accept the Palestinian Space Program and Model Rocket Society than the Kasam tactical rocket brigade. Think how much more ready the world would be to accept an ICBM armed Iran if they also offered a cut rate launch option to LEO.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The sad history of OTRAG suggests that a space program, even one genuinely aimed at and plausibly capable of offering a cut-rate launch option to LEO, doesn’t buy acceptance in the face of any suspicion that one is really after ICBMs. And see China’s experience trying to run a joint ICBM/cheap space launch program.

      As for why nation without nukes or PGMs buy these systems, the answer has been pretty consistently the same since 1944: To randomly lob ton-sized chunks of HE into the neighbors’ cities and kill random batches of their civilian population, whether as a campaign of psychological attrition, a negotiating strategy, or just plain perverse vengeance. Probably a mix of all three, and if you’ve got some nerve gas as well so much the better.

      If you’ve got nukes even on the speculative horizon of your strategic planning, getting a head start on deploying what will be an effective nuclear delivery system and associated C3I infrastructure is an appealing idea as well – breakout is tricky to manage, and this allows a big part of the process to be locked down well in advance and with relatively little controversy.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You must never mention OTRAG again! It is my secret research project!

  8. Josh Shifrinson (History)

    To John Schilling’s point on the Fateh vs. Zelzal, it’s worth thinking about missile production rates and what that may tell us about arms transfers.

    Based on what one can tell from the open source literature, Iran’s SCUD stockpile consists of a max of 400 Shahab 1s and 450 Shahab 2s as of 2007 (this is probably a bit generous, but it gives us a worst case baseline). Of the 450 Shahab-2s, Iran — per Cordesman — purchased 200 of those from the DPRK sometime before 1997, at which point Iran began producing its own missiles. Over the course of ten years (1997-2007), this suggests Iran managed to produce 250 Shahab-2s on its own — 25 missiles per year.

    Now let’s think about the Fateh. Per Jane’s, the Fateh first reached IOC in 2004. Given its range and payload, it looks ROUGHLY like it might be intended to replace or substitute for the Scud in Iranian service. If we are therefore generous with the Iranians and say they managed to ramp up Fateh production to near-Scud rates, they’ve been producing 25 missiles/year for 7 years — approx 175 total (this assumes constant production, true, but it gives us a way of thinking about the problem). I’d wager that the real number is less as 1) the Fateh isn’t quite as long-ranged as Iran seems to want (, and 2) it’s a MUCH more complicated device with solid fuel and better guidance…but again, it’s a way of thinking about the problem.

    Now, given 1) the recent emergence of the design, 2) what we might infer about the size of the Iranian arsenal, and 3) the problems of tech transfer more generally, is it plausible to assume Hizbollah has obtained 40-50 Fatehs? It strikes me as dubious. The transfer of 40-50 missiles would constitute a VERY large percentage of Iran’s arsenal given to a proxy that, while useful, hasn’t always proven the most reliable or subservient. One would have to explain why Iran would willingly surrender control over such a large portion of one of its more credible deterrent assets, one also useful for power projection (And please don’t wave the deterrence/leaving something to chance flag out there — given that Hizbollah is a self-interested actor in its own right, it is tenuous at best that 1) Hizb would respond to an attack on Iran by launching its Fatehs at Israel, and/or 2) Hizb wouldn’t chain gang Iran into a war the latter doesn’t want sometime over the next few years). Lastly, while one might say “40-50 Fatehs isn’t that large if one brings Syrian production into the mix,” I’d just say that the M600 is a RUMORED development thus far, not yet proven…and I’m not even certain Syria has the wherewithal to produce reasonably accurate, solid-fueled missiles from existing designs. No, it seems that 1) the size of the reported transfer relative to possible stockpile numbers, 2) Iranian-Hizb-Syrian friction and production problems, and 3) Iranian self-interest in holding one of its newest assets close to the chest all augur against a large Hizb Fateh stockpile.

    Which brings me back to Schilling’s point. Based on the preceding, it seems much more likely that the 40-50 missiles reportedly in Hizb’s possession are Zelzal’s…or perhaps mostly Zelzal’s with a few Fateh thrown in for some reason or another. But I sincerely doubt Iran will have decided, in a relatively short span of time, to transfer sufficient solid fueled SRBMs to a third party so as to make that third party one of the largest holders of reasonably modern BMs in the region.

  9. John Schilling (History)

    Not sure I would agree that the Fateh-110 is a “MUCH more complicated device” than a Scud, at least if we are talking the baseline Fateh model. Both use inertial guidance; there have been technological developments since 1965 that can make inertial guidance both simpler and more accurate than the Scud’s version, there has been nothing to make it more complicated. The Fateh perhaps augments this with GPS, which is simple solid-state electronics – if you can make (or buy) such things at all, you can generally do so cheaply and in great quantity.

    And the Fateh-110 uses solid rocket motors where the Scud uses turbopump-fed storable liquid rocket engines. That makes the Fateh a much, much *simpler* system. There are technical issues in getting solid rocket motors to work right in the first place, but once you do, no moving parts except maybe thrust vanes, and a design eminently suitable for mass production. Indeed, the Zelzal experience suggests that the Iranians can produce solid rockets in this size class at >>25 per year.

    It is quite plausible that the Fateh-110 is both more capable and easier to build in large quantities than any sort of Scud-oid. The Scud was far from optimum even forty years ago, and changes since have generally favored manufacturing solid rockets with solid-state guidance rather than just improved Scuds.

    As far as Hezbollah is concerned, it seems very likely (though not certain) that Hezbollah has at least some Zelzal/Fateh class weapons, so the only question is whether the Iranians thought it was a good idea for their tame terrorists to have guidance kits for such weapons. That is going to be rather difficult for us to discern from afar – which probably suits Iran quite well.

    • Josh Shifrinson (History)

      Your points are well taken, and I appreciate the tech analysis of the Fateh propulsion system. My sense, though, is that designing a missile able to really make use of GPS guidance is not the easiest thing to do — motor cutoff, maneuvering, and all that. QC is liable to be an issue, if nothing else. If so, then wouldn’t this undercut Iran’s ability to churn these things out in quantity? The guidance issue strikes me as one of the major differences between churning out Zelzals-qua-rockets and Fatehs-qua-BMs. Probably not fair, therefore, to treat the Fatehs and Zelzal as a single “class” of weapons.

    • John Schilling (History)

      And I’ll elaborate on my own comment by noting that there’s a substantial difference between GPS *terminal* guidance and GPS augmentation of boost-phase inertial guidance. The former would represent a substantial increase in complexity, not because of the GPS itself but because it would require adding terminal maneuvering capability and maneuvering hypersonic flight is tricky business.

      If the GPS is only there to give you more precise control over the boost phase, it’s just a small package of nearly COTS electronics added to an existing inertial navigation system, probably simpler and certainly no more complex than a 1965-era Scud package.

      Most of the available evidence suggests the latter is the case at least with the baseline Fateh 110, though the Iranians certainly talk as if terminal guidance is going to be in place Real Soon Now. If they’ve been giving Fatehs with terminal guidance to Hezbollah, that would be a huge deal both in terms of Iranian technical capability and strategic missile proliferation. I’ll believe it when I see it.

  10. Pirouz (History)

    Per your questioning of rationale for these SRBM/MRBM strike assets: what would you have the Iranians do otherwise? They don’t have access to current air force combat aircraft. Plus there’s the added cost incentive to go for the cheaper SSM route over combat aircraft that, even if available, the one’s that would be available would be second rate. Then there’s the cost saved for maintainance and training. Plus the technology and manufacturing is indigenous and not subject to the whims of an arbitrary foreign power, for factory support. And more.

    It’s interesting that recently a US military officer was advocating that Taiwan adopt this route of deterrence, in lieu of its difficulties in obtaining F-16 combat aircraft from the US. (Of course, he didn’t realize he was advocating the Iranian solution to Taiwan’s defense needs.)

    If I understand this post, Jeffrey was attepmting to ascertain wheter Iran is or was “marketing” it’s ballistic missiles. The two examples of Syria and Hezbollah would represent foreign aid rather than marketing/sales (similar to such transfers provided by the US to Israel).

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Pirouz I find it hard to buy the notion that a ballistic missile can replace a combat aircraft. A fighter jet can defend airspace, deny airspace to someone else, conduct photographic recon of a large swath of of the battlefield, provide ground support, attack shipping, attack industry, communications, and command and control. Ballistic missiles are one shot assets that only make sense as a force multiplier for conventional forces that can take advantage of the one shot use of a ballistic missile. In order to provide that gain you need precision guidance, or warheads with N,B or C warheads. As Mr Schilling pointed out, without the PGM capability ballistic missiles are terror weapons. In the examples you gave the only reason so many assets were used to hunt down the mobile missiles was because they were aimed at civilian populations. In short the civilian population of Israel were used a hostages to soak up air assets. I’d argue that this has little military effect. It seems to me Iran would do much better buying Russian Su-27’s or Chinese J-10’s than make ballistic missiles.

    • John Schilling (History)

      S-300 or similar air defense missiles,and associated radars etc, would be an even better choice, IMHO. Iran’s strategic situation is vastly improved if it can credibly threaten even first-rate air forces operating over the homeland – see e.g. Libya for what can happen without that capability.

      But no military capability is entirely without value, and Iran is big enough to afford at least the low-hanging fruit in every aspect of military operations combined. At very least, Pirouz is right with his Scud-hunting comment; the first ten million dollars or so of SRBMs you buy will neutralize more American aircraft than the equivalent in SAMs or Sukhois can shoot down.

      The relevant question here I think is whether it makes sense for Syria, with its rather more limited resources, to be investing in such systems. As a deterrent to Israel, maybe it does, but the case isn’t clear.

  11. Pirouz (History)

    Addressing the technical limitations and combat effectiveness of these Iranian ballistic missiles:

    During the ’91 Gulf war, sauccessful Scud strike on a US military installation represented Iraq’s few successes against the primary member of Coalition forces. And many AF assets were tied up Scud hunting which otherwise would have been employed elsewhere.

    Also, looking back at the 33-day way in Lebanon, few military observers would have predicted that Lebanon’s rocket artillery force would have been capanle of achieving seige-like results affecting northern Israel and its economy, to the effect that it would greatly contribute towards the breaking off of the IDF offensive into Lebanon.

    That said, such strikes are not peculiar to the resistance camp against Zionism: consider the American Doolitle raid against Japan in 1942, which had a socio-political impact far exceeding the negligible combat effect it generated. Similar motives can be seen at play in the current form of deterrence against US/Zionist aggression.

    • Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Again your examples are about smiting your enemy. It seems to me that you are making the argument that Iran should form its military around humiliation of its enemies rather than furthering national interests by force of arms. Unless humiliation is the national policy. Really, this makes very little sense. It’s a monumental waste of funds, talent, and generates needless suffering and enmity on both sides to further such an agenda. Arms control is impossible if this is the policy of even one of the sides of a conflict.

    • masoud (History)

      If you find “Terrorism” unsavory, call it shock and awe. The hstory of European warfare of the past 200 years has been replete with mass civilian casualties. What Hezbollah did to Israel was positively civilized compared to what the US has done to Iraq and Afghanistan, or indeed what Israel was doing to Lebanon during that very war. More importantly though, it was combined with a political initiative which achieved the required result: and end to the Israeli bombing campaign, and a negotiated prisoner swap.

      I think you might also be a bit behind on Iran’s missile development(or their claims at the very least). They have at least twice demonstrated their Khalij-e-Fars missile, which is a refitted Fateh-110 which they claim will be deployed as a ballistic anti-shipping missile, complete with mid course targeting direction. Clearly, their aim is to have much more of a threat than just “terror weapons”. If they are able to provide this type of capability to Hezbollah, it could effectively neuter any type of military edge the IDF’s F16 provide it.

    • joshua (History)


      One man’s smiting is another man’s deterrence, isn’t it? Of course, weapons of terror can be used for coercion/intimidation/compellence just as readily as deterrence. This is a point that much of the Middle East absorbed in the 1980s and early 1990s. Back then, the North Koreans had more missile buyers than they knew what to do with… figuratively speaking. Read all about it!

      There’s a case to be made that air power has tended to progress from indiscriminate massed bombardment toward precision strikes. Just consider the record of manned air power. Missile forces might be undergoing a similar transition today. Granted, this point probably fits better in a different regional context, as described here:

      In the meantime, who was it who said of air power in WWII, “Inaccuracy of weapon-aim fostered inhumanity of war-aim”?

      To that, let’s compare the immortal lyrics of Tom Lehrer:

      “Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down? / That’s not my department’, says Wernher von Braun.”

      Certainly, it’s interesting to observe that some of the same countries that once bought inaccurate ballistic missiles from Far Eastern suppliers — the Saudis from China, the Emiratis from North Korea — apparently now prefer to acquire ALCMs from the West. We can’t be sure why that is, but the commander of the Saudi missile force, in a 1995 memoir, did explain that the Saudis declined to retaliate in kind against Iraqi missile strikes in 1991 because it would only make Iraqi civilians suffer. That conclusion might have led them to seek out more accurate strategic weapons.

      For their part, the leaders of the states with the largest ballistic missile forces in the region, Iran and Syria, probably both lack the same technological options and any such qualms about whom might be on the receiving end.

  12. Alex (History)

    Without terminal guidance, I’d tend to think the main purpose of Scud or similar in Hezbollah’s arsenal is to give the Israeli air force something to feel good about hunting while the ATGW and man-pack artillery rocket teams fight the war. It’s too big and obvious relative to its effectiveness to be useful for guerrillas.

    With guidance, well, that calculation might be different.