Joshua PollackName That Missile


From the 2010 wall calendar, “Scenic Missile Tests of Iran.” (Just kidding.)

Confusion surrounds the names used for ballistic missiles in Iran, where designators seem to come and go unpredictably. But a just smidgen of linguistic information may clarify the picture.

Let’s review. So far, Iran has launched or flight-tested the following types: a family of single-stage liquid-fueled missiles, all called either “Shihab” or “Ghadr”; and a two-stage solid-fueled missile (or family of missiles) called “Ashura” or “Sejil.” Let’s leave aside artillery rockets, sounding rockets, and space launch vehicles, at least for now.

Shihab-1 and Shihab-2 appear to be names for different types of Scud missiles, originally imported from other countries, and later produced in Iran. Shihab-3 is the Iranian name for locally produced copies of the North Korean Nodong. “Ghadr” or “Ghadr-1” is sometimes applied to a Shihab-3 variant with a triconic “baby bottle” nosecone, the sort seen in the picture above. This type of missile has yet to appear outside of Iran.

Iran’s solid-fueled missiles were first introduced as “Ashura,” and thereafter called “Sejil.”

What the Names Mean

An intriguing pattern emerges: the four names come in pairs.

Ghadr and Ashura are easily recognizable. These refer to special dates on the Muslim calendar: Laylat al-Qadr, commemorating the first revelation to the Prophet Mohammed; and Ashura, the Shi’ite commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn.

[Update. On further reflection, if for no reason other than parallelism, Ghadr seems at least as likely to refer to Eid al-Qadr, which commemorates the appointment of ‘Ali as successor to Mohammed. (So much for that nice illustration on the right.) Like Ashura, this is an event on the Shi’ite calendar. The word could also simply mean “greatness,” its literal meaning, but this strikes me as unlikely; why use an Arabic word in this context if the religious allusion wasn’t intended?]

The other two names, Shihab and Sejil, are obscure by comparison, but both appear in the Qur’an. Shihab, usually translated as “comet,” appears in Surah 15:

16. And verily in the heaven We have set mansions of the stars, and We have beautified it for beholders.
17. And we have guarded it from every outcast devil,
18. Save him who stealeth the hearing and them doth a clear flame [shihab] pursue.

In Surah 37:

6. Lo! We have adorned the lowest heaven with an ornament, the planets;
7. With security from every froward devil.
8. They cannot listen to the Highest Chiefs for they are pelted from every side,
9. Outcast, and theirs in a perpetual torment;
10. Same him who snatcheth a fragment, and there pursueth him a piercing flame [shihab].

And in Surah 72:

8. And (the Jinn who had listened to the Qur’an said): We had sought the heaven but had found it filled with strong wardens and meteors [shohuban].
9. And we used to sit on places (high) therein to listen. But he who listened now findeth a flame [shihaban] in wait for him.

Sejil appears in Surah 105, which recalls the defeat of an Ethiopian expedition against Mecca:

1. Has thou not seen how thy Lord dealt with the owners of the Elephant?
2. Did He not bring their stratagem to naught,
3. And send against them swarms of flying creatures,
4. Which pelted them with stones of baked clay [sijeel]
5. And made them like green crops devoured (by cattle)?

(All translations are from Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran.)

So both names allude to projectiles wielded by the agents of God to repel interlopers: the shihab (a shooting star, perhaps) is flung by watchful angels against eavesdropping devils or jinns, whereas “flying creatures” sent by the Lord dispatched an invading army with sijeel stones. If nothing else, these names express an idea of national defense as divinely sanctioned. It would be interesting to know if the “Shihab” designation goes back to the Iran-Iraq war, known in Iran as “The Sacred Defense.”

So Why Two Names Each?

Here’s one possibility. It appears that the two ballistic missile types indigenous unique to Iran have two names apiece: the Ghadr/Shihab-3M and the Ashura/Sejil. “Shihab” and “Sejil” are clearly the names of production missiles. “Ghadr” and “Ashura” could be code names for the RDT&E programs that preceded them.

There’s another detail that lends support to this theory: the name “Ghadr” appears to have been first revealed by the NCRI as the name of two missile development programs, Ghadr-101 and Ghadr-110. What’s more, Jane’s tentatively identified one of these programs with the (apparently canceled) Shihab-4.

On the other hand, Norbert Brügge observes small differences between the Ghadr-1 and the Shihab-3M, suggesting that both might be production missiles.

Anyway, that’s about as far as a humanities background will take us on this issue. I now humbly hand it back to the physics and engineering wonks.

Thanks to readers Amir and Bahram for the corrections.

Comments

  1. RAJ47

    The photo clearly is Ghadr-I launch probably from 35 13 20N 53 53 43E on 04 Feb 2004. See a close up of the same at
    and a different view at
    You get a fair idea of all Nodong family missiles at “http://www.b14643.de/Spacerockets_1/Diverse/Nodong/Dong.htm”

  2. Amir

    Joshua,

    Regarding the Ghadr meaning, It is good to note that it has other meanings as well, which are: value, magnitude, importance, quantity.

    “Ashura Muharram” is not used together this way (“Asher men Muharram” can be said but that is totally Arabic). Ashura means the 10th day of a lunar month; however, it is almost always used for the 10th of Muharram (first month of the Islamic lunar calender).

    As you mentioned close to the end, Shihab (Arabic pronunciation) or shahab (Persian pronunciation) means shooting star or meteor and not comet (at least currently).

    Translation correction:
    “strong wardens and meteors [shihabun]” shihabun شِهابٌ should be shohuban شُهُباً.

    “findeth a flame [shihabun] in wait for him” shihabun شِهابٌ should be shehaban شِهاباً.

    I think that is enough literature for one day!

    Looking forward for the engineering stuff!

  3. VS (History)

    Hey, that’s not a missile in the picture. It’s a giant yellow marker!

    It’s a good thing that certain religious types in the previous administration didn’t ask for the renaming of U.S. missiles into something more biblical, or even better something from the Book of Revelations. Can you only imagine?

  4. Josh (History)

    RAJ47:

    Thanks for the additional views. I’d first seen the photo earlier this fall, and I’d assumed it was linked to the missile tests announced around that time.

    Thanks also for the link, but it was already featured in in the post. (See the second-to-last paragraph.) We’re agreed, that’s a valuable resource.

    Amir:

    Thanks very much for the corrections. It seems that my ability to decipher Arabic script has oxidized. I’ll update the post shortly.

  5. RAJ47

    Yes, I did not notice the link, my mind had gone for lunch when I was reading your article.

  6. Jochen Schischka (History)

    I’d strongly advise against blindly believing everything from Mr. Brügge’s homepage.
    He sure is fast and has a lot of excellent pictures on his homepage (and i appreciate that very much), but some of the additional information given there might be based on misinterpretations (e.g. that the R-17VTO (the Scud-D!) is the Scud-C, or that the Scud uses UDMH as alternative fuel, or that the Nodong-A is the Scud-D…neither is the two-stage M-18/Shaheen-II with a diameter of 1.4m a derivative of the 1.0m-DF-15 etc., etc., etc.).

    In short: http://www.b14643.de is an excellent source for photos, but the reconstructions/speculations, drawings (especially considering the Shahab-3/Ghadr-1-line) and data from that homepage should be taken with a pinch of salt (the same holds true for most internet-resources on missiles anyway…rocket-science seems to be a rather challenging issue to the majority of people – made even worse by the shroud of secrecy/deception deliberately wrapped around military hardware by some, if not all, governments on this planet).

  7. Bahram (History)

    Correction. Ghadr and Ghadeer are two entirely different words. The Ghadr missile refers to “laylat al-qadr,” the “night of power” in the month of Ramadan, in which the Qur’an was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad. The word “Ghadeer” is a placename; it’s the location where Muhammad is supposed to have declared ‘Ali as his successor.

    Do the names have deeper significance beyond affirming the religious character of the state? Not really. “sijjil” and “shihab” are just very clever borrowings from the Qur’an.

  8. Josh (History)

    Bahram:

    Ai yi yi.

    I’m going to take your word for it. Thanks.

    -Josh

  9. Joseph S. Bermudez Jr.

    Joshua,

    Shehab 1 is the Iranian name for the North Korean provided Scud B (known locally as Hwasong 5). These were provided to Iran during the Iran-Iraq War and used during the second War of the Cities.

    Shehab 2 is the Iranian name for the North Korean provided Scud C (known locally as Hwasong 6).

    Shehab 3 is the Iranian name for the North Korean provided Nodong (national designator unknown, however, they use the designator Scud E when marketing them to foreign nations).

    Shehab 1, 2, and 3 have all been produced (some would say assembled from “knock-down” kits) in varying quantities within Iran.

    BTW, most folks translate Shehab as either “Meteor” (as note above), although I have occasionally seen it as “Shooting Star” (also noted above). A North Korean defector reports that Hwasong translates to “Mars” and that it was possibly used because Mars was the God of War. This sounds somewhat odd for North Korea and I subscribe to the idea that it refers to the planet Mars.

    Regards,
    Joe

  10. Josh (History)

    Joe:

    Thanks for chiming in. I’d never heard the “Scud-E” name before.

    FWIW, Jiri Wagner’s multilingual names of the planets page lists “Moksung” as Korean for Mars, and explains that the term means “star of fire.” That seems to make sense. Red Planet and all that.

    Correction: “Hwasung” is Korean for the planet Mars. “Moksung” is Jupiter. A synapse misfired…

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