The Trump administration had major qualms with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) prompting the US withdrawal in May. These included the sunset provisions, which provide expiration dates for certain restrictions, and its narrow targeting of Iran’s nuclear program without addressing the continued enhancement of its ballistic missile arsenal, which enables the regime’s “malign activity” in the region.
Iran has in fact made advancements in the precision and strategic military value of its ballistic missile arsenal, expanding upon its use as a deterrent to include more advanced offensive capabilities that threaten foreign military infrastructure.
The establishment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems by the US, Israel, and Gulf Arab states has pushed the Islamic Republic to consider alternative ways to defeat these systems because of the country’s outdated air force.
Below is a timeline of Iranian ballistic missile developments from 1985 to present. Iran’s oldest liquid-fueled, single-stage Scuds—developed from the Russian Scud-B design—depend on an inertial navigation system (INS) with an accuracy radius designed to target cities, whereas newer designs with enhanced aerodynamics, solid propellant, and improved navigation systems ensure increased precision and range.
Shahab-1: The Shahab-1 was Iran’s first foray into the ballistic production theater. After purchasing around twenty Russian-built Scud-B short range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from Libya in 1985 and at least twelve from Syria in 1986, Iran sought to contend with Iraqi airpower during the 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War by developing its own Scud-B, the Shahab-1. Between 1987 and 1992, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) aided Iranian efforts at indigenous Shahab-1 production with technical assistance and material resupply, selling Iran between 200 and 300 Hwasong-5’s—North Korean variants of Russian Scud-B’s with enhancements to the missile’s airframe, INS, and engine. While Tehran, in the interim, strived to make its own Scud-B variant plant operational by 1988. The missile has a range between 285 and 330 kilometers using INS and has an estimated circular error probable (CEP) of 450 meters. It is a single stage, liquid propellant missile that uses a transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) in its launch stage.
While Iran launched the Scud-B’s it received from Libya, Syria, and North Korea during the Iran-Iraq War, the domestically-made Shahab-1 was not tested until 1988, and Iran was likely producing Shahab-1’s with DPRK oversight until 1994. From 1994 to 2001, Iran launched between forty-one and ninety-one Shahab-1’s at various Mujahedin–e Khalq (MEK) camps in Iraq.
Shahab-2: The Shahab-2—a Scud-C variant derived from the DPRK’s Hwasong-6—quickly became the Iranian program of choice when technological challenges in Scud-B development prevented mass production of the missile, likely due to limited material availability. This next iteration of the Shahab family used resources accessible to Iran to improve INS and add an extra 500 kg of propellant to attain a longer range of over 500 km with a smaller warhead than the Scud-B model, giving a CEP of 1,000 m.
The Shahab-2 began testing in July 1998 and was adopted into full operational use by 2004.
Shahab-3: The Shahab-3 was considered Iran’s first medium range ballistic missile (MRBM), almost identical in appearance and abilities to the DPRK’s Nodong nuclear-capable MRBM. Development of a domestic version of the Nodong, the Shahab-3, began when Iranian Brigadier General Manouchehr Manteghi traveled to North Korea in 1993 with twenty-one Iranian missile specialists. Since its operational introduction a decade later, constant developments have complicated gauging complete and accurate assessments of the missile’s capabilities. Depending on the payload weight, the road-mobile missile can travel between 800 and 1300 km carrying 800 to 1200 kg payloads. It uses single-stage liquid propellant and has a separating re-entry vehicle (RV), allowing the detachable warhead to reenter the atmosphere with enhanced accuracy and speed, while making it less targetable in terminal phase. However, the Shahab-3 uses the same basic INS guidance of its predecessors, so its accuracy is still weak with a CEP around 2,500 m.
Shahab-3M: Over the last decade and a half, a Shahab-3M has received several modifications to reduce weight in non-pivotal areas of the Shahab-3, including shrunken planar fins, lighter aluminum material in the fuselage, and smaller warheads, which allow the elongated airframe to carry additional fuel and increase the missile’s range. While drastically improved GPS navigation is incompatible with the Shahab-3’s less advanced nature, Iran has somewhat improved the INS, and reconfigured the RV to a triconic ‘baby-bottle’ shape that allows faster terminal phase velocity, higher likelihood of evading BMD systems, and air-burst detonation for delivering chemical, submunition, and nuclear warheads (albeit the success of these are dependent on the warhead’s air-dispersal capability).
Zelzal: Production of the Zelzal family of unguided artillery rockets began in 1990 and extended to the early 2000s, though they have not seen much use likely due to their low accuracy and large target signature. The Zelzal-1 (Naze’at-10), based off the Soviet FROG-7, used solid rocket propellant with a maximum range of 160 km and a 600 kg payload, but was quickly developed into its successor, the Zelzal-2 spin-stabilized ballistic missile with an extended range of 210 km. The final iteration, the Zelzal-3, uses a conical nose instead of the rounded variant found in its predecessors. The family was important in the development of more advanced future ballistic weapons for Iran, but were never used extensively, in large part because of their TEL trucks that provided an ample target for adversaries’ preemptive defenses.
Iran delivered Zelzal-1 and Zelzal-2 rockets to Lebanese Hezbollah through Syria shortly after they became operationally deployed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in the early 2000s, but Hezbollah held on to most of the supply instead of using them in the 2006 war with Israel. Yemen’s Houthi rebels also have a version of the Zelzal-3 in their arsenal, which Iran praised in its intercepted use against Saudi Arabia in 2017.
Tondar-69: Tehran bought 200 Chinese CSS-8 SRBMs in 1989 and dubbed the Iranian version Tondar-69, making them officially operational in Iran in 1992. The two-stage Tondar-69 uses solid propellant in its first stage, storable liquid in its second, has a range of 150 km with a single 250 kg warhead, and uses a road-mobile TEL and INS guidance. Because of the limited payload capability, short distance, and low accuracy of the missile, Iran has not used it in an operational capacity. Shortly after deploying them to the armed forces, Iran began developing more extensive solid-fuel capabilities.
In January 2000, the Education and Research Institute of the Ministry of Defense began experimenting with HTPB (hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene) resin, aluminum powder, and potassium chlorite, all ingredients found in ammonium perchlorate-oxidized solid propellant. It is thought that during the 1990s, Iran relied on China for solid fuel capabilities prior to its own indigenous solid propellant program.
Fateh-110: The Fateh-110 began development in 1995 as an enhanced SRBM using single-stage solid-propellant and a TEL, decreasing the prep time prior to launch. The first iteration of this missile, the Fateh A-110, developed from the Zelzal-2 SRBM but enhanced with a guidance system, was inducted operationally in 2004 with a 650 kg payload and a 200 km range. A subsequent variation, the Fateh A-110A released in 2004 carried a smaller 450 kg payload up to 250 km. The Fateh A-110B released in 2010, and the Fateh-110-D1 in 2012, quickened the launch time, increased the range to 300 km, and improved the precision of the Fateh-110 guidance system, which uses both INS and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) with a projected CEP of 250 m. The missiles can carry high-explosive (HE), chemical, or submunition warheads.
Iran delivered Fateh-110’s to Hezbollah through Syrian channels as early as 2007, and to Shia militias in Iraq as late as September 2018. The IRGC claimed a September 8, 2018 attack on Kurdish opposition groups in the Kurdistan Region in northern Iraq, which saw seven Fateh-110 missiles kill at least fourteen members of Kurdish separatist groups seeking autonomy from Iran.
Qiam-1: The Qiam-1 is an enhanced variant of the Shahab-2 SRBM modified between 2010 and 2014 with warhead and frame changes that suggest heightened accuracy and ability to evade BMD systems. Notably, the Qiam-1 lacks planar fins, which although useful for in-flight stability, indicates a smaller Radar Cross Section (RCS) for challenging detection and likely improvements from its predecessor’s INS. The missile is equipped with a triconic RV whose shape provides just enough increased drag upon re-entry to create a larger shockwave and buffer against the high heats of supersonic flight while adding stability. The shape of the RV mitigates some of the instability introduced by removing the planar fins and makes a more aerodynamic frame with lower mass for increased speeds.
In February 2017, the Houthis revealed a Burkan-2 missile identical in frame to the Qiam-1, all but confirming Iranian supply of ballistic missile parts to the insurgent forces in Yemen. The Burkan-2 was fired on November 4, 2017 at Riyadh’s international airport. The IRGC used Qiam-1 SRBMs in its June 18, 2017 and October 1, 2018 attacks on Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) encampments in the eastern Deir ez-Zor province of Syria.
Khalij Fars: The Khalij Fars is a solid-fueled Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) variant of the Fateh-110 equipped with a curved nose that holds mid-course INS and an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) seeker allowing it to hit a moving target by homing the object’s heat indexes in terminal phase. The Khalij Fars ASBM underwent testing in 2011, entered production a year later, and was delivered for operational military use by 2014.
Hormuz: Hormuz-1 is an anti-radiation variant of the Fateh family designed to target radar systems. The Hormuz-2 is purportedly an active radar-guided version of the Khalij Fars ASBM, meaning it could autonomously track the target in terminal phase with its active radar-homing (ARH) seeker instead of the EO/IR seeker from the Khalij Fars. Both the Hormuz-1 and Hormuz-2 have ranges of 300 km and use double barreled TEL basing to decrease the time and personnel required to launch an attack. They were revealed in 2014.
Fateh-313 (Badr-313): The Fateh-313, released in August 2015, is an upgraded version of the solid-fueled Fateh-110 with an extended lifetime that uses a lighter frame, likely made of a steel and titanium composite, and reduced 500 kg payload capacity allowing for an extended range of 500 km.
Zolfaghar: The Zolfaghar SRBM is a derivative of the Fateh family of Iranian missiles with increased range up to 700 km and some structural alterations. The IRGC claims the Zolfaghar can carry a submunitions warhead, which complicates targetability for BMD systems. Jane’s 360 notes that photos of the missile during its 2016 release at Amirkabir University of Technology in Tehran display the raised texture of the missile’s body, suggesting engineers used a fibrous carbon material instead of metal to decrease the overall mass. This change creates an ambiguous gap in the range-to-payload equation, but one can expect advances in at least one of the two areas.
The Zolfaghar was used in tandem with the Qiam-1 in attacks on Deir ez-Zor Syria in both 2017 and 2018.
Ghadr-110: The Ghadr-110, which dates back to 2004 but was delivered to operational units in 2014, is an upgraded version of Shahab-3 MRBM with an 1800 km range, lighter frame, and triconic RV that stabilizes it and halves its CEP to 1000 m, although this has not been independently confirmed in any operational uses. It is a two-stage missile that uses liquid propellant for its first stage and solid for its second. Its successor, the Ghadr-H, also referred to as the Ghadr-F, is 40 cm longer than its predecessor allowing a bigger fuel capacity.
Emad: The next Shahab-3 variant, the liquid-fueled Emad, uses a maneuverable re-entry vehicle (MaRV), whose biconic shape creates a high lift-to-drag (L/D) ratio that allows the missile to ascend without creating too much friction, which would slow it down. Smaller rear planar fins than the Shahab-3 make the Emad more aerodynamic in flight. The missile carries a 750 kg payload and uses satellite navigation in its MaRV that guides it during terminal phase for an alleged CEP of 50 m. The missile was tested on October 11, 2015 and declared operational four days later.
Khorramshahr: The Khorramshahr is a liquid-fueled, two-stage MRBM derived from the North Korean Musudan intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM), although Iran claims its range is some 2,000 km shorter than its DPRK predecessor, with a range of 2,000 km. It was first displayed during the September 2017 Sacred Defense Week parade, when IRGC Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh claimed its smaller size accounted for the condensed range. However, some analysts say it is to obscure the fact that the missile could penetrate eastern Europe. While Iranian sources claim the missile can be equipped with multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV), this is unrealistic due to the shape of the nosecone and more likely refers to a submunitions warhead. Navigation for this missile is not confirmed, but with INS its CEP would be around 1,500 m. Two failed tests in July 2016 and January 2017 preceded the unveiling of this missile at the military parade in September 2017.
Fateh-e Mobin: Iran unveiled the Fateh-e Mobin on August 13, 2018, claiming it as tested and operational within a 300-500 km range. It is a single-stage missile with alleged radar-evading features and Anti-Ship properties allowing it to hit targets on land and at sea.
Sejjil (Ashura): The Sejjil is a two-stage solid fueled road mobile MRBM adapted from the Zelzal lineage of missiles beginning in the 1990s, but similar to the Shahab-3 variations in its size, range, and triconic RV design. Known as the Ashura in its early days of development, the missile has a range of 2,000-2,500 km and carries a 500-100 kg payload. Sejjil’s two stages are identical with the sole exception that less fuel is necessary in the second stage to account for lower mass after the first stage rocket separates. Independent sources have not confirmed the reliability of the two-stages. After a test in 2008, the missile was termed the Sejjil-2, with supposedly improved navigation sensors, shorter launch time, and greater maneuverability, but it is unclear what improvements have been made to achieve these enhancements despite tests in 2009, 2011, and 2012.
Clara Belk is an intern with the Middle East Security Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Follow her on Twitter: @BelkClara.