Tehran has in spite of this continued its missile tests saying its missiles are not configured to carry nuclear warheads, are wholly conventional and defensive in nature. Washington, and the European members of the P5+1, say that recent missile tests are provocative since the large long-range missiles being tested are “inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons“.
The US remains satisfied that Russia isn’t transferring technology which will allow Tehran to develop or enhance its missile stockpile. This comes after a long and quite interesting history of Washington trying to prevent Iran from developing a ballistic missile capability. A history which, as it happens, stretches back to the Shah’s time when Tehran was seen as an ally as opposed to an adversary.
In the early to mid 1970’s Iran was a favoured arms customer of the US. It could afford to, and was allowed to, buy advanced weapon systems other countries could only dream of possessing. Iran is the only country the US ever allowed purchase F-14 Tomcat air superiority jet fighters and, incidentally, remains the only country to operate them. However there were limits to what the US was willing to sell. Those limits primarily revolved around any Iranian procurement of missile and nuclear technology.
While the Shah possessed a large fleet of hi-tech American warplanes he understood the importance of missiles for deterrence. And looking westward at his main regional rival, Iraq, he saw a ruthless regional rival amassing Soviet-made Scud missiles and other armaments which could pose a potential threat to him. When the Shah indicated a desire to buy Lance missiles in 1976 the U.S. Department of Defense opposed the idea on the basis that those missiles wouldn’t have been cost-effective for Iran if they were going to be used only for conventional warfare. Later the Carter administration would not consider selling Tehran Pershing missiles since they too were capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
The Ford administration had also prohibited American companies from investing in Iran’s nuclear program, which meant they were forced to sit by and watch European companies exploit that lucrative market.
Finally the Shah was approached by another country willing to provide him with the technologies he needed. That country was Israel.
Israel too was fearful of Iraq’s growing military power and fostered closer strategic relations with the Shah’s Iran given their common regional enemy. Israel needed oil, Iran needed technology. Project Flower as it was known began in July 1977. It sought to co-develop Jericho-2 missiles with a two-hundred mile range for Tehran to deter potential aggressors in a region where neighbours were acquiring both missile and nuclear capabilities (remember India detonated its first nuclear bomb in the 1974).
The extent of the cooperation saw the Iranians begin to build a site to assemble the missiles in south-central Iran, even a missile test range where the Israelis hoped to test their new weapon systems. Iran also provided Israel $280 million worth of oil as part of its first payment for the project.
The 1979 revolution put a rapid stop to this program before it fully got off its feet, the Israelis evacuated Iran and also managed to take their blueprints and plans for these proposed weapon systems with them, ensuring they did not fall into the hands of the new regime in Tehran.
Washington didn’t learn about the extent of the cooperation until afterword and was quite taken aback. Shortly thereafter Iran became bogged down in an eight-year war with Iraq, during that time it managed to purchase Scud missiles from Libya and Syria. They based their domestically produced Shahab (“Meteor”) missiles on the Scuds, a missile which has formed the backbone of Iran’s missile program to date.
By 1991 the Cold War was coming to an end and the US led a multinational military coalition which afflicted a devastating blow to the Iraqi military in the Gulf War. While the Iraqi dictator was not overthrown his ability to project force and threaten his neighbours was significantly reduced. The Israelis begun to see Iran as its number one regional rival and primary strategic threat. This came at a time when Iran begun to procure missile technology from North Korea.
Which led to another fascinating episode in Israeli diplomatic history. An attempt to effectively invest in North Korea, help Pyongyang alleviate an economic catastrophe in return for a pledge that it would not sell missile technology to Middle Eastern powers, namely Iran. At that time North Korea was seeking to sell a Scud-D missile variant to Iran, the Rodong-1. Israel offered to invest $1 billion into a North Korea gold mine in return. The US were not happy and while recognising the concerns Israel had about missile proliferation in the region they were not satisfied that Israel could trust any of Pyongyang’s promises. The secret diplomatic initiative collapsed. North Korea has since endured a famine and developed a stockpile of nuclear bombs and missiles.
Since then Iran developed the Shahab-3 which is based on the Nodong. A missile which has a range of around 900 km. Out of this came the Ghadr-110 (“Ghadr” the Persian word for “Intensity”) whose range extends to 1,800-2,000 km. Ghadr’s are much easier to field than the liquid-fuel Shahabs as are the more recently introduced Sejjil (“Baked Clay”) missiles whose range is estimated to be at least 2,000 km. Iran today stands as the only country to develop ballistic missiles with this range without first having built a nuclear weapons program.
Given the fact that this missile program is currently causing controversy and making headlines once again its historic origins should not be forgotten amid barrages of newsbites.