Why Iran’s Missile Program Alarms Its Rivals

A drone attack on an Iranian military facility over the weekend brought renewed attention to Iran’s development of sophisticated missiles, a program that deeply worries its regional rivals.

The strike on Saturday, which set off a large explosion in the city of Isfahan, was the work of the Mossad, Israel’s premier intelligence agency, according to senior intelligence officials who were familiar with the dialogue between Israel and the United States regarding the attack.

The purpose of the targeted facility was not immediately clear. But Isfahan, in central Iran, is a hub for Iran’s production, research and development of missiles, including the assembly of Shahab medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach Israel and beyond.

Iran has steadily been ramping up its long-range missile capabilities in recent years and Israel fears that those missiles could one day be used to deliver a potential nuclear warhead. Israel, which sees the weapons program as an existential threat, has been locked for years in a shadow war with Iran. But repeated strikes targeting the nuclear program and military targets have failed to stop Iran’s steady advances on both fronts.

Here are some basic questions about Iran’s missile program.

A still photo taken from video released by an official Iranian news agency, reportedly showing the moment of an explosion at a military industry factory in Isfahan over the weekend.Credit…Wana News Agency

Why was Isfahan targeted?

Isfahan houses two missile deployment sites and at least two missile-related organizations, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. The city is also the site of four small nuclear research facilities, but the facility that was struck on Saturday did not appear to be nuclear related.

Danny Yatom, a former head of the Mossad, told Army Radio in Israel on Monday that the attack targeted a facility developing hypersonic missiles — long-range munitions capable of traveling up to 15 times the speed of sound with terrifying accuracy and which could be enabled to carry a nuclear warhead, if Iran developed one eventually. Iran’s defense ministry described the facility as a munitions factory.

Iran’s missile arsenal is the largest in the Middle East and the most diverse.

Gen. Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., who retired recently as the head of U.S. Central Command, where he oversaw military planning for dealing with Iran, described the country’s advances in missile technology to the Senate Armed Services Committee last year.

“They have over 3,000 ballistic missiles of various types, some of which can reach Tel Aviv,” he said at the time. “Over the last five to seven years, they have invested heavily in the ballistic missile program. Their missiles have significantly greater range and significantly enhanced accuracy.”

Ballistic missiles have long been considered a possible delivery system that could be used for a potential nuclear weapon, according to Mark Fitzpatrick, a former state department nonproliferation official now at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Iranian scientists have not yet demonstrated that they have mastered the difficult task of launching a ballistic missile that could successfully carry and trigger a nuclear weapon to its target, should Iran develop such a weapon in the future. But Iran has at least nine ballistic missiles that might be capable of such a feat, Mr. Fitzpatrick said.

Iran has long insisted its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. U.S. intelligence assessments suggest that the country has the capacity to produce nuclear weapons at some point in the future, but has not yet mastered all of the necessary technologies. Those assessments concluded that Iran has halted its nuclear weapons program.

A photo released by the Iranian Army Office shows a missile being launched during a military drill in Makran beach, near the Strait of Hormuz, in December.Credit…Iranian Army

Why are Iran’s foes worried about missiles?

Stopping Iran from attaining nuclear weapons is among Israel’s highest foreign policy priorities.

“Israel sees both sides of the nuclear weapon agenda — production of nuclear weapons, and also delivery means — as a threat,” said Ali Vaez, the Iran director for the International Crisis Group.

Israeli leaders are also concerned with Iran’s interference in and around their borders. In recent years, Iran has supplied a cocktail of precision-guided missiles, drones and military equipment to proxies in Lebanon and Syria hostile to Israel.

The weekend strike was seen as part of a broader Israeli strategy of expanding targets to hamper Iran’s military ability to arm proxy militias.

A photo released by the Ukrainian military shows the wreckage of what it describes as an Iranian Shahed drone downed near Kupiansk, Ukraine.Credit…Ukrainian Military

Could Iran’s Missiles Aid Russia’s War on Ukraine?

Weeks ago, American officials publicly identified Iran as the primary supplier of drones to Russia for use in the war in Ukraine, and they said they believed Russia was also trying to obtain Iranian missiles to use in the conflict. But the strike on Isfahan was prompted by Israel’s own security concerns, they said.

Moscow appears to be deepening its ties with Iran in what the Biden administration has called a “full-a fledged defense partnership.

“There is very little appetite to deal with Iran right now,” Mr. Vaez said. “But the reality is that there is a ticking bomb, which is the nuclear program, which is not going away.”

This photo released by the Atomic Energy Organization showing a nuclear reactor in Arak, Iran.Credit…Atomic Energy Organization of Iran

What is the status of Iran’s nuclear program?

Iran’s nuclear program is more advanced than ever, according to experts. Since 2019, Tehran has made so much progress that the estimated time it would take to produce enough weapons-grade uranium for a bomb has shrunk from a year to less than a week, according to experts.

Rafael Grossi, the head of the U.N. nuclear watchdog, said late last month that Iran now had accumulated enough highly enriched uranium to build several nuclear weapons, if it chooses to do so.

“Iran has never been closer to the verge of nuclear weapons,” said Mr. Vaez, adding that the country has “enough enriched material for an arsenal” of warheads. “It would only take as few as four days to enrich enough material for its first warhead — by the first month it could potentially have two or three,” he said.

Even with a sufficient amount of highly enriched uranium, Iran is not yet believed to be capable of making it into a functioning nuclear warhead. American and Israeli intelligence officials say that fashioning the fuel into a working weapon that could fit atop a missile would take two years.

But some experts, like David Albright, who heads the Institute for Science and International Security, a private group in Washington that tracks the spread of nuclear arms, have estimated that Iran might be able to produce a working nuclear weapon in as little as six months.

This photo released by the Iranian president’s office shows new generation Iranian centrifuges in 2021.Credit…Iranian Presidency

Is the Iran nuclear deal dead?

The 2015 deal that sought to rein in Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for an easing of economic sanctions is no longer in force. Israel long opposed the deal and Former President Donald J. Trump abandoned it in 2018, calling it the “the worst deal ever negotiated.”

After complying for several years, Iran restarted enriching uranium beyond the negotiated limits in 2019. Uranium enriched to low levels can be used to produce energy while highly enriched uranium can be used to make a nuclear weapon.

The old nuclear deal placed no restrictions on Iran’s missile programs, one of the many reasons that Israel forcefully opposed it.

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