Is Iran hiding an ICBM test site in plain sight?

The Jerusalem Post communicated directly with members of the team and learned there is strong evidence that tests are now being carried out at the site near Shahrud in northeast Iran.

By
May 24, 2018 20:13
4 minute read.
Iran missiles

Iran displays its arsenal of missiles. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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Iran might have been hiding an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile testing site in plain view, until a group of California-based experts figured it out while watching public Iranian TV and obtained new photos of the area.

The team from the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey announced their findings late Wednesday in The New York Times. ICBMs could threaten Europe and the US and their findings could have a major impact on the ongoing Iran nuclear issue debate.

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The Jerusalem Post communicated directly with members of the team and learned there is strong evidence that tests are now being carried out at the site near Shahrud in northeast Iran which could lead to Iran developing the ability to fire nuclear ICBMs globally. Previously, it was thought the site was either defunct or being used to test medium-range missiles.

Researchers, led by nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis, told the Post by email that it was clear “Iran was striving for a large space launcher like India’s PSLV [Polar Satellite Launch Vehicle] and the test stands are for very large engines, consistent with a rocket that could deliver a nuclear-weapons sized payload to ICBM ranges.”

This was, Lewis noted, “the same path India took [to developing a nuclear ICBM capability]: Develop a large space launch vehicle, then transition to technologies to a smaller ICBM.” 

Like many other technologies Iran has experimented with, this space launch testing has a dual use, one of them being a nuclear ICBM.

Unlike other dual-use technologies, no one knew the Shahrud site was being used for testing that could help Iran move much faster toward nuclear ICBM capability – until Tuesday.



The group started to have suspicions after a young research fellow named Fabian Hinz presented them with old video footage related to IRGC commander Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam.

Maj.-Gen. Moghaddam died in an explosion in 2011 at another military base which he helped build, not the Shahrud site. The new disclosure likely means that shortly before his death, Moghaddam was behind a plan to carry out testing at what is now the fully operational Shahrud site, which could also be used for ICBM development.

They continued to dig and found at least three central pieces of evidence cited by Lewis and the other researchers to the Post. They made their case that Iran has not been using the Shahrud site for medium-range missile testing, but instead has been secretly developing its nuclear ICBM capability – in plain sight.

The first point is: The program was run by Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officials and others, “who wanted to build an ICBM, but were forced by the supreme leader to transition to a space launch program because of the 2000-km. range limit.”

THE SECOND point is: “The rocket as described by the Iranians” in evidence and television-footage gathered by the researchers “was large, with dimensions that are similar to India’s PSLV.”

The third point is: “The test stands and casting/curing pits are sized for large engines with thrusts of up to 100 tons,” larger than would be seen for medium-range missiles.

Using radar and imagery technologies to visualize the site, the researchers were able to see ground scars burned into the terrain, which strongly indicate that missile engines of a size which could be adapted for ICBM use might have been test-fired as recently as June 2017.

Lewis has expressed concern that the Trump administration’s pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and his pressure campaign could push Iran into using this facility to develop ICBMs faster than was previously thought possible.

He said there are indications the program was slowed for political considerations, such as trying to stay on good terms with the West. However, “We could see a flight test of a much larger missile at any time,” he said, and an accelerated Iranian focus on the testing if Iran feels the West has turned on it. Lewis added that even on an accelerated basis, it might take a few years for a test to be conducted using a large engine.

A number of other experts who are critical of Trump’s pulling out of the Iran deal echoed similar sentiments to Lewis.

INSS arms-control expert Emily Landau on Thursday told the Post she agreed the discovery was important, but vehemently disagreed with the California experts’ characterization of what the discovery should mean for the Iran nuclear-issues debate.

Landau, who was a consistent critic of the Iran deal, said the discovery “is disturbing, but it should have disturbed those negotiating the Iran nuclear deal and led them to insist on including missiles, rather than conceding to Iran’s demands. But now, the way to deal with this is to crack down on Iran’s missile work.

“The answer is not to make political statements about how all this would be avoided if Trump didn’t threaten the JCPOA. That’s the odd message from The New York Times article that underscores that this is politically motivated to continue appeasing Iran, rather than taking the necessary harsh steps against it,” Landau said.

“An additional disturbing aspect of it is the implicit message that the only really dangerous missile activity is that related to ICBMs. When Iran has missiles that cover the Middle East and can carry nuclear warheads – shouldn’t this be dangerous enough?” she added.

“Some experts…have been saying that if Iran were to curb ICBM work, that would somehow be a huge step and somehow sufficient. I think that Iran is motivated to develop nuclear weapons, so any activity related to work on the fissile material, explosive warhead and delivery system must be stopped.”

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