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Interview: How Dangerous Are Iran's Missiles?

A Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile in a 2006 test
A Shahab-3 long-range ballistic missile in a 2006 test
Following Iran's announcement that it test-fired nine long-range and medium-range missiles, RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten spoke to Doug Richardson, editor of "Jane's Missiles and Rockets" magazine, about Iran's arsenal and its capabilities.

RFE/RL: One of the missiles Iran says it test-fired was a Shahab-3, with a range of 2,000 kilometers. Is this a new weapon or an improved version of an existing missile in the Iranian arsenal?

Doug Richardson: The Shahab-3 exists -- to the best of our knowledge -- in three versions. The basic missile had a range of about 1,300 kilometers; then they did a longer range version, which we call the Shahab-3A. And that has a range of about 1,500 to 1,800 kilometers. And we have also had reports of a Shahab-3B. There's not much hard information about it. But we understand the range of that to be 2,000 to 2,500 kilometers. So it sounds as if the recent test was a Shahab-3B.

How much damage could a Shahab-3 missile, carrying a maximum one-ton conventional payload, inflict?

Richardson: It would obviously cause a certain amount of severe damage around the point where the warhead lands. But the problem is that the accuracy is not high. Missile engineers use an expression: CEP -- Circular Error Probable. And what that means is that it's the size of a circle, which you could imagine on the terrain, and if you fire 100 missiles at the center of that circle, half will land in the circle and half will land out of it.

RFE/RL: And what is the CEP for the Shahab missile?

Richardson: CEP is the standard unit of missile accuracy and in the case of the Shahab, we think it's about 2,500 meters. That's 2.5 kilometers. So this is basically a weapon you would aim at a city rather than a specific point target. It just hasn't got the accuracy, as far as we know, to do point targets.

RFE/RL: So despite threats from Tehran that in case of a conflict, they would target the U.S. fleet in the Gulf, you’re saying they couldn’t aim the missile at ships?

Richardson: A missile like that, you're not going to use it against a moving target like a fleet. If the fleet had a base, a dockyard within missile range, you could certainly fire at that. But in terms of Tel Aviv, I think you best you could say is that you might hope to hit central Tel Aviv. It would not be practical to say: 'We're going to hit the Israeli Ministry of Defense in Tel Aviv.' They don't have that kind of accuracy.

RFE/RL: According to the latest U.S. intelligence estimates, Iran stopped working on its nuclear warhead program several years ago. What could they put in the warhead of the Shahab?

Richardson: You can use conventional high explosives, which would put it -- very ballpark -- in the performance of the German V-2 rockets that were fired at London during [World War II]. And so if you wanted an idea of destructive power, the historical record of the V-2 attacks on London would give you a good idea.

RFE/RL: Nazi Germany manufactured, and fired, some 3,000 V-2 rockets during World War II. How many Shahab missiles do the Iranians have?

Richardson: By early 2006, we thought there were something between 30 and 50 of these missiles, Shahab-3 missiles, in service -- a mixture of different versions, obviously.

RFE/RL: How does Iran’s arsenal compare to those of its neighbors?

They're probably the trend-setters for the area. The only other nation in the area which has weapons of similar power is Pakistan. Because originally the Shahab project started sometime, we think, around 1993 when Iran went into an agreement with North Korea -- and this is an agreement that Pakistan probably subsequently joined -- to take the SCUD missile, which everyone knows, and to scale it up, to use the same technology but make it bigger, to get a longer range. So for weapons of this performance class [in Asia], you're looking at Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan.

RFE/RL: What do we know about Iran’s future missile plans?

They were working on a bigger missile called the Shahab-4 and at one time they were insisting it wasn't a missile but a satellite launch vehicle. Then they announced it had been canceled. But all we got out of there were shadowy rumors about what it allegedly was going to be. We really don't have any hard information.