March 11, 2015 | Policy Brief

Iran Fires Cruise Missile Through Sanctions Loophole

March 11, 2015 | Policy Brief

Iran Fires Cruise Missile Through Sanctions Loophole

Iranian defense officials over the weekend announced the successful test-firing of the Soumar, a new and indigenously produced land-attack cruise missile. The unveiling ceremony of this missile, capable of carrying both conventional and nuclear warheads, was intended to be a strong statement by Tehran as negotiations over the Iranian nuclear program come to a head.

Despite the grandstanding, the missile closely resembles the Soviet-built Kh-55, which was reportedly provided to Iran by Ukraine in 2001. While it is unclear whether the Iranians have ever test-fired any of the six missiles Ukraine provided, the projectiles almost certainly were dissembled and reverse-engineered to develop the Soumar. Such activities are a tradition for Iran’s arms industry, given long-standing international arms embargos against the country. 

Should the Soumar have capabilities similar to the subsonic Kh-55, it could traverse a distance of up to 1,550 miles, reaching as far as Vienna. However, one major difference between the Soumar and Kh-55 is that the former is surface-launched, requiring a tail-mounted booster as opposed to being delivered by heavy bombers, which Iran currently lacks.

Iran’s minister of defense boasted of the new missile’s accuracy at the unveiling ceremony, but the country lacks systems needed for precise long-range guidance, which probably means that the Soumar is incapable of conventional precision-guided strikes. Instead, the Soumar appears to be an ideal terror weapon, capable of indiscriminately striking countervalue targets (those of a civilian rather than military nature) while carrying an unconventional payload.

The Soumar’s launch came only days before another U.S.-Iran bilateral meeting in Switzerland, and mere weeks before the deadline for a political agreement between Iran and the P5+1 team of international nuclear negotiators.  Persian-language sources report that the missile was produced by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), an entity that was targeted by the United States in 2005 by Executive Order 13382 for its support of “proliferation-related activities.”

To date, nuclear negotiations with Iran do not take its ballistic missiles into account, despite the explicit reference to such weapons in United Nations Security Council Resolution 1929 and U.S. law. The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Aerospace-Force recently asserted that his country’s “defense capabilities, specifically its ballistic missiles, are non-negotiable.”

International negotiators appear content to allow for Iran’s ballistic-missile activity in favor of inking a comprehensive nuclear accord. But if a deal is intended to reduce the strategic threats posed by Iran, the Soumar is an indication of the challenges that await. 

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Patrick Megahan is Research Associate focusing on military affairs.


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