Iran’s ultimate deterrent

Can I hit you with a bombshell?

Actually, it’s better described as a warhead. A warhead that goes a really, really long way. Here’s what I’m talking about:

Iran has an ongoing program to build a long-range missile that will eventually enable it to deliver nuclear weapons (if it makes them) to the continental United States.

This program is a secret, albeit a very badly kept one. It’s being run by an organisation called the IRGC Self‑Sufficiency Jihad Organisation, outside the normal channels of Iran’s military-industrial complex. It reports directly to Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei.

Many Iranian government officials probably don’t know that this program exists. Most believe – not entirely wrongly – that any work being done in Iran along these lines is for the purpose of launching satellites into space.

So how do we know this? As usual, there are fragments of evidence in a lot of fairly obvious places – they just need to be brought together.

Explosive revelations

The best place to start is in November of last year. Remember the explosion near Malard (ملارد) in Iran – the blast that was so large that it could be heard in central Tehran, despite being more than 20 miles away? As the Iranian media was quick to report , that explosion destroyed an IRGC base and killed several IRGC personnel, including a senior general named Hassan Tehrani Moghadam (حسن تهرانی مقدم).

alt_Moghadam

That’s Moghadam there.

The destroyed base, we now know thanks to Iranian news reporting, was a military research and development facility. Indeed, we know more than that. Imagery analysis conducted after the explosion confirmed that this was a production site for making solid‑propellant ballistic missile fuel, just without the berms and other normal safety features that prevent minor industrial accidents at these sorts of places turning into spectacular fireballs.

Iran already has a nice stockpile of short-range solid-propellant ballistic missiles. That a group of IRGC officers might be making more of these would not be particularly interesting.

But Moghadam was up to something much, much bigger – and it’s something that has kind of been lost in all the misplaced hype about whether or not Mossad was responsible for the explosion at Malard.

Let me spell it out for you: Moghadam was building an inter-continental ballistic missile, capable of putting munitions – and, eventually, nuclear weapons – onto the continental United States.

How do we know? Because the Iranians themselves told us so – if you were looking in the right places.

Here was Moghadam’s brother:

I can only say in one sentence that [Hassan Tehrani’s] project was undergoing final tests. The project concerned intercontinental ballistic missiles and was in its final stages. The process was completely high-tech and secret.

Say what? That Moghadam might have been working on an ICBM would be a massive deal, given that no pundit or Western intelligence agency had ever, so far as I’m aware, presented credible evidence that Iran might even be thinking about building long-range missiles. This was big news. And other statements from Iranian officials put paid to any notion that Moghadam’s brother might be overstating the nature of the Malard project. Like this hint from the chairman of Iran’s joint chiefs of staff, General Hassan Firuzabadi (سردار حسن فيروزآبادی‎):

[Moghadam was working on an] ‘experimental product’ [that could be] ‘a strong fist in the face of the USA’.

A ‘fist in the face of the USA’? Not exactly hard to decipher! I’d call that fairly compelling evidence that Moghadam was working on an ICBM.

The Supreme Leader’s Secret of Secrets

There’s even more to the story, of course. Equally as interesting as what Moghadam was building is who he was working for.

According to various Iranian media reports, Moghadam was the long-time head of an obscure IRGC offshoot called the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organisation, or SSJO (جهاد خودکفایی). It was the SSJO, we’re told even by official Iranian news media reports, who was running the show at Malard.

You mightn’t have heard of this organisation before. I certainly hadn’t, before the explosion. Poke around online a bit and you’ll see that these self‑sufficiency jihad organisations exist all over the place in Iran, and are designed to make domestically what Iran can’t buy from abroad due to sanctions. Lots of Iranian organisations have them, including the Army , Navy and even oil industry.

So what? Well, what matters here is that the IRGC SSJO is most definitely not part of Iran’s traditional ballistic missile production line. Iran’s ordinary missile‑makers are part of the Ministry of Defence and Armed Forces Logistics (MODAFL), rather than the IRGC, and are divided between the Shahid Bagheri Industries Group (گروه صنعتی شهید باقری) (SBIG) and the Shahid Hemmat Industries Group (گروه صنعتی شهید) (SHIG), manufacturers of solid‑ and liquid‑propellant missiles respectively. This means that Moghadam’s ICBM project was being done outside the normal chain of production, from which we might extrapolate that it was particularly sensitive.

Just how sensitive? Well, thanks to Moghadam’s brother and his loose lips we know that Moghadam was working directly to Ayatollah Khamenei:

[Hassan Tehrani’s] organization was under the direct supervision and guidance of the Supreme Leader, and Ayatollah Khamenei had visited his complex several times.

alt_Khamenei

I don't get out much

No, Khamenei doesn’t get out much. And when he pays repeated personal visits to a secret missile production facility, you know that there’s something pretty special going on within.

I’d say that this was the Supreme Leader’s pet project: one that only he and a few other select military and IRGC officials knew about. One that would eventually be married up with nuclear weapons to form the ultimate deterrent against the Great Satan.

The space ruse

So why aren’t people more worried about the fact that Iran has happily been working away building an ICBM? Well, the dilemma of dual‑use technology doesn’t help. In much the same way that Iran can get away with enriching lots of uranium while saying it’s for nuclear power production, Iran can build ridiculously big missiles and say that they’re intended for satellites and manned space flight. And that’s precisely what they’ve started doing. You might have noticed lately that Iran’s been hurling worms, turtles and angry monkeys into the stratosphere on top of platforms that look like embiggened versions of Iran’s liquid-propellant ballistic missiles.

That means that when journalists stumble across mysterious new ballistic missile test sites in the Iranian desert, Tehran can happily explain them away as being for space launch vehicles rather than for ICBMs. Like this place!

alt_facility

That nice big thing in the desert is a newly-built rocket motor test stand near Shahrud (شاهرود), discovered by Jane’s in August. (You can look the site up on Google Earth at 26.2010N, 53.3389 E.) It’s designed for testing very large rocket motors – the kind that you would strap on the bottom of an ICBM. Erm, I mean a space launch vehicle! Yep, a space launch vehicle, definitely not an ICBM. No ICBMs to see there, none whatsoever.

But…

If the resolution on your screen is good enough – and if you squint really hard – you can probably see General Moghadam’s replacement and his IRGC SSJO cronies milling about that concrete platform thinking about how awesome their ICBM is going to be. And how they’re so easily going to get away with it.

alt_spacemonkeys

Iran's space monkey program had some unintended consequences.

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