Iran’s ICBM programme revisited

ICBM

It’s now well established that Iran’s military has a covert long-range ballistic missile development programme with the aim of producing an ICBM. You can read about that here, here and here

We know that until at least very recently, the programme was run by a secretive arm of the IRGC called the Self-Sufficiency Jihad Organisation, or SSJO (سازمان جهاد خودکفایی سپاه). It was managed by a well-respected and devout IRGC general, Hassan Tehrani Moghadam (شهید حسن تهرانی مقدم), before Moghadam’s untimely death. And as a mark of the strategic importance of this project, it answered directly to the Supreme Leader.

We also know that this project suffered a major setback in November 2011 when most of its key infrastructure - and many of its key engineers, including Moghadam - were killed in a massive explosion at the IRGC’s Malard (ملارد، ایران) missile research facility.

That explosion wasn’t the end of Iran’s ICBM aspirations: it’s since become clear that long-range missile work continues, including at a location in the desert near the city of Shahrud (شاهرود).

But there are still many unanswered questions about this covert programme and the men running it.

Namely:

  1. How is the SSJO’s work on ICBMs linked to the nuclear weapon-related research conducted by SPND (سپند)?

  2. What sort of foreign assistance has the SSJO obtained from abroad?

  3. Who’s in charge now that Moghadam is gone?

I’d been pondering these questions for some time before stumbling across this amazing repository of photos from Moghadam’s life.

And I think that when you look at these photos - in conjunction with a couple of other resources - you can answer those three questions pretty well.

Here’s how.

The nuclear/ICBM nexus

There’s a very good chance that Iran’s Supreme Leader hasn’t yet given the green light to actually produce a nuclear warhead, particularly when any ICBM platform built by the SSJO is unlikely to be ready for at least another few years. Why would Khamenei authorise the work that would really get Iran in trouble, were it to be revealed to the world, when there’s so much dual-use work on delivery systems that Iran can do and explain away as for satellite development?

Still, that’s not to say that there aren’t people - including Khamenei himself - who very much would like their ICBM platform to reach operating capability, so they can finally re-start work on a genuine nuclear deterrent against the Great Satan.

There are very few others beyond the Supreme Leader who are briefed into this strategic plan. I think that Hasan Tehrani Moghadam was one. And I think that this man is another:

VD/Mogh

That picture shows Moghadam together with Ahmad Vahid-Dastjerdi (احمد وحید دستجردی), with the strong nose and distinctive skunk-stripe in his hair. It’s remarkable - and highly revealing - to see these two men together in the same place, particularly when you know Vahid-Dastjerdi’s background.

In his various senior MODAFL roles over the past 20 years and more recently as the oil ministry’s Pension Fund czarVahid-Dastjerdi has consistently been the top patron of Iran’s clandestine military programme. In the AMAD (آماد) days, VD sat in the MODAFL chain of command between Defence Minister Shamkhani (امیر دریابان علی شمخانی) and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh-Mahabadi (محسن فخرزاده مهابادی), the manager who took day-to-day responsibility of AMAD’s nuclear weapon R&D.

Vahid-Dastjerdi is one of few Iranian officials who are trusted enough to have first-hand understanding of Khamenei’s strategic goal: to ultimately bring the long-range missile project together with the AEOI’s stock of fissile material, and the nuclear weapon expertise developed by Fakhrizadeh in SPND (سازمان پژوهش و نو آوری دفاعی).

I’ve never seen VD and Moghadam together before. The fact they they are both in that photo - and seemingly at a missile test site, to boot - is good evidence that there was indeed a nexus between Moghadam’s ICBM work, and the weapons research that was overseen by Vahid-Dastjerdi and is now being conducted by SPND.

The DPRK connection

There’s an awful lot of crying wolf and not a lot of actual evidence on the question of nuclear collaboration between Iran and North Korea. In the ballistic missile domain, on the other hand, the evidence is compelling that Iran and the DPRK are very close partners indeed.

What I’ve never realised is that there just might be a direct DPRK hand in Iran’s ICBM programme. Check out this photo from the Moghadam photo archive

Mogh DPRK photo 1

Amazingly, that’s Hassan Tehrani Moghadam together with two North Korean officials. (I have never, ever seen a picture of an Iranian military official together with a DPRK counterpart before - the relationship relies on secrecy.) And while the photos are undated, by Moghadam’s hair and countenance, they appear to have been taken sometime within the last decade. And probably in Iran, judging by the number of IRGC soldiers lazing about in the background (and the platter of Persian delicacies up front).

So does that mean there is a North Korean hand in the SSJO’s covert ICBM work? I’d say that it’s at least even odds that the answer is yes.

And if you’re unconvinced that Moghadam was one of Iran’s primary liaisons into the DPRK, just take this photo from the Mashregh News site:

Mogh DPRK 2

As the Mashregh caption states, that’s a young Moghadam in North Korea on an IRGC Missile Command visit. It’s probably taken some time in the 1990s, judging by the photo stock, clothing and haircuts. Clearly a relationship that goes way back, then.)

The New Moghadam

As important as he once was, Hasan Tehrani Moghadam has been out of the picture since November 2011, when the Malard facility disappeared in a massive concussion blast. But, as we’ve previously seen, the long-range ballistic missile programme he led lives on.

So who’s taken over as its manager?

I think the most likely candidate to have replaced Moghadam as head of the IRGC SSJO’s ICBM work is an IRGC General named Seyyed Majid Musavi (سردار سید مجید موسوی). Here’s why:

a) Iranian news sources have reported that prior to Moghadam’s death, Musavi was his ‘deputy’ and second-in-command in the SSJO. As any seasoned bureaucrat or soldier would recognise, that makes Musavi a prime candidate to have taken his old boss’s job when Moghadam passed away.

b) Multiple official Iranian government sources - have stated that Musavi has taken over from Moghadam as head of the SSJO. Some sources are even more straightforward, simply describing Musavi as Moghadam’s successor

c) Musavi is apparently now the go-to IRGC official when a glowing testimonial about Shahid Moghadam is required, which is perhaps a PR move designed to bolster Musavi’s credentials as Moghadam’s successor. Take this speech of Musavi’s, given at the two-year anniversary of the Malard disaster.

Expect to see more of General Musavi (سردار مجید موسوی) in future...

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