While the world community has been focused on Iran's nuclear ambitions, Tehran has also been developing and deploying ballistic missiles that some believe could further destabilize the region and prompt an arms race.
What began as a Cold War missile race between the United States and the Soviet Union spilled over into the third world during the latter part of the 20th century. In the Middle East, Soviet-supplied Scud missiles were deployed by Egypt, Syria and Iraq. They also became part of Iran's arsenal. In response, Israel developed its own medium-range missiles. The region became a series of circles on maps delineating where missiles could strike, adding a new level of tension to troubled lands. That missile race continues today in Iran.
Lessons Learned in War
As Ivan Oelrich at the Federation of American Scientists in Washington explains, Tehran's drive to be a missile power began in the 1980s. "This all goes back to the Iran-Iraq War, and the so-called 'Battle of the Cities' in which both Iran and Iraq were throwing Scud missiles at each others' capital cities. This made a very deep impression on the Iranians - that there is nothing they could really do to defend against these things except try to retaliate. They recognized the importance of having some kind of missile capability," he says.
Early models of the Scud missile had a range of just under 200 kilometers. Then, as Andrew Koch with Janes Defence Weekly says, Iran sought longer-range missiles.
"The original reason for Iran wanting to use longer-range missiles was Iraq," he says. "Then Iran became increasingly concerned about being bullied by the United States or other powers coming in. They see long-range missiles with conventional warheads or chemical warheads as an ability to keep those countries out of their area. And then, of course, I believe eventually they would like to have a nuclear deterrent."
Response to Other Nations' Weapons
The United States and other western nations viewed the range of the Shahab 3 with great concern because it gave Iran the ability to target Israel with a missile carrying a payload of up to one metric ton, enough for a basic nuclear warhead. But since the early 1980s, long before the Iranian Shahab 3 was deployed, Israel had at least western Iran within the 1,500 kilometer range of its own nuclear-capable missile, the Jericho II.
Both the Shahab 3 and the Jericho II are carried on mobile launchers parked in underground shelters rather than in fixed silos. The mobile launchers allow the missiles to be easily moved, making it more difficult for adversaries to target them. This tactic was used with some success by Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
Iran and Israel continue to improve their missiles for greater range and warhead capacities. Unlike Israel, Iran has not launched any satellites into orbit, but William Hoar, Editor-in-Chief of a Washington-based information service called Military Periscope, says both countries are using space program technology and descriptive terms for missiles that analysts say clearly have military applications.
"The Israelis have what they call a 'space launch vehicle' and that's what the Iranians have decided to call theirs, which is the Shahab 4," he says, adding " At one point, the Iranians said it was, in fact, a more capable ballistic missile. But then they backtracked on that and they've decided to now characterize that as a 'space launch vehicle.'"
Missile Race Among Regional Powers
Many analysts say the Israeli Jericho III missile, which is still being developed, is expected to have a range of 2,500 kilometers, which would put Iran well within its reach. The Iranian Shahab 4 is believed to have a range of at least 2,000 kilometers, enabling it to hit targets well outside the Middle East. Iran is believed to be working on an even longer-range missile called the Shahab 5, with the ability to strike targets perhaps 4,000 thousand kilometers away.
Analyst Daniel Goure at the Lexington Institute in Washington notes why such missiles are designed. "The only reason to have long-range ballistic missiles is to put 'special payloads' on them. Just high explosives alone do almost nothing in terms of the effect. It's not even a very good terror weapon. The thing that worries us most is the connection between these longer-range ballistic missile programs, the Shahab 4s and 5s, and the alleged Iranian nuclear program because there's no better fit in the world than a long-range ballistic missile and a nuclear weapon."
Western intelligence estimates say Iran is still years away from having a working nuclear weapon, however. Analysts say making one small enough to fit on a missile is a separate challenge for Tehran.
Most analysts say Iran does not see Israel as its only potential adversary. Ivan Oelrich at the Federation of American Scientists says Iran is in a very volatile region, and because of that wants to use missiles as part of a strategy of deterrence against any aggressor. "Many countries," he says "develop weapons without clearly defined potential adversaries just because you don't know what the future will hold. Iran shares a border with Pakistan and they don't have perfectly good relations, and they might be looking at Pakistan. They might be looking at Saudi Arabia. They might be looking at a lot of different countries."
Most Iran-watchers say their concerns over Tehran's missile program and its nuclear ambitions have grown with the recent election of conservative hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president. Mr. Ahmadinejad has made it clear that Iran will continue on its present strategic path, one that could put his country on a collision course with the interests of other nations. If that collision takes place, many analysts say, missiles could be involved.
This report was broadcast on VOA News Now's "Focus" program. For other Focus reports, click here