On July 9, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard conducted its Great Prophet III military exercises, consisting of war games and a series of missile test launches. The next day, numerous Western newspapers featured a dramatic photograph of 4 rockets being salvo-fired. The test was provocative enough to provoke a reaction from numerous governments as well as both U.S. presidential candidates. It was not long, however, before it was discovered that the image had been digitally altered to conceal the failed launch of a fourth missile, which remained on its transporter-erector-launcher (TEL) as the other 3 took flight. Thus, the narrative shifted from Iran’s provocative and dramatic missile test to Iran’s laughable incompetence. Several commentators argued that this episode undermined the perceived nuclear threat from Iran. A closer examination of the exercises reveals a more complicated truth.
The weapons in the altered photograph – including the missile that failed – were little more than Zelzal-series artillery rockets. The Zelzal is based on the Soviet FROG-7 design, and is capable of delivering a 600 kg conventional or chemical payload to a range of about 200 km. Iran is thought to have a sizable inventory of these vintage weapons, and they are ill-suited for delivering a nuclear warhead.
What escaped wide notice, however, was that two liquid-fuelled missiles were simultaneously fired from TELs located several hundred meters away from the 3 Zelzals in the photograph. One of these was a Shahab-3. The Shahab-3 is widely considered to be the primary delivery system for a nuclear weapon, should Iran succeed in acquiring one. Performance estimates of the weapon vary widely, but the range is known to be well in excess of 1,000 km, enabling Iran to threaten much of the Middle East, including Israel. The accuracy of the missile – with a maximum circular error probable estimated at 3,000m – is suitable only for a nuclear payload. Various modification programs are currently underway to improve the missile’s performance, including an increased range and a modified re-entry vehicle to improve accuracy and better accommodate a nuclear device. The Shahab-3 tested on July 9 was an older, unmodified version. Nevertheless, Iran is believed to have blueprints for nuclear warheads capable of fitting even this older Shahab design.
The other liquid-fuelled missile that was launched was a Scud-C, often referred to by the Iranians as a “Shahab-2.” It has a payload capacity of 750-989 kg and a range of 500-700 kilometers. The Scud-C is less often mentioned as a nuclear delivery platform; nevertheless, its payload capacity and range make it nuclear-capable, and its slightly improved accuracy over the Shahab-3 makes it a viable option for targets in the Gulf region.
The Shahab-3 and the Scud-C were launched simultaneously with five solid-fuelled artillery rockets, including the Zelzals in the doctored photograph. With the exception of the failed Zelzal, all the weapons apparently performed as intended.
It is certainly easy to ridicule the test as a clumsy publicity stunt on the part of Iran; after attempting to impress the world with their military prowess, they succeeded only in embarrassing themselves with their sloppy photo-alternation skills. In reality, the entire episode succeeded in demonstrating Iran’s capabilities to foreign governments, while simultaneously downplaying those capabilities to foreign publics. This is such an optimal outcome for the Iranian regime that one could be excused for concluding that it was the intended objective all along, and the image was altered deliberately for this purpose. In which case, Tehran’s statecraft must be commended.
It is important not to exaggerate the threat from Iran. However, it is just as important to acknowledge what threat that does exist. On July 9, Iran may have failed to launch a single vintage artillery rocket, but it succeeded in testing two viable nuclear delivery systems.