The huge explosion that destroyed a major missile-testing site near Tehran three weeks ago was a major setback for Iran’s most advanced long-range missile program, according to American and Israeli intelligence officials and missile technology experts.A possible connection?
In interviews, current and former officials said surveillance photos showed that the Iranian base was a central testing center for advanced solid-fuel missiles, an assessment backed by outside experts who have examined satellite photos showing that the base was almost completely leveled in the blast. Such missiles can be launched almost instantly, making them useful to Iran as a potential deterrent against pre-emptive attacks by Israel or the United States, and they are also better suited than older liquid-fuel designs for carrying warheads long distances.
It is still unclear what caused the explosion, with American officials saying they believe it was probably an accident, perhaps because of Iran’s inexperience with a volatile, dangerous technology. Iran declared it an accident, but subsequent discussions of the episode in the Iranian news media have referred to the chief of Iran’s missile program as one of the “martyrs” killed in the huge explosion. Some Iranian officials have talked of sabotage, but it is unclear whether that is based on evidence or surmise after several years in which Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated on Tehran’s streets, and a highly sophisticated computer worm has attacked its main uranium production facility.
Both American and Israeli officials, in discussing the explosion in recent days, showed little curiosity about its cause. “Anything that buys us time and delays the day when the Iranians might be able to mount a nuclear weapon on an accurate missile is a small victory,” one Western intelligence official who has been deeply involved in countering the Iranian nuclear program said this weekend. “At this point, we’ll take whatever we can get, however it happens.”
In addition to providing a potential deterrent to attackers, Iran’s advances in solid-fuel missile technology, and the concern it could eventually have intercontinental reach, have been at the heart of the Obama administration’s insistence on the need for new missile-defense programs.
As concerns about Iran’s intentions have deepened in the West, intense surveillance efforts have been turned on suspected Iranian weapons sites. Iran has frequently accused the United States and Israel of spying and sabotage programs, and on Sunday made another such claim, saying it had shot down an advanced American RQ-170 drone in eastern Iran.
One of the many theories swirling around the explosion at the missile base is that it could have been hit by a weapon, including one fired from a drone, setting off the huge explosion that followed. But since no outsiders can approach the base or gather evidence, it is unclear whether it will ever be known publicly what triggered the explosion.I had always thought our drones were kinda like Imperial probe droids from Star Wars. I guess not; those probe droids had self-destruct mechanisms.
Even if the cause was an accident — and the United States has suffered some with its own solid-fuel motors — several officials said that it was a major setback for Iran’s effort to focus much of its industrial prowess on that kind of missile.
Missiles powered by solid fuels rather than liquids have no need for trucks to fill them with volatile fluids, and can be fired on short notice, making them hard for other nations to destroy before they are launched. That would add to Iran’s ability to protect its nuclear sites from an Israeli strike — a subject of renewed debate in Israel in recent weeks — because Iran could threaten to retaliate before many of its missiles were struck. Solid-fuel missiles are also easier to hide. For those reasons, modern militaries rely on solid fuels for their deadliest missiles.
Moreover, at a time Iran is being squeezed by sanctions, the country has succeeded in making the solid-fuel engines with indigenous technology. For liquid-fueled engines, many key components come from abroad.
I'd like to think we had a hand in destroying that complex. We'll wait and see what, if anything, emerges from this incident.