Posted by Curt on 23 May, 2018 at 9:25 am. 21 comments already!


When an explosion nearly razed Iran’s long-range missile research facility in 2011 — and killed the military scientist who ran it — many Western intelligence analysts viewed it as devastating to Tehran’s technological ambitions.

Since then, there has been little indication of Iranian work on a missile that could reach significantly beyond the Middle East, and Iranian leaders have said they do not intend to build one.

So, this spring, when a team of California-based weapons researchers reviewed new Iranian state TV programs glorifying the military scientist, they expected a history lesson with, at most, new details on a long-dormant program.

Instead, they stumbled on a series of clues that led them to a startling conclusion: Shortly before his death, the scientist, Gen. Hassan Tehrani Moghaddam, oversaw the development of a secret, second facility in the remote Iranian desert that, they say, is operating to this day.

For weeks, the researchers picked through satellite photos of the facility. They found, they say, that work on the site now appears to focus on advanced rocket engines and rocket fuel, and is often conducted under cover of night.

It is possible that the facility is developing only medium-range missiles, which Iran already possesses, or perhaps an unusually sophisticated space program.

But an analysis of structures and ground markings at the facility strongly suggests, though does not prove, that it is developing the technology for long-range missiles, the researchers say.

Such a program would not violate the international deal intended to prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon, or any other formal agreement. Still, if completed, it could threaten Europe and potentially the United States. And if Iran is found to be conducting long-range missile work, that would increase tensions between Tehran and the United States.

Five outside experts who independently reviewed the findings agreed that there was compelling evidence that Iran is developing long-range missile technology.

“The investigation highlights some potentially disturbing developments,” said Michael Elleman, a missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies who reviewed the material. The evidence was circumstantial, he said, but it could show preliminary steps “for developing an ICBM five to 10 years down the road, should Tehran wish to do so.”

Asked about the conclusions drawn by the weapons researchers, Alireza Miryousefi, the press officer at Iran’s United Nations mission, said in emailed statement that “we do not comment on military matters.”

The Shahrud Facility

The researchers, based at the nonpartisan Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, Calif., came across the Iranian facility shortly after a young research fellow, Fabian Hinz, proposed studying a flurry of recent Iranian state media material on General Moghaddam. He wanted to see if it contained clues as to how far Iran’s missile program had progressed before the general’s death.

But offhand comments from General Moghaddam’s colleagues and family members in the Iranian media seemed to imply that his work had quietly continued, the researchers say.

Mr. Hinz also found a big hint as to where the work was taking place. In a 2017 post by an Iranian journalists association, he saw an undated photo of General Moghaddam alongside a top lieutenant and a box marked “Shahrud.”

That name caught Mr. Hinz’s attention.

Shahrud, named for a town 40 kilometers away, was the site of a single missile test-launch in 2013. It had been considered dormant ever since and, when viewed by satellite, appeared disused.

Was there more than met the eye?

Poring over years of satellite imagery, the researchers noticed something: The number of buildings, they say, had slowly increased over time.

They also spotted a detail that would stand out only to an obsessive follower of General Moghaddam’s career: The buildings were painted a striking aquamarine.

General Moghaddam, known as eccentric and strong willed, had ordered his first facility, the one that was destroyed, painted that color. Now the same color appeared 300 miles away on a cluster of nondescript buildings in the desert.

On its own, this proved little, but it led the researchers to look more closely. Once they did, they saw more than just suspicious paint.

Ground Scars

Many military technologies can be developed, at least in early stages, indoors. Ballistics labs, wind tunnels and enrichment facilities can be hidden in buildings or underground.

Missiles are an exception. Their engines must be fitted into stands and test-fired — hazardous work that is typically done outdoors. And engine tests, when conducted in desert landscapes like those around Shahrud, can burn ground scars, shaped like candle flames, into the terrain.

The researchers, piecing through satellite photos of the area around Shahrud, found, in a crater a few kilometers away, what they say were two telltale ground scars. They were larger than those at General Moghaddam’s publicly known facility.

The scars were recent. One appeared in 2016, the other in June 2017.

The researchers scrutinized the test stands. Such structures typically weigh between four and six times the thrust of the engine being tested. And they are concrete, allowing their weight to be inferred from their dimensions.

The researchers say Shahrud’s 2017 test used a stand estimated to be 370 tons, suggesting the engine powered between 62 and 93 tons of thrust — enough for an intercontinental ballistic missile. Two as-yet-unused test stands are even larger.

Hidden Activity

There were other hints. Shahrud appears to house three pits of the sort used for casting or curing rocket components, the researchers say. One pit, at 5.5 meters in diameter, is far larger than those used for Iran’s medium-range missiles.

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