On Monday, Iran launched a new rocket with technology found in intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), demonstrating the country could be closer to developing ICBMs than previously thought.
The Wall Street Journal reported the Iranian rocket Zuljanah is designed to carry civilian satellites up to 310 miles into orbit above the Earth, but the rocket includes several technologies that can be used in Iran’s missile program, including solid-fuel propellant. The Zuljanah rocket can also be launched from a mobile launch pad, demonstrating the potential mobility of future Iranian missiles and rockets.
Zuljanah reportedly features the largest solid-fuel motor yet produced by Iran. Solid-fuel, as opposed to liquid fuel, is considered a key component for ICBMs.
Fabian Hinz, an independent intelligence analyst with expertise in missile technology told the Wall Street Journal that Zuljanah’s solid-fuel technology “is incredibly useful for military application.”
With solid fuel, a rocket or missile can be stored with the fuel onboard in a ready-to-use state, while liquid fuel must be stored separately and a rocket or missile has to be fueled as a separate step before launch. Solid fuel also allows missiles to be more easily moved and even placed on mobile launchers.
The Associated Press reported Ahmad Hosseini, a spokesman for the Iranian Defense Ministry’s space department, said the Zuljanah rocket could be launched using a mobile launching pad.
Last year, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), launched Iran’s first military satellite into orbit. Officials in then-President Donald Trump’s administration said the launch was a cover for Iran to develop its missile technology.
Iran appears to use civilian applications as a cover for its military advancements. According to the Associated Press, Iran has claimed its satellite program, like its nuclear activities, is aimed at scientific research and various other civilian applications.
The Zuljanah rocket reportedly had specifications well beyond those needed for a civilian satellite launch. The Wall Street Journal reported the rocket’s first-stage motor had a thrust of 75 kilotons (about 165,000 pounds). By comparison, the LGM-30G Minuteman III ICBM that currently comprises the U.S. land-based ICBM arsenal has a thrust of 90 kilotons, (about 200,000 pounds).
Hinz said, “This was a very, very clear message by the Iranians that they are advancing and that they can build longer-range stuff if they want to. They want to show that, if you put pressure on our missiles, we can react.”
While the solid-fuel system and potential mobility of the Zuljanah rocket are potentially important advancements for Iran’s missile program, there are still distinctions between a military missile and a civilian satellite rocket. Military missiles require more advanced protective measures so their payloads can survive re-entry into the planet’s atmosphere, whereas a civilian satellite simply operates in space. Iran reportedly did not disclose details on the rocket’s design, such as its casing.
Iran’s missile program may become a factor in President Joe Biden’s negotiations for the U.S. return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Trump withdrew from in 2018. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the 2015 Iran deal could serve as “a platform” for a “longer and stronger agreement” to address Iran’s missile program and sponsorship of terrorism and malign activities.
Iran has separately said it won’t let its missile program become part of the negotiations for the U.S. return to the 2015 deal. In December, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said “The Americans were trying for months to add the missile issue (to the nuclear talks) and this was rejected. (President Donald) Trump was uninformed and did not know about the matter, but Mr. Biden is well aware of the details of the deal.”
Blinken has also said there’s a “long way” before the U.S. will reach a new deal with Iran. By contrast, Iran recently set a Feb. 21 deadline for the U.S. to return to the 2015 deal, after which it will boost its uranium enrichment and block United Nations nuclear inspectors.