U.S. President Barack Obama cited the rising threat of Iran's ballistic missile program as a key driver in his decision to alter course on a Bush-era missile shield for Europe. Tehran's arsenal is now "capable of reaching Europe," the president said in September 2009. Less than two weeks after that assertion--and hours after world powers disclosed a secret uranium enrichment facility near Qom--Tehran's Revolutionary Guards staged a full weekend of test firings, blasting a series of medium- and short-range missiles in a show of military strength (NYT). Western defense analysts say the missiles tested have a range sufficient to reach Israel and U.S. bases in the Persian Gulf, while Iranian General Abdullah Araqi claimed that Iran's arsenal now has the ability to "hit any place from which a threat is posed to Iran." But many questions remain about Iran's ballistic missile program. Western analysts can't say for sure how far Iranian technology has advanced, and experts frequently question Tehran's assertions on range and payload size. And much like Iran's nuclear program, international observers are largely left to guess at Iranian intentions.
The Rise of Iran's Arsenal
Ballistic missiles--armaments that achieve suborbital spaceflight to hit their targets thousands of miles away--have been stockpiled in Iran since the early days of the Islamic Revolution. Iran maintained a healthy fleet of combat aircraft under the shah, but after 1979, relations with the West frayed and access to technologies needed to maintain its air force dried up. According to a 2005 report published by the British-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, Tehran's program was launched in part to make up for these deficiencies. Dinshaw Mistry, author of Containing Missile Proliferation, writes that Iran's missile program evolved in several phases (...