Iran has built a new medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) with a range of 1,240 miles, Iranian Defense Minister Mostafa Mohammad Najjar said Nov. 27, according to the state's Fars news agency. The missile is supposedly called "Ashura," after the Shiite Muslim holy day mourning the death of the Prophet Mohammed's grandson, Husayn ibn Ali, in 680. (Sunnis also observe the holiday, though for different reasons.) However, no test data or even photographic evidence of the missile's existence — much less its capability — appears to have been presented. Tehran has a track record of making exaggerated
and obscure claims about its military capabilities, intended specifically to serve political (both international and domestic) purposes and to confuse
the current state of the military balance. Because it would be at a military disadvantage in a military contest with the United States, Iran commonly seeks to maximize the unknowns surrounding its military capabilities. Consider the more well-known and now operational Shahab-3 missile
. Tehran's claims about its range have slowly crept up from the demonstrated 930 miles to beyond 1,600 — well in excess of the new missile's stated reach. Ultimately, the Ashura could prove to be little more than a variant of the Shahab-3, or perhaps a derivative of the design. The Iranians have demonstrated their ability to reach medium ranges with the Shahab-3 — a successful design they are known to have worked on extensively in cooperation with Pakistan and especially North Korea.
The Shahab-3 is little more than a Scud, which in turn is little more than a V-2 rocket. But as North Korea has demonstrated
, modifications and expansions of that basic design can be stretched to a rudimentary intercontinental reach. The Shahab-3's close relations, the Pakistani Ghauri and the North Korean No Dong, also have proven to be successful MRBMs. A less likely scenario is that the Ashura is a significant lateral step with a different design heritage. Tehran, for example, has long sought a breakthrough in solid propellant
that would give Iran a solid-fuel MRBM. Until the missile is unveiled and tested, much will remain obscure. But whatever the case with the Ashura, Iran continues to dedicate significant effort to its missile program and should not be underestimated
(especially as Iran seeks better leverage
in its negotiations with the United States over Iraq). Ultimately, the progress of the Iranian missile program — not to mention the programs in Pakistan and North Korea — serves as a reminder that ballistic missile technology will continue to improve.