In February 2017, the Islamic Republic of Iran conducted a test of its Soumar cruise missile. The test was declared a success, and according to reports, the missile flew 600km during flight. The test occurred only a few days after Iran conducted a flight test of its medium range ballistic missile (MRBM). After the MRBM test, the United States imposed sanctions on Iran for its “continued support for terrorism and development of its ballistic missile program [which] poses a threat to the region, to our partners worldwide and to the United States.” But despite the new sanctions, Tehran conducted a flight test of the Soumar cruise missile. According to reports, the cruise missile is nuclear capable.
Tehran’s missile development programs—like developing solid fuelled ballistic missiles, bottle-necked warheads, multiple re-entry vehicles (MRVs)—suggests that Tehran is pursuing a missile program that can defeat the missile defence systems of its adversaries, and cruise missiles could be a credible counter measure against enemy ballistic missile defence systems.
In March 2015, Iran declared that it had developed a long-range cruise missile with a range of 2500km called the Soumar, named after the Iranian town destroyed by Iraqi chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88). This advanced surface-to-surface missile can hit targets with higher precision and greater accuracy than its predecessors and has modern navigation and propulsion systems. The range of this missile can be increased to 3000km with external fuel tanks. Brigadier General Hossein Deqhan, the Iranian Defence Minister, said that the successful test of this missile was a “crucial” and “effective” step “toward increasing the country’s defence and deterrence might.” According to Deqhan, the cruise missile is able to eliminate various targets and is equipped with radar in order to improve the accuracy of the missile.
The Soumar cruise missile can target Middle Eastern and Southern European countries. Though the missile resembles the Soviet era Kh-55 cruise missile, it was bought from Ukraine and reverse-engineered in Iran. The Soumar can be launched from the sea or from land and is able to perform pop-up manoeuvres during flight, which further enhances the credibility of the missile system. Also, it might be a variant of the “Meshkat” cruise missile that the Iranians have been trying to develop for some time.
Despite the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) sanctions on Iran restricting the development of ballistic missiles, Tehran has continued to develop and modernize its arsenals. However, the likelihood of U.S. and Israeli ballistic missile defence being able to intercept Iranian ballistic missiles may be the reason why Tehran has kept the option of cruise missiles as a component of its deterrence capability. Also, as Tehran aspires to develop and produce smart weapons for Iran’s armed forces, the government is working towards the development of a new generation of advanced weapon systems, and the Soumar is an example of this effort.
While Iran’s ballistic missile program was considered for inclusion during nuclear deal negotiation process in 2014, the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) did not cover ballistic missiles or cruise missiles. This omission is extremely alarming as Iran’s missiles are nuclear capable. Iran declared that it would not include anything related to its defence capabilities, which includes ballistic missiles, as a part of the nuclear deal. Iran also argued that missiles are a component of its conventional deterrence.
Due to their advanced capabilities, Iran could use these cruise missiles to deliver chemical warheads or chemical sub-munitions. Such a scenario is possible since cruise missiles are the best delivery system for chemical warheads and sub-munitions (as compared to ballistic missiles). Even though Tehran is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), these new developments cannot be ignored.
Developing sophisticated missile systems despite several rounds of sanctions by the UNSC is Iran’s clear cut message to the P5+1 countries (China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Germany) that no amount of political pressure can prevent it from developing a credible deterrent capability for its armed forces.