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Iran Tests
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Alex Wagner

Iran announced July 15 that it had successfully conducted its second test of the Shahab-3 medium-range ballistic missile, demonstrating Tehran's continued interest and progress in missile development. The test comes amid continuing debate in the United States over the need to deploy a national missile defense.

Defense Secretary William Cohen stated in a July 17 press conference that the launch did "not come as a surprise" to the United States but rather confirmed the Pentagon's "anticipation" of continued progress in Iran's ballistic missile capabilities. In a 1999 report to Congress, the CIA had noted that Iran probably already had the capability to deploy a "limited number of the Shahab-3 prototype missiles in an operational mode."

While the Pentagon remains uncertain how many tests Iran would need to completely develop confidence in the Shahab-3, on July 18 spokesman Kenneth Bacon told reporters that for Iran the test was "clearly…a success" that moves it closer to having the confidence necessary for full deployment.

In early July, Iran announced the creation of five ballistic missile units under the command of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)—an elite military organization that is responsible for the country's strategic military programs. Any deployment of the Shahab-3 would be administrated by the IRGC, which is directly controlled by Iran's supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

The Shahab-3 is a 53-foot long, liquid-fueled, road-mobile missile derived from both the North Korean Scud-C and No Dong-1 and constructed with significant Russian technological and material assistance. With an estimated range of 1,300 kilometers and payload of 700 kilograms, it is the pre-eminent missile in the Iranian arsenal, capable of targeting all of Israel and U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia, in addition to portions of Russia and Turkey.

The first test, conducted on July 22, 1998, was shown on Iranian state-run television and exploded 100 seconds after launch. Although Iran claimed it was a success, both U.S. government officials and regional analysts maintain that the 1998 test was a failure.

The latest test comes as the Clinton administration nears a decision on whether to proceed with the deployment of a limited national missile defense system. The development of advanced, long-range missiles by "states of concern," including Iran, has been used as the primary rationale for the system.

In February 1999, Iran's defense minister, Admiral Ali Shamkhani, announced that Iran was in the process of testing and developing motors for a Shahab-4 missile with a space-launch-vehicle capability. Derived largely from the Russian SS-4, the Shahab-4 is expected to have a range of approximately 2,000 kilometers. Cohen emphasized that he expects Iran will "continue to develop a longer-range missile range capability."