Iran’s Armed Forces on Thursday concluded their celebration of “Sacred Defense Week” – the annual commemoration of the first week of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. The week featured military parades showcasing the latest in domestically produced weapons, chief among them ballistic missiles – of which Iran has the Middle East’s largest arsenal. This year, Tehran’s parade included a new ballistic missile, which it test-fired on Sunday: the Zulfiqar.
The name Zulfiqar has been a symbol of power and martial authority in Shiite Muslim culture for over a millennia. The word means “Lord of Spines” in Arabic, and was the name of a split-pointed sabre that Ali, cousin of the Prophet Muhammad, was said to carry. Over the years Iran has named a battle tank, assault boat, and Transporter-Erector Launcher (TEL) after the sword. Iran’s military has even marched in the sword’s shape in its parades.
Iran’s newest Zulfiqar is a solid-fueled short range ballistic missile (SRBM) that reportedly can reach 700 to 750 kilometers and is claimed to be accurate within 5 to 10 meters. The Zulfiqar is Iran’s latest variant of the Fateh-110 missile series — a family of single-stage solid-fueled SRBMs that Tehran has refined since the 1990s. First successfully flight-tested in 2002, the Iranians have upgraded the Fateh-110 platform at least half a dozen times since. All of them were built by Iran’s Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) – an affiliate of Iran’s Ministry of Defense. Under last summer’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, both entities are slated to receive sanctions relief from the European Union in eight years or less.
Questions linger about the validity of Iran’s claims about the Zulfiqar. For example, video of the Zulfiqar’s first flight test alleged that it was hybrid fueled, contradicting earlier reports that it was propelled by solid fuel. Additionally, a frame-by-frame analysis of the test reveals that before impact, the projectile’s angle of entry appeared much more shallow than steep. This casts some doubt as to whether or not it was actually a ballistic missile. Indeed, given the stated range, the explosion in the video may well have been a simple artillery shell.
This is more likely than another more dubious Iranian claim, namely that the Zulfiqar uses a multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) payload – which is not shown in the test video. Meanwhile, other Iranian outlets attest that the Zulfiqar instead features a cluster munition warhead that can shower an area with sub-munitions. These reports seem to echo statements from the director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, who warned of Iran’s progress on sub-munition payloads.
As noted by Iran analyst Shahram Chubin, in the absence of a powerful air force, Iran has increasingly relied on ballistic missiles to deter and threaten its adversaries. Given that ballistic missiles remained outside negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, its continued work on platforms like the Shahab-3, Emad, and Sejil-2 all provide credible nuclear delivery options should it forsake the deal and develop nuclear weapons. Iran has also provided tactical ballistic missiles to its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah, as well as the Assad regime in Syria, in order to threaten Israel.
Iran says that the Zulfiqar is slated for production and stockpiling. However, this is not likely to happen soon. Tehran will likely need to refine the Zulfiqar first. While there is reason to be skeptical of official Iranian assertions, particularly on accuracy, Tehran’s ongoing commitment to flight-testing belies a steadfast desire to produce a more powerful and accurate SRBM. The Zulfiqar may yet join the “jungle of missiles in tunnels and silos” that Iranian military officials so often tout.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies