June 3, 2011:
Iran recently announced that it had delivered the first new type of ballistic missile, the Qiam 1, to the Iranian Air Force. Few details were given, other than the missile was liquid fueled, had no fins and that its warhead could maneuver as it plunged to earth (which makes it more difficult for anti-missile systems to hit). The Qiam 1 looks their existing Shahab 3 ballistic missile. This is one weapon the Iranians have put a lot of money and effort into. It was known that they were building an extended range (from 1,300 to 1,800 kilometer) version of their Shahab 3 ballistic missile. The new version (Qiam 1?) puts all of Israel within range, even if fired from deep inside Iran. Chemical warheads (with nerve gas) are thought to be available for these missiles. But Israel has threatened to reply with nuclear weapons if the Iranians attack this way. Iran would probably get the worst of such an exchange, and the Iranians are aware of this.
This Shahab 3/Qiam 1 missiles are basically 1960s technology, with the addition of GPS guidance. Russian and North Korean missile technology has been obtained to make these missiles work. This has resulted in missile designs that apparently will function properly about 80 percent of the time, and deliver a warhead of about one ton, to a range of some 1,700 kilometers, to within a hundred meters of where it was aimed. By current standards, this is a pretty effective weapon.
In general, however, such vague and threatening weapons announcements are quite common for the Iranians. Last year, for example, they announced that they had developed an armed UAV, with a range of 1,000 kilometers. Pictures of this new weapons showed what appeared to be a copy of 1950s era American cruise missile, or target drone. These, in turn, were based on a similar weapon, the German V-1 "buzz bomb" that was used extensively in World War II to bomb London. The Iranian "Karar" UAV has the benefit of more efficient jet engines, more effective flight control hardware and software, and GPS navigation. Karar is not a wonder weapon, but the Iranians are depending on a clueless international mass media, and their own citizens, to believe it is.
In the last few years Iran has announced many similar weapons. There was, for example, a domestically designed and manufactured, helicopter gunship and another UAV with a range of 2,000 kilometers. Recently, there have also been revelations of heavily armed speed boats, miniature submarines, new artillery rockets and much more. Two years ago they showed off a new Iranian made jet fighter, which appeared to be a make-work project for unemployed engineers. It was a bunch of rearranged parts on an old U.S. made F-5 (which was roughly equivalent to a 1950s era MiG-21). The new fighter, like so many other Iranian weapons projects, was more for PR than for improving military power.
If you go back and look at the many Iranian announcements of newly developed, high tech, weapons, all you find is a photo op for a prototype. Production versions of these weapons rarely show up. Iranians know that, while the clerics and politicians talk a tough game, they rarely do anything. Even Iranian support of Islamic terrorism has been far less effective than the rhetoric. The Iranians have always been cautious, which is one reason Arabs fear them. When the Iranians do make their move, it tends to be decisive. But at the moment, the Iranians have no means to make a decisive move. Their military is mostly myth, having been run down by decades of sanctions, and the disruptions of the 1980s war with Iraq. Their most effective weapon is bluster, and, so far, it appears to be working.
Not all of the clerics that run the country are eager to go to war with Israel, or even threaten it. But because the clerical factions do not want to appear at odds with each other in public, the more radical leaders are allowed to rant away about attacking Israel. That's also the thinking behind the many IRGC press conferences announcing imaginary new weapons. The clerics are not going spend billions on mass production of second rate systems that are most notable for being designed in Iran.