On 12 November, an explosion at the Malard base of Iran's Revolutionary Guards killed between 17 and 37 people and damaged a number of buildings at the complex west of Tehran.
Questions immediately surfaced and have yet to be answered: what was the exact cause of the blast? Who, if anyone, was behind it? How significant was the effect on Iran's military programmes?
An article published by David Sanger and William Broad of The New York Times, "Explosion Seen as Big Setback to Iran's Missile Program", offers some clues. It needs to be read, however, not as investigative journalism but as an outlet for US and Israeli officials to put out both their assessments and their political manoeuvres around the event.
Those officials bring us no closer to the answer of whether Washington, West Jerusalem, or internal Iranian groups caused the explosion. You would not expect the sources to admit US-Israeli involvement, and the American officials settle for the line of "an accident".
What is significant, however, is the apparent conclusion of the officials that the blast was a serious blow to Iran's research and development of missiles, killing a senior commander overseeing the programme. It should be emphasised that this is not the same as any claimed Iranian pursuit of a militarised nuclear capability; however, these missiles would be the delivery system if Tehran was going down that path.
And that in turn bolsters Washington's political strategy. The Obama Administration has been trying to deflect calls from Israel and Congress for a military strike by saying that its pursuit of diplomacy is the way to contain Tehran --- see, for example, a recent statement by Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta on the "deliberate and focused approach to Iran". And the Administration has been adding, far from subtly, that this diplomacy is complemented by attempts to disrupt Iran's military and its nuclear research.
Whether or not one of those attempts took place on 12 November is tangential: the prospect of such an attempt is enough to rattle the Iranian regime, and the outcome appears to vindicate the strategy. As a "Western official" said, in a moment that appears to combine spin and honesty, "Anything that buys us time and delays the day when the Iranians might be able to mount a nuclear weapon on an accurate missile is a small victory,” one Western intelligence official who has been deeply involved in countering the Iranian nuclear program said this weekend. “At this point, we’ll take whatever we can get, however it happens.”
Explosion Seen as Big Setback to Iran’s Missile Program
David Sanger/William Broad
The huge explosion that destroyed a major missile-testing site near Tehran three weeks ago was a major setback for Iran's most advanced long-range missile program, according to American and Israeli intelligence officials and missile technology experts.
In interviews, current and former officials said surveillance photos showed that the Iranian base was a central testing center for advanced solid-fuel missiles, an assessment backed by outside experts who have examined satellite photos showing that the base was almost completely leveled in the blast. Such missiles can be launched almost instantly, making them useful to Iran as a potential deterrent against pre-emptive attacks by Israel or the United States, and they are also better suited than older liquid-fuel designs for carrying warheads long distances.
It is still unclear what caused the explosion, with American officials saying they believe it was probably an accident, perhaps because of Iran’s inexperience with a volatile, dangerous technology. Iran declared it an accident, but subsequent discussions of the episode in the Iranian news media have referred to the chief of Iran’s missile program as one of the “martyrs” killed in the huge explosion. Some Iranian officials have talked of sabotage, but it is unclear whether that is based on evidence or surmise after several years in which Iranian nuclear scientists have been assassinated on Tehran’s streets, and a highly sophisticated computer worm has attacked its main uranium production facility.
Both American and Israeli officials, in discussing the explosion in recent days, showed little curiosity about its cause. “Anything that buys us time and delays the day when the Iranians might be able to mount a nuclear weapon on an accurate missile is a small victory,” one Western intelligence official who has been deeply involved in countering the Iranian nuclear program said this weekend. “At this point, we’ll take whatever we can get, however it happens.”
In addition to providing a potential deterrent to attackers, Iran’s advances in solid-fuel missile technology, and the concern it could eventually have intercontinental reach, have been at the heart of the Obama administration’s insistence on the need for new missile-defense programs....
One of the many theories swirling around the explosion at the missile base is that it could have been hit by a weapon, including one fired from a drone, setting off the huge explosion that followed. But since no outsiders can approach the base or gather evidence, it is unclear whether it will ever be known publicly what triggered the explosion.
Even if the cause was an accident — and the United States has suffered some with its own solid-fuel motors — several officials said that it was a major setback for Iran’s effort to focus much of its industrial prowess on that kind of missile.
Missiles powered by solid fuels rather than liquids have no need for trucks to fill them with volatile fluids, and can be fired on short notice, making them hard for other nations to destroy before they are launched. That would add to Iran’s ability to protect its nuclear sites from an Israeli strike — a subject of renewed debate in Israel in recent weeks — because Iran could threaten to retaliate before many of its missiles were struck. Solid-fuel missiles are also easier to hide. For those reasons, modern militaries rely on solid fuels for their deadliest missiles.
Moreover, at a time Iran is being squeezed by sanctions, the country has succeeded in making the solid-fuel engines with indigenous technology. For liquid-fueled engines, many key components come from abroad.
In a recent report, the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London called Iran’s shift to solid-fuel engines “a turning point” with “profound strategic implications” because the technology also brings Tehran closer to its goal of making long-range missiles. In its report three weeks ago, the International Atomic Energy Agency laid out, for the first time in public, detailed evidence it says suggests that Iran worked at some point in the past decade on designing a nuclear warhead that would fit atop its missile fleet.
Partly for that reason, Western officials said, many of the sanctions imposed on Iran by the United Nations Security Council seek to block its import of rocket parts.