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Secret U.S. intelligence assessments have concluded Iran has obtained a cache of advanced missiles, based on a Russian design, that are much more powerful than anything Washington has publicly conceded Tehran has in its arsenal, diplomatic cables show.
Iran obtained 19 of the missiles from North Korea, according to a cable dated Feb. 24. The cable is a detailed, highly classified account of a meeting between top Russian officials and a U.S. delegation led by Vann H. Van Diepen, an official with the State Department's nonproliferation division who, as a national intelligence officer several years ago, played a crucial role in the 2007 assessment of Iran's nuclear capacity.
The missiles could for the first time give Iran the capacity to strike at capitals in Western Europe or at Moscow, and U.S. officials warned their advanced propulsion could speed Iran's development of intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Did shipment take place?
There has been scattered but persistent speculation on the topic since 2006, when fragmentary reports surfaced that North Korea might have sold Iran missiles based on a Russian design called the R-27, once used aboard Soviet submarines to carry nuclear warheads. In the unclassified world, many arms control experts concluded isolated components made their way to Iran, but there has been little support for the idea that complete missiles, with their huge thrusters, had been secretly shipped.
The Feb. 24 cable makes it clear that U.S. intelligence agencies believe the complete shipment indeed took place, and that Iran is taking pains to master the technology in an attempt to build a new generation of missiles. The missile intelligence also suggests far deeper military -- and perhaps nuclear -- cooperation between North Korea and Iran than was previously known. At the request of the Obama administration, the New York Times has agreed not to publish the text of the cable.
Building blocks for Iran?
The North Korean version of the advanced missile, known as the BM-25, could carry a nuclear warhead. Many experts say that Iran remains some distance from obtaining a nuclear warhead. Still, the BM-25 would be a significant step up for Iran.
Today, the maximum range of Iran's known ballistic missiles is about 1,200 miles, experts said. That means they could reach targets throughout the Middle East, including Israel, as well as all of Turkey and parts of Eastern Europe.
Scientists say the BM-25 is longer and heavier, and carries more fuel, giving it a range of up to 2,000 miles. If fired from Iran, that range, in theory, would let its warheads reach targets as far away as Western Europe, including Berlin. If fired northwestward, it could reach Moscow. A range of 2,000 miles is considered medium or intermediate. Traditionally, the United States has defined long-range or intercontinental ballistic missiles as having ranges greater than 3,400 miles.
The cables say that Iran not only obtained the BM-25, but also saw the advanced technology as a way to learn how to design and build a new class of more powerful engines.
"Iran wanted engines capable of using more-energetic fuels," the Feb. 24 cable said, "and buying a batch of BM-25 missiles gives Iran a set it can work on for reverse engineering." It added that Tehran could use the BM-25 technologies as "building blocks" for the production of long-range missiles.