Iranian Artillery and WMD

By Debalina Ghoshal

Weapons of Destruction (WMD) also comprise chemical and biological weapons other than nuclear and radiological weapons.

Though Iran is a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) and Biological Weapons Convention (CWC), Iran has been a victim of chemical weapons and hence, it may choose to keep such weapons as deterrent against its neighbors.

The Iran-Iraq war witnessed for the first time since World War I the use of mustard gas and first time ever Sarin and Tabun.

In 2021, the then US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, stated that Iran supplied the Ghaddafi regime in Libya with chemical weapons during the 1978-1987 Libya-Chad War that could be equipped on artillery shells.

According to reports, Iran successfully developed mortars, artillery shells, and aerial bombs for CW agent delivery.

During the Iran-Iraq War, there are also allegations that Iran used mustard gas on 130mm artillery shells, though Iran has yet to clarify whether it has used chemical weapons during the War.

Again, Iran is also reported to possess capability to equip its 155mm artillery shells with chemical weapons in addition to its Scud missiles. Its artillery shells are reported to be capable of delivering blister, blood, choking and nerve agents.”

More concerning is the fact that there are reports that Tehran continues to develop dual-use technologies that could advance its capability to produce chemical weapons agents.

Nevertheless, its artillery rocket capabilities compliment its missiles in providing a wide range of capabilities to deliver WMD.  Iran is a declared chemical weapon state and despite its accession to the CWC, there is always a concern that Iran could resort to chemical warheads as means of achieving decisive victory in times of crises.

A report also suggested that Iran is not only working towards developing delivery means including artillery shells for chemical weapons but also for biological weapons. Its artillery shells are reported to be capable of carrying even phosgene and cyanide agents.

Iran’s ground forces are going through a modernization process, but it is slow, and hence, Iran is dependent on its rocket forces for tactical advantage.

This rocket capability has to be quantitatively more given Iran’s conventional and asymmetric means of warfare carried out by Artesh and IRGC respectively.

Iran operates the largest stockpile of functional artillery in the Persian Gulf.

Iran’s ground forces have two thousand and nine hundred artillery pieces and two thousand pieces of rocket artillery.

The rocket artillery are plentiful given the mass production of inexpensive 107mm and 122mm as well as other small caliber pieces.

Also, Iran’s ballistic missiles act as a deterrent and ideally could be used to deliver nuclear warheads.

Iran could use its chemical and biological warheads on its artillery shells for better tactical advantage. Iran’s Zelzal category rockets that are Iranian variant of the Soviet era Frog-7 rockets have higher range and payloads that the Fajr rockets it possesses. They could be used to deliver chemical and biological warheads or sub-munitions.

These Zelzals are solid propelled and easily mobile. The Fajrs on the hand, are the first rockets developed by Iran after gaining technological know-how assistance from North Korea.

According to November 2022 reports, the Fajr missiles are capable of carrying toxic chemical payload like thionyl chloride, a toxic chemical. The 107mm caliber Fajr-1, the Iranian version of the Katyusha rockets has been even transferred to Iran’s proxies in Iraq.

Though the rockets are inaccurate, they were used to target U.S. embassies and diplomatic missions in Baghdad.

Guidance systems on rocket systems mean chemical and biological sub-munitions can be delivered with accuracy.

For instance, Iran’s solid fuelled Zelzal-3 rockets are guided versions of the Zelzal-2 rockets.

Reportedly, the 155mm SH-15 self propelled howitzer that Pakistan acquired from China is capable of firing nuclear shells. Thus, Iran too could work towards fitting nuclear shells on its 155mm self propelled howitzers like the Raad-2 either indigenously, or with assistance from China or Pakistan.

As Anthony Cordesman writes, “[b]y the late 1980s and early 1990s – when U.S. tactical missile programs ended – warhead weights were down to 175 kilograms for the GLCM and 400 kilograms for the complex Pershing II. Artillery shell designs were down to 43 kilograms.”

Though the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPoA) demanded that Iran sends its spent fuel to Russia, the fact that the JCPOA is irrelevant now could become a reason for Iran to build nuclear bombs from plutonium.

Plutonium bombs are easier to miniaturize than uranium ones. Hence, they could be fitted on artillery systems as well.

In November 2022, there were reports that Iran has requested Russia for assistance to acquire additional nuclear materials and nuclear fuel fabrication. While Russia is a member of the Permanent 5 (P5)+ 3, its economy is sanctioned and hence, it could provide critical technologies for hard cash.

Also, at this moment, Russia is involved in Ukraine War and reportedly, Iran is providing artillery pieces to Russia.

Iran’s Semnan Missile Complex produces unguided and guided rockets that include Nazeat rockets also.

There are assumptions that the complex may be involved in the production of Zelzal rockets also.

The Shahid Bakeri Industrial Group (SBIG) is also focused on developing solid-propelled rocket forces. The enterprise is reported to have received assistance from China and Russia.

Iran’s Nazeat family of missiles have a range of 100-130kms, the Zelzal family of missile systems include Zelzal-1 with a range of 150kms, Zelzal-2 with a range of 100-210kms while Zelzal-3 with 200kms. Iran’s Zelzal missile is reported to be able to carry “thirty 17-kgs bombs” and are capable of destroying airport run ways and military installations.

Though IRGC is in control of Iran’s strategic weapon systems, the Artesh does have control over Iranian short range missiles and rockets and test fires these rocket systems occasionally.

However, there is little doubt that artillery systems which would be used to deliver WMD will be in the hands of IRGC.

The IRGC possesses three artillery regiments as opposed to Artesh that possesses seven artillery regiments.

Another reason why IRGC has command over Iran’s WMD program is because of Artesh’s weak command and control, lack of logistical capabilities for long term operations and dilapidated and poorly maintained equipment.

Featured Photo: Zelzal 3 rockets before firing.