EXCLUSIVE: Iran did not launch a missile last weekend despite claims, US officials say

Reporting by Lucas Tomlinson

Iranian state television released video footage Friday claiming to show the launch of a new type of medium-range ballistic missile, a few hours after it was displayed during a military parade in Tehran. Senior Iranian officials declared a test-launch would occur “soon” afterwards.

Turns out Iran never fired a ballistic missile.

The video released by the Iranians was more than seven months old--dating back to a failed launch in late January--which resulted in the missile exploding shortly after liftoff, according to two U.S. officials.

Saturday evening, President Trump responded to the reported launch in a tweet, “Iran just test-fired a Ballistic Missile capable of reaching Israel. They are also working with North Korea. Not much of an agreement we have!”

Last week in front of world leaders at the United Nations, Trump called the nuclear deal an “embarrassment” to the United States.  

“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” he said.

Trump later told reporters he had made up his mind about the deal, but would say whether or not he would pull the United States out of the nuclear accord with Iran.

Iran’s President Hassan Rohani spoke at the UN one day after Trump saying his country’s missile program was “solely defensive” in nature.  “We never threaten anyone, but we do not tolerate threats from anyone,” he added.  Rohani returned to Tehran two days later to preside over the missile parade featuring the new medium-range design and said his country would build as many missiles as necessary to defend itself.  

In late January, Iran attempted to launch its new Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile for the first time.  It flew 600 miles before exploding, in a failed test of a reentry vehicle, officials said at the time. Iranian defense minister Brigadier Gen. Hossein Dehqan said a year ago that Iran would start production of the missile.

The missile took off from a well-known test site outside Semnan, about 140 miles east of Tehran, according to American officials.

The failed late January launch was first reported by Fox News and prompted the White House to put Iran “on notice” days later.

Iran’s new medium-range missile is based on a North Korean design—Pyongyang’s BM-25 Musudan ballistic missile, which has a maximum range of nearly 2,500 miles, putting U.S. forces in the Middle East and Israel within reach if the problems are fixed.  

Last weekend, a senior Iranian general said the missile had a range of less than 2,000 miles.

"The Khoramshahr missile has a range of 2,000 kilometers [1,250 miles] and can carry multiple warheads," Iran’s official IRNA news agency quoted Revolutionary Guards aerospace chief General Amir Ali Hajizadeh as saying, more than 1,000 below U.S. estimates.

The missile “is capable of carrying multiple warheads,” Hajizadeh added.

“I am not sure why the Iranian’s are lying about the range,” said one U.S. official.  “I think they don’t want to piss the Europeans off.”

The official and others declined to be identified because they were not authorized to disclose sensitive information to the press.

“The very first missiles we saw in Iran were simply copies of North Korean missiles,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a missile proliferation expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Over the years, we've seen photographs of North Korean and Iranian officials in each other's countries, and we've seen all kinds of common hardware.”  

Experts say Iran possesses the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the Middle East, with more than 1,000 short and medium range ballistic missiles.  Tehran has conducted over 20 missile test since 2015.

“Iran has also become a center for missile proliferation, supplying proxies such as Hezbollah and Syria’s al-Assad regime with a steady supply of missiles and rockets, as well as local production capability. Furthermore, Iran is likely supplying Houthi rebel groups with short-range missiles in the ongoing conflict in Yemen,” says the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

U.N. resolution 2231 -- put in place days after the Iran nuclear deal was signed -- calls on the Islamic Republic not to conduct ballistic missile tests, but does not forbid them from doing so, after Russia and China insisted on the watered-down language in order to pass the resolution.

Iran is "called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology," according to the text of the resolution.

Iran claims the tests are legitimate because they are defensive in nature.