Iran Missiles, Redux

From the "haven't we passed this intersection twice already" department, let's take another look at the chicanery involving the photos of Iran's missile launch. Is there more here than a bad Photoshop job?

Neal Krawetz delves into the question many others have raised, "Are these even photos from this week, this year, or are they recycles from 2006?".

Disclaimer: All images are the property of their original owners, and are used without explicit permission under fair use for scholarship or review for the purposes of fair and reasonable criticism without claim of ownership or copyright by Chris 'Xenon' Hanson.

Let's first look at the two images Kamangir exhibits (resized to same height). IRIB (the official Iranian radio/TV organization on the left, and an archived AFP (via ArmyTimes) photo from a Feb 2007 story.

For completeness, let's line them up in Photoshop using Smart Objects again. Put IRIB on top of AFP as a Smart Object layer, and using Edit/Transform set X=395.1, Y=322.6, W=158.5%, H=158.5%, Rotation=-1.7. Here's the page flip:

They don't line up perfectly, and therefore aren't the exact same photo. I focused on the missiles themselves for the maximal alignment. Looking at the rightmost missile, where there is a very good alignment, you can see the missile is in very nearly the same place. The photos are taken within a breath of each other, but different cameras. They are probably located at different locations and have different zoom lenses, which is why if we make the distant stuff line up, the foreground goes out of skew. But, unquestionably a perfect match -- this is the same event, and IRIB flasely recycled a older stock photo implying it was from this past week's launches. Naughty naughty.

Let's compare a couple more images. Britannica has a very similar image, but it's a slightly different moment in time.

Let's align and cycle. Layer Smart Object transform settings are: X=384.8, Y=342.2, W=125%, H=125%, Rotation=-0.5. Apologize for the nasty banding of the GIF, but it's the easiest way to animate on a web page.

Again, clearly a different moment of the same launch. I aligned for the front-right side, which you can see pretty well on the right-most missile. But, that means the left and distant stuff gets kinda warped, and the leftmost two missiles and the revetment in the front left dance about a bit. You can also see the rightmost missile in the process of some sort of burn from side thrusters (zoom and brightness/contrast enhance of the AFP image):

Presumably this is what causes the dark smoky halo around the missiles at some point in their burn stage, not a malfunction as some have speculated.

Now let's look at the FARS image:

This image is different in many ways. First, it's an aerial image, whereas the others were shot from the ground. The perspective difference is too great, there's no way we can line this up, so we'll have to look at other factors. First, we get a LOT of extra context, and we can see the observer vehicles at a site in the lower right corner. It is likely that this is where the other photos were taken from. There is a line of unidentified bright objects running out to the lower left corner. To me, the FARS image is a much hazier day with cooler lighting, an indistinct horizon, no clearly visible white cirrus clouds.

Now, what about the missiles? The FARS image seems to show one unfired missile, second from left, far. There are a total of six launch stations populated, and they seem to be in roughly the same crude-diamond arrangement on the right with a pair of extras a bit away to the left. The lowest two missiles in the right diamon group are firing their side thrusters brightly. But, could this be the same launch? Examining the progress of the six, the furthest one in the diamond is the highest and has a more brown-ish contrail, which matches. The leftmost missile is the next-highest, followed by the center two (hard to tell which is higher due to the difference in angle) then the rightmost and then the second-from-left. Looking at the highest (second-from-right) and the rightmost, one can say with confidence that the missiles have progressed further in the FARS image. The rightmost is just atop the black smoke halo in the AFP image, but has risen quite a ways above it in the FARS image. However, here's the catch. If they are the same event, the second-from-left missile should be further along in FARS, just like all the others. But, it's not. In fact, it hasn't even launched (yet), and it's not possible to tell if it ever did launch.

Conclusion: FARS and AFP are similar but different events, despite resembling each other a LOT. There is not way I can see to establish their temporal relationship -- which came first, how far apart in time are they, but it seems to me that FARS might even be a different season, due to the more green characteristic of the ground.

What else do we know? From GlobalSecurity we find that Iran launches their missiles to the SSE (the leftmost map is not North-aligned, the right is). Looking at the consistent angle of the launches in the photos, combined with the sun angle (we in the Northern Hemisphere, the sun will be somewhere to the South) I would guess that the dirt road in the front runs roughly North-South, making these afternoon tests (shadows to the East from a Sun Light source towards the West). I haven't located this exact launch site yet, but Google Earth/Maps offers some possibilities around the Semnan region. Most media lists the test site as near Qom. There is another possibility nearer to Qom but both FAS and GlobalSecurity cite Semnan as the more important launch facility.

Ok, now let's haul in the ("untampered") image allegedly from last week.

Daylife has a screengrab from Al Alam television, showing the same event:

and on YouTube you can even find a video clip from Al Alam. See 0:10 0:13 and 1:18. Ignore 0:16 and 0:46 as it's clearly a different missile and test.

Environmentally, it looks like a similar location. Sky, groundcover, roads and revetments all look similar. I think the photographers must be a little bit further South than in the previous images now, since we're looking at the near revetment almost straight-on from the side whereas before we were off the corner of it. Also, assuming the missiles are launching on the usual trajectory, we're much more perpendicular to their track than before. We're closer too, at least in the still photo. Maybe just a longer lens, since the Al Alam video is shot from further back, and no lens will "move you backward", and I'm assuming all of the media corps were corralled in one spot.

Could THIS be the same event as either of the ones we've seen previously (established to date from 2006)? Let's compare.

How many missiles successfully ignite and leave the ground? Three. We have one dud in the foreground. Referring to the wider shot on the Al Alam video at 0:10, it's clear that there are only three missiles airborne. (Picard: "There are THREE! MISSILES!"). Therefore, I can conclude definitively that this is not the exact same event as the 2006 photos depict. I can NOT conclusively say that this photo is from 2008, or is NOT from 2006, only that it is not EXACTLY the same event as the existing 2006 photos. We have already established that there were at least two 2006 tests (above), so maybe there were three. Iran has shown a willingness to use dated stock footage as fresh. However, there are a few things that don't match to my mind. This, combined with a healthy dose of Occam's Razor, makes me think the photos that were tampered with and released recently maybe are from 2008, and this month.

I'm not even 100% convinced this is the exact same site as the 2006 images. It's very similar, but the roads don't match, and the viewing angle is hard to reconcile. It could be that things have changed a bit in the intervening time, which would lend credibility to the 2008 theory. Below, I will refer to this as the "2008" photo, even though we can't conclusively prove it's 2008.

What else is there to see in the 2008 photo? The big hoopla is about Iran's "Shahab-3" (FAS also labels it "Sharab-3") and variants, which could have a 1300Km range, putting it just within reach of Israel. (ref FAS, "Estimated Ranges of Current and Potential Iranian Ballistic Missiles chart). FAS has a photo of a "Shahab-3" launch:

and similar photos can be found at MEHR News, an Iranian News Agency:

FAS also hows us what they look like on their launcher trailer:

The lower one is the newer, bigger, longer-range variant. Now, note how big it is, and how many rear axles it has (3 in the lighter, 4 for the heavier). Now refer back to the 2008 photo:

Count the rear axles. Two, and it's a much shorter launcher. The cab seems to be an attached part of the vehicle, not even a trailer, so during launch they seem to cover the cab windows with a tarp. As well, the missile itself is not nearly as fat around. Measuring pixel ratios in Photoshop, we find the diameter of the missile is 3.61 pixels across the base of the missile versus 7 pixels from the trailer wheel bottom to the wheelwell top, for a ratio of 51% (.51). Now, measure the chunky Sahab-3 -- 28 pixels across the base of the cone (base of missile is obscured on the truck, but it looks uniform) versus 28 pixels from the ground to the top of the wheel, or 100%. By simple visual examinatino, it looks like both missiles are on trailers with about the same size wheels/tires. FAS says Sahab-3 is about 1.3m in diameter, which fits with what it looks like in their photos.

Conclusion? The missiles in the 2008 photo are not Sahab-3.

MEHR News offers us more photos to digest. This one:

seems to be a great close-up of the site of one of these tests with one of the two-axle launchers right in the foreground, next to the indestructable Toyota HiLux. This also shows that not all of the missile launch stations have an earth revetment. Also, the far left launcher is of a different type (uncovered back/body) from the other two, though the missile looks outwardly the same.

Another MEHR photo from the same page:

shows what appears to be this same type of slim black missile performing the manuvering thruster burn and creating the black smoke halo, also at the same launch site environment. Size-wise, all of the missiles in all of the photos (excepting the ones elsewhere documented as a Sahab-3) seem to be this same slim black missile. What kind of missile is it then, if not Sahab-3? FAS reports: Iran launches "dozens of Sharab-2 and -3, Zolfaghar-73, Scud B, Fath-110 and Zelzal" missiles during the 10-day Great Prophet 2 exercise in November 2006. This included the first-ever launch of the Shahab-3 (although this may have in fact been the Shahab-3 variant, sometimes called Sharab-4)..

Neither the missile nor the launcher look like a SCUD-B. I couldn't find an image of anything I thought was a "Zolfaghar-73", and the only real info I found was "The Zolfaghar-73 is a guided short-range missile.", from here. It DOES kind of look like a FROG-7, which the Zelzal may be a derivative of. It is also about the right size to be a Fath/Fateh/Fatah-110.

Why the differences in color of the contrail then? Well, this is a test launch, presumably they're testing something. Different fuel mixtures or fuels? Recent news reports allude to the possibility that Iran is experimenting with solid-fueled rocket designs that can be prepared and launched faster. This would definitely cause a different appearance to the contrail.

Now, what have we learned today? Iran plays fast and loose with photos. The "doctored" image may or may not have been from 2006 or 2008, but it certainly isn't exactly the same launch as pictured in well-known 2006 launch photos, of which there are apparently at least two distinct though very similar-appearing launches. Beyond that, you must study and verify facts to draw your own conclusions.

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