Don’t Forget Iran’s Ballistic Missiles


Last month, the P5+1 and Iran arranged for an extension of Joint Plan of Action (JPOA), the interim nuclear deal that was agreed to in Geneva in late 2013 and implemented in January of this year. The deal has been prolonged for four months as the parties continue to seek a comprehensive solution. Remarkably absent from the text of the JPOA, however, is a reference to the status of Iran’s ballistic missile program.

The failure to discuss possible nuclear delivery mechanisms when focusing on Iran’s nuclear capability has largely been a result of Western stove-piping. In the decade-long drive for an agreement, negotiations have managed to excise the science behind Iran’s nuclear program from the strategic considerations that drove it. But the omission of ballistic missiles from the current P5+1 negotiations runs contrary to numerous United Nations Security Council resolutions (UNSCRs), which deliberately target the missile program and those who seek to aid it.

For example, after the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) referred Iran to the Security Council in 2006, a series of UNSCRs were passed, the second of which was UNSCR 1737. Its Annex contained a small list of “Entities involved in the ballistic missile programme” subject to an asset freeze. This list included the likes of Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group (SHIG), which is an Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO) subsidiary that is said to be overseen by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

Interestingly, SHIG officials were reportedly slated to be present at a North Korean missile drill back in 2012. In the murky world of companies and organizations working to help out the Iranian missile program, SHIG, as designated by the UNSC, is a price-floor, not price-ceiling.who aid Iran’s program less overtly, and avoid being targeted.

By the time UNSCR 1929 was passed in 2010, the resolution contained strong language such as operative clause nine, which stated:

Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.

By not openly pursuing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile progress – with a focus on design, payload, or range – negotiators risk sweeping these UNSCRs under the rug. Consequently, the West risks making the entire issue subject to Iran’s interpretation. Consistently, Iranian officials vociferously refuse to discuss their missile program as part of a larger nuclear deal, since they claim it as part of their national defense. Recently, the hardline conservative paper Kayhan quoted President Rouhani as saying, “Iran’s missile capability is by no means negotiable.”

However, Iran has not been shy about making its progress on ballistic and other types of missiles well known. This serves to bolster its deterrence and aid in power-projection. The chart below provides a list of Iran’s missiles, translated and adapted from Iran’s Mehr News Agency.

Missile Class Missile Name
Long-Range Ballistic Missiles (LRBMs) Shahab’s- 4-6, Sejjil,† Satellite on [the] Safir, Kowsar Project
Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) Shahab-3, Fajr-3,* Ashura, Ghadr-110
Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) Shahab-1, Shahab-2, Fateh-110
Anti-Ship Ballistic Missiles (ASBMs) Khalij Fars**
Artillery Rockets Samid, Tundar-69, Zelzal’s 1-3
Surface-to-Air Missiles (SAMs) Mehrab, Shahin, Misagh-1, Misagh-2, Sayyad, Shahab Sagheb, Mersad
Anti-Helicopter Missiles Qa’em
Anti-Tank Guided Missiles (ATGMs) Saegheh, Raad, Toofan, Toofan-2, Toofan-5, Toosen, Dehlaviyeh
Anti-Ship Missiles (ASMs) Noor, Kowsar, Ghader, Zafar
Cruise Missiles (CMs) Nasr-1, Meskat (reportedly in developmental stages)
Un-Winged Missiles Qiam
Air-to-Ground Missiles (AGMs) Shafaq, Shahin-3, Sattar, Asr-67
Air-to-Air Missiles (AAMs) Fatter, Sejjil*
Torpedoes Kooseh, Yasin, Hoot
Katyushas Arash, Fajr-3, Fajr-5, Falaq-1, Falaq-2, Oqab, Haseb

Source: Mehr News Agency
† FDD’s
Military Edge assesses this missile to be an MRBM/IRBM
* FDD’s
Military Edge assesses these two missiles to belong to different categories.
** As of May 2014, it is worth noting that Iran claimed to have developed an updated version of their Khalij Fars ASBM, called the Hormuz.

All of the above missiles and rockets work to support and enhance Iran’s asymmetric posture and capabilities. The most disconcerting ordnances on the list are the solid-fueled Sejjil missile, and the liquid-fueled Shahab-3missile, both of which have the ability to carry a nuclear warhead.

To be fair, Iran is cognizant of its strategic and conventional deficiencies. According to the latest Unclassified Executive Summary of a Pentagon report from January 2014, “Iran’s military doctrine is … designed to deter an attack.” It further notes that “Since the Iran-Iraq War, Tehran has placed significant emphasis on developing and fielding ballistic missiles.” To Iranian security planners, the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) was instrumental in forming the security strategy of Islamic Republic and upholding its world-view. In order to protect the Iranian homeland, missiles came to form a crucial part of Iran’s defense policy.

Saddam Hussein’s ability to strike Iran’s capital city, including with the updated al-Hussein missile (a Scud variant), coupled with his devastating use of chemical weapons on the battlefield, pushed Iran to stand up its own missile command and procure Scud missiles. One IRGC member, Major-General Hassan Tehrani-Moghaddam, even earned the title, “the father of Iran’s missiles” for his endeavors at that time. Missiles were a likely choice for Iran, since its American-supplied Air Force, which dated back to the 1970s, was graying and spare parts were hard to obtain. What’s more, Iran reportedly resuscitated its nuclear program in 1984. The timing of the resurrection of the nuclear projects hints that aggression by a hostile neighbor may have prompted the nascent Islamic Republic to turn to the atom. In short, it would be hard to overemphasize the influence of the Iran-Iraq War on Iran’s current security strategy, as guiding assumptions from the war-era still prevail in Tehran, affecting Iran’s threat perceptions.

Since the war, Iran has continued its quest to harness missile power while exploring additional nuclear-related technology. Chronologically speaking, there are many overlaps between Iran’s missile and nuclear timelines. From a strategic perspective, the coupling of these two forces provides Iran both the power of deterrence and compellence, as it reportedly maintains “the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.” Given that history, dealing with Iranian ballistic missiles will be an exacting and difficult process, but one that is all the more necessary.

Similarly, there is also the threat afforded by Iran of an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM), whose development can be masked by a satellite program featuring boosters and launchers, such as the one Iran used to propel its Omid satellite into space in 2009. Reportedly, more satellite launches are expected by mid-2015.

The intelligence community’s 2014 assessment to Congress noted that Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons” would be by ballistic missile. Washington’s decision to press forward with a nuclear deal absent clauses pertaining to missiles then, only reinforces the fact that this is a blind spot.

At present, Western diplomats have found it easier to focus exclusively on warheads. In her July 2014 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC), Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman explained that:

We have said that the U.N. Security Council resolutions must be addressed. And in that, it says that somehow, we must address long-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads. So, it’s not about ballistic missiles per se. It’s about when a missile is combined with a nuclear warhead. That’s the issue.

But there are drawbacks to this approach. The first is it allows Iran to retain its stockpile of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, a force which is already a threat to its neighbors and the region due to their ability to either deter or compel adversaries. Worse, the retention of such a capacity could prospectively tempt Iran to, in the aftermath of a deal and at a time of its choosing, move towards working on warheads covertly at an “undeclared facility.” Should Iran clandestinely master miniaturization and production, it could marry the warhead to a missile at a time when global attention is waning.

The second flaw is an assumption that limiting the debate to warheads would be favorable to the U.S. and the West from a monitoring perspective. In fact, it is just the opposite. Should the focus shift to warheads, the U.S. government should be cognizant of a memo from the co-chairs of a 2014 Defense Science Board Task Force report, which noted that: “The technologies and processes designed for current treaty verification and inspections are inadequate to future monitoring realities.”

A clearly stated example of this challenge was in “accounting for warheads instead of delivery platforms.” At a systemic level, this is a deficiency about being prepared to detect the larger process of weaponization, or any of its component parts. In fact, of all the elements that make up a nuclear weapon (ample fissile material at weapons grade, a working delivery system, and bomb design), the hardest thing to discern would be Iran’s progress on bomb design and trials with explosives. That is why concerns over what Iran experimented with at the Parchin plant are so relevant to a peaceful resolution of the nuclear program. In lieu of that, with low-level enrichment presently ongoing in Iran despite UNSC resolutions to the contrary, focusing on the delivery mechanism would be the wiser choice.

Additionally, another flaw of not focusing on missiles is that it ignores current U.S. legislation on the matter. Contained in the “sunset” clauses of CISADA – the Comprehensive Iran Sanctions, Accountability, and Divestment Act of 2010 (H.R. 2194), is a reference to what it would take to end the penalties the act imposes on Iran. The President must, in addition to a host of other things, attest that “Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons and ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology.” Admittedly, the president can issue waivers, but this may come at some political cost.

Last but not least, having a debate over Iranian nuclear capacity without discussing ballistic missiles represents an analytical shortcoming. It would constitute a failure to connect the dots as to why Iran has been seeking such powerful asymmetric deterrents for three decades. It would also be tacitly accepting all Iranian ballistic missile activity since the passing of UNSCR 1929.

Thus, any deal with Iran must be cognizant of the strategic context from which Iran’s nuclear and missile ambitions arose. It must also clearly define the status of what Iran’s missile and nuclear infrastructure will look like in a post-deal environment.

By addressing this, arms control can play a more supportive role in the effort to check the threats posed by the Islamic Republic. That’s the reason that the JPOA was enacted in the first place: to deal with Iran’s preponderant (read nuclear) threat. But alas, continuing to discuss Iran’s nuclear program absent this strategic backdrop renders any illicit activity by Tehran, nuclear or ballistic-missile related, a mere technical endeavor.


Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies