Iran’s Ballistic Missiles: Threading the Needle

September 25, 2014

Iran’s ballistic missile forces, the strongest in its neighborhood, are a clear threat to stability in the Middle East. Iran might someday make a nuclear weapon and put it atop one of those missiles, raising the danger even further. That isn’t just a pipe dream — solid evidence emerged about a decade ago that Iran had conducted preliminary research into making a nuclear warhead and modifying one of its missiles to accommodate a payload “consistent with” the size of that warhead. The West should be worried, and we should be working to head off the possibility of an Iranian nuclear missile.

How can we do that? Writing at War on the Rocks, Behnam Ben Taleblu of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies argues that the missile issue needs to be on the agenda of the current nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 (Germany plus the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council: the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, and China). Taleblu notes that the issue is “remarkably absent” from the framework of current phase of the negotiations — the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) — and suggests that the failure to include it has been a serious error. He makes several arguments for why this is the case.

First, he warns that Iran’s existing missile stockpile is nuclear capable and is “already a threat to its neighbors and the region due to [its] ability to either deter or compel adversaries.”

“The retention of such a capacity,” he says, allows Iran to choose, at some future date when it’s not in the spotlight, to move toward matching one of those missiles with a warhead.

Second, he notes that the Defense Science Board has warned that tracking warheads is harder than tracking “delivery platforms” like missiles and that its current methods are “inadequate” to the task. Thus, by failing to make Iran’s potential delivery platforms an issue, the West weakens its ability to detect and monitor the final steps of an Iranian move toward a nuclear missile.

Third, he observes that current U.S. sanctions law on Iran requires the president to certify that “Iran has ceased the pursuit, acquisition, and development of…ballistic missiles and ballistic missile launch technology” before lifting sanctions, or he must certify that waiving sanctions “is in the national interest of the United States.” Taleblu rightly points out that issuing these waivers is likely to have a political cost.

Fourth, he argues that “any deal with Iran must be cognizant of the strategic context from which Iran’s nuclear and missile ambitions arose,” and must “clearly define the status of what Iran’s missile and nuclear infrastructure will look like in a post-deal environment.” Iran “has been seeking…powerful asymmetric deterrents for three decades” — a point which applies not only to ballistic missiles, but also to Iran’s extensive array of militant proxies, its threats to shipping in the Strait of Hormuz, its growing cyber capabilities, and its long history of covert action and terrorism. Deal with the strategic context of Iran’s asymmetric strategy, and arms control falls back into a “supportive role” in dealing with the broader Iranian threat. Deal with the nuclear program in isolation, and the “mere technical endeavor” of creating a nuclear missile drowns out the broader concern.

Taleblu’s first concern is indeed a serious one. There are limits to Iran’s current capability to use its ballistic missiles as a deterrent, of course: the United States doesn’t believe that Iran’s early designs for a nuclear missile would have worked, and a 2011 study by Joshua R. Itzkowitz Shifrinson and Miranda Priebe argued that “in a military sense, the Iranian missile threat to Saudi Arabian—and, by extension, Persian Gulf—oil is overstated.” Yet Iran’s nuclear-missile designs might have advanced, and Itzkowitz Shifrinson and Priebe note that more accurate Iranian missiles could change the threat to the region’s oil infrastructure. We do know that Iran has worked on some forms of improved ballistic-missile guidance. Further, Iran’s current array of medium- and short-range ballistic missiles might someday be augmented by long-range and intercontinental systems, rendering them a threat to some of America’s core allies and eventually to the continental United States itself. Just when these threats might arrive isn’t clear — we’ve been worrying they were near for some time now. But a strategic perspective requires that this potential threat be weighed.

Yet we run into a great difficulty here. Ballistic missiles are a classic dual-use technology. They can deliver weapons of mass destruction, but they can also deliver conventional warheads. Since international law traditionally offers a rather wide berth of acceptable defense authorizations by conventional measures, ballistic missiles face rather few blanket international restrictions. Those that exist, such as the Hague Code of Conduct, are feeble, not universally subscribed, and/or are principally concerned with preventing the transfer of missile technologies rather than their development. There are U.N. Security Council resolutions that apply to Iran in particular; but again, these are principally concerned with preventing the transfer of technology. Resolution 1929 does bar Iran from “undertak[ing] any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology,” yet the emphasis on the nuclear capability suggests this is one of the “nuclear-related sanctions” that the Joint Plan of Action explicitly says will be comprehensively lifted in a final deal.

Iran’s nuclear negotiators can be aggressively legalistic when it suits them, and they’re sure to raise these points if the issue of Iranian ballistic missiles as a general threat are brought up in the P5+1 talks. They’ll also note that Saudi Arabia has ballistic missiles of its own, that like Iran, it is not a party to the Hague Code of Conduct or the Missile Technology Control Regime, and that Iran and Saudi Arabia are not alone in their region in failing to fully embrace the broader international nonproliferation regime.

In short, then, we’d likely find that the Iranians would treat efforts to bring Iran’s ballistic missiles writ large into the negotiations now as an additional request outside the scope of the JPOA. Some of our dear friends in the P5+1 have been cross with us lately, and might take Iran’s side, either directly in negotiations or by resisting efforts to keep some sanctions on after a deal.

Taking the P5+1 negotiations outside the JPOA framework would be a mistake if we don’t think those talks are already doomed. It exposes the nuclear talks — which, in the grim context of U.S.-Islamic Republic relations, have been quite productive — to contamination from other, tougher issues. There is a saying about war that the enemy always gets a vote on your battle plan. The same is true of diplomacy. The Iranians may believe that they already have a lot of things we want, as evidenced by an offer by senior Iranian officials to work with America against the Islamic State in return for what Reuters described as “more flexibility on Iran’s uranium enrichment program.”

Iran’s regional influence has been waxing lately, with Shiite forces extracting concessions from the government of Yemen and Iranian proxies taking on big responsibilities in keeping Baghdad and Damascus on their feet. It’d be a bad precedent to make concessions on proliferation in a direct exchange for political help elsewhere, especially when that help is itself of dubious quality. Yet these are the sorts of issues that could infect the talks if we tried to get the Iranians to talk ballistic missiles.

And the asymmetric dynamics that Taleblu raises militate against Iranian cooperation, too. Iran’s asymmetric deterrent strategies arise from its inability to compete conventionally with its largest rival — the United States — and the long decline of Iran’s once-mighty air force. Why would Iran give up an important element of its asymmetric strategy (the missiles) at the same time as it delays its option (the nuclear program) to move away from asymmetry and towards strategic deterrence? And if Iran were to merely allow monitoring of its missile program rather than giving it up entirely, there are other problems. The monitoring necessary to ensure Iran’s missile forces remain fully conventional might give us a greater ability to knock out that missile force, since we’d need at least some information on the numbers and locations of Iran’s conventional missiles. However, reciprocity — the traditional way that such arms-control deals are held together — would be hard to come by. Would America and other nations Iran views as threatening grant reciprocal access to their own conventional forces, a la Open Skies? Not likely at current levels of distrust — the power imbalances between Iran and United States would make such an arrangement cold comfort for Tehran, anyway.

How can we address the Iranian threat when prospects for real results on the missile issue are limited? We’re already moving in the right direction. Regardless of how advanced Iran’s ballistic missiles get, you can’t make a nuclear missile without a nuclear warhead, and you can’t make a nuclear warhead without nuclear material. The current negotiation process under the JPOA will, if successful, limit Iran’s enrichment activities and its stockpiles of nuclear material while subjecting the process to closer monitoring. That doesn’t eliminate the missile threat, but it mitigates it. The added transparency will also provide greater insight into Iranian intentions and greater warning of an Iranian nuclear breakout. Good ballistic-missile controls could be strained by conventional Iranian missile activities, which in the wake of a deal, might not violate international law. Good enrichment controls would face pressure from allowed activities, too, but in a way that’s much more clearly within the scope and capability of the JPOA to address and which a post-deal Iran would have far fewer excuses in hiding. The agreed point of the deal is, after all, to “ensure Iran’s nuclear programme will be exclusively peaceful.” Hiding nuclear activities after a deal would call that into question. Hiding conventional missile activities would not.

Taleblu is quite right to flag Iran’s ballistic missiles as an area of serious concern. Yet Iran’s nuclear program remains the more serious threat. We must not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. A slim-chance bid to comprehensively reduce the ballistic missile threat isn’t worth risking our best efforts to prevent an Iranian bomb.


John Allen Gay, an assistant managing editor at The National Interest, is coauthor of War with Iran: Political, Military, and Economic Consequences (Rowman and Littlefield, 2013). He tweets at @JohnAllenGay.


Photo credit: The Israel Project (adapted by WOTR)