Missing the Point on Iran’s Ballistic Missiles


Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told a defense exposition this month that his country would “not seek the permission of anyone” to build missiles, affirming “a need for vigilance” against perceived foreign aggression. Yet the Islamic Republic’s diverse missile arsenal has enabled it to engage in belligerence and subversion abroad for over three decades. That’s why no munition has meant more to Tehran’s security planners than ballistic missiles. Accordingly, Iran’s missile capabilities deserve more attention than the previous administration was willing to give.

Recent reports underscore the divergent approaches taken by the Trump and Obama administrations towards Iran and its missiles. As Politico reported Monday, the Obama White House was willing to undercut long-standing U.S. counter-proliferation efforts and investigations by its own Justice Department in the interest of reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran. By contrast, as Foreign Policy revealed a week prior, the Trump White House desires to intensify economic pressure on the regime over its non-nuclear threats like ballistic missiles. The new administration’s approach appears to indicate a cognizance of both the key role missiles play in bolstering the Iranian threat as well as the importance of pressure in dealing with that threat.

Writing in War on the Rocks last month, the Atlantic Council’s Bharath Gopalaswamy and Amir Handjani frame the missile issue much as the previous administration did. They undersell Tehran’s missile program and too often take Iranian arguments about capabilities and intentions at face value. In so doing, they fall into a larger trap: divorcing pressure from the equation of coercive diplomacy with Iran.

The authors assess Tehran’s ballistic missile program through three prisms: the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian security strategy, and coercive diplomacy. First, in describing the diplomacy that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, the authors note the challenge of reaching a consensus over missiles while keeping a unified front among the P5+1 negotiators. The issue of Iran’s missiles, they assert, is separate from the nuclear agreement. Second, they posit that Tehran’s missiles are mostly weapons of deterrence, tracing the program’s origins to the bloody 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War. They also note that Tehran spends considerably less on its military than its regional rivals. Lastly, the authors maintain that “truly multilateral negotiations… as opposed to verbal escalation, sanctions and isolation” are the best path forward to deal with Iran’s missiles.

It is correct to state that Iran’s ballistic missiles are not addressed by the deal. But that was one of the JCPOA’s greatest flaws rather than something to be applauded. In this publication in 2014, as an interim deal known as the Joint Plan of Action was being implemented, I cautioned against ignoring ballistic missiles, a weapon the then-Director of National Intelligence James Clapper assessed to be Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons.” As I related, American negotiators essentially told Congress that fissile material and weaponization mattered more than delivery vehicles. But Tehran clearly has other priorities for its missile force: It has launched up to 14 ballistic missiles since agreeing to the deal, at least 10 of which meet the criterion established by the Missile Technology Control Regime as being “nuclear-capable.”

Worse, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 – which codifies the JCPOA and was passed on July 20, 2015 – waters down provisions related to ballistic missile testing, replacing a stronger resolution. In addition to offering weaker language, the new resolution specifies a ban on missile activities for nuclear-capable platforms that were “designed” as such. But while Iran has claimed to adhere to the resolution by insisting it has no intention of making its missiles nuclear, Washington should remain skeptical given the parallel histories of Iran’s atomic and ballistic missile programs. Creative Iranian interpretations of its missile force and the new resolution should not be permitted to stand unchallenged for the next decade. As Clapper has stated, “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of carrying WMD.”

Additionally, when parsing P5+1 diplomacy with Iran, it is worth remembering that Tehran had both friends (Russia and China) and foes (the United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany) in this group. In fact, pre-deal reporting hinted at the possibility of Russian diplomatic assistance to Iran aimed at collapsing U.N.-mandated arms- and ballistic-missile bans. Given that the new resolution does exactly that, it’s likely there was some tacit collaboration between Moscow and Tehran on the matter. Coupled with an irresolute Western camp and partners like Russia and China paying deference to Iran’s military aspirations, it’s no wonder Tehran was able to stand firm on leaving missiles out of negotiations.

Contesting Iran’s interpretations also requires putting deterrence and defense into perspective when talking about missiles. There is nearconsensus in the strategic studies community on the importance of ballistic missiles for Iran’s past and present attempts to establish deterrence. But believing Iran’s missiles will remain a purely deterrent force ignores the challenges of clearly distinguishing the intent behind certain weapons systems, as well as the role of doctrine. The fact that Iranian officials allege that their missiles are defensive does not mean we should take them at their word.

Developments in future Iranian missile aptitudes also stand to enable new military and political strategies for Tehran. A 2016 Atlantic Council assessment hints at this possibility citing two missiles: a solid-fuel short-range ballistic missile called the Fateh-110, and a liquid-propelled medium-range ballistic missile known as the Emad. The Fateh-110’s domestic upgrades – the Fateh-313 and the Zulfiqar – which purportedly increase its range and accuracy were both tested after the JCPOA was agreed. The Emad, which improves Iran’s re-entry vehicle technology, was similarly tested after the deal.

Moreover, a credible Iranian deterrent does much more than passively defend the regime. It enables the Islamic Republic to actively partake in various theaters of conflict with little fear of reprisal against the Iranian homeland. While establishing deterrence is but one lesson of the Iran-Iraq War, the conflict also acquainted Tehran with the limits of its own conventional military capabilities. This has led to a decades-long investment in local proxy forces and Shiite militias throughout the Middle East. By backing terrorist groups and other non-state actors with relatively cheap weapons, Tehran is able to offset its adversaries’ conventional military advantages. Asymmetrical counter-punching is an accepted idea among Iran’s ruling elite. The militia approach also permits the regime to shape regional conflicts early on and from the ground up, making its strategic interests the cause of local Shiites. Yemen and Syria are instructive cases.

But as Gopalaswamy and Handjani rightly point out in their March article, Iran remains drastically outspent by its regional enemies on national defense. So, how is it able to pose a threat? As my colleague Patrick Megahan and I noted in 2015,

[A] decade of conflict with lightly equipped non-state actors has demonstrated that the Islamic Republic does not need to spend heavily to exact a costly toll on its adversaries.

Iran’s ballistic missiles serve as the perfect example. Compared to developing, testing, and fielding a robust missile defense system, ballistic missiles are relatively cheap and easy to produce. As are explosively formed penetrators, anti-tank weapons, and anti-ship missiles, all of which Tehran has spread throughout the Middle East.

Lastly, while diplomacy is often promoted as the best solution for Iran’s evolving missile capabilities, advocates omit mention of any actual strategy to erode the present threat or achieve a missile deal in the future. Instead, negotiations and sanctions are painted as two divergent policies, missing the point that they can be complementary tools of coercion. If a follow-on deal on ballistic missiles is in the cards, it can only be reached by creatively re-activating economic pressure, which means Congress and the White House need to work in tandem.

If anything, economic and military pressure can help impede Iran’s military modernization and cap its ballistic missile development. Coupled with innovative use of the bully pulpit, such pressure can also influence Tehran’s calculations on flight testing. Since the White House publically put the regime “on notice” in February, Iran has thus far opted against launching any medium-range ballistic missiles, despite engaging in four military drills. It also reportedly withdrew a space-launch vehicle from a launch-pad over concerns surrounding the likely U.S. response. To save face, in mid-March Iran opted to fire two anti-ship ballistic missiles into the Persian Gulf, one of which reportedly missed its target. This restraint appears to indicate a recent awareness of possibly new American red lines and a reembrace of hard power – an appreciation that might dissipate if the West refuses to hold the line against Tehran.

The enduring lesson of the diplomacy that led to the JCPOA is that Washington must relearn what was once common-knowledge: that diplomacy and pressure work best when married together. Therefore, to be successful, statesmen must avail themselves of a “combined arms” approach when dealing with adversaries. Any strategy that relies on diplomacy with nothing behind it would leave Washington again with one arm tied behind its back.


Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior Iran analyst at Foundation for Defense of Democracies

Image: Adam Jones, CC