FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program Continues

August 31, 2015

Iran’s stated plans to continue developing ballistic missiles undermine President Obama’s claim that Tehran will face restrictions on the weaponry for eight years. While the nuclear agreement itself contains no limitations on ballistic missiles, U.N. Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2231, which followed the deal, imposes two: a non-binding restriction on domestic ballistic missile activity and a binding restriction on acquiring missiles from abroad. Such provisions contrast sharply with prior UNSC resolutions, which prohibited both procurement and development of the weaponry. Iran’s defiance thus bodes ill for future prospects of compliance with the overall agreement.

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Pursuit Continues

On August 13, Brigadier General Ahmad Reza Pourdastan, commander of Iran’s ground forces, declared that Tehran plans to stage six war games in the coming months, which will include drills with domestically produced missiles. Major General Hassan Firouzabadi, chief of staff of the Iranian armed forces, asserted three days later that Iran would never surrender its ballistic missile tests or program, noting that the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had approved the forthcoming exercises. On August 20, Iran’s Ministry of Defense and Armed Forces Logistics issued a similar statement: “Iran’s missile activities will not cease.”

On August 21, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan again affirmed Iran’s plans to continue ballistic weapons development. “In the aerospace industry,” he said, “we are producing all ballistic missile ranges,” noting that Iran is “considering the design, research, and production of [missiles] that are highly destructive, highly accurate, radar evasive, and tactical.” Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh, commander of the aerospace division of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), echoed his sentiments. “Some wrongly think Iran has suspended its ballistic missile programs in the last two years and has made a deal on its missile program,” he said, noting that Iran “will have a new ballistic missile test in the near future that will be a thorn in the eyes of our enemies.”

The next day, Iran unveiled a new short-range solid-fuel ballistic missile known as the Fateh-313, which can pinpoint targets more accurately than previous models. With a range of 310 miles, it can strike military facilities in the Arab Gulf states, and, according to the Israel Defense Force, can carry hundreds of kilograms of cluster bombs. The Jewish state has also warned that Iran could transfer the weapon to the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah, which could then use it to strike Israeli territory.

“Nothing can weaken our resolve in the defensive field,” said Iran’s Defense Minister Dehghan. “We will design and produce any missiles that we want in proportion to threats; we will conduct drills and tests in due time … and increase the range of our missiles in proportion to possible threats.” President Hassan Rouhani expressed even greater defiance. “We will buy, sell and develop any weapons we need,” he said in a speech at the unveiling ceremony, “and we will not ask for permission or abide by any [U.N.] resolution for that.” On Saturday, Rouhani said: “With regards to our defensive capability, we did not and will not accept any limitations. We will do whatever we need to do to defend our country, whether with missiles or other methods.”

If Tehran acts on these statements, it may violate the binding restrictions on the acquisition of ballistic missiles and conventional arms.

Iran’s Ballistic Missile Arsenal

Today, Iran possesses more than 800 short- and medium-range missiles that can reach virtually any target in the Middle East as well as parts of southeastern Europe. Tehran is actively seeking missiles with even longer ranges, including intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), that can strike Western Europe and the United States. “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD,” states the Worldwide Threat Assessment of the US Intelligence Community, “and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.”

Iran’s current arsenal includes the Shahab series missile, which has a range of 185-800 miles, the Qiam (300-450 miles), and the Qadr (900-1200 miles), among others. Tehran has also developed an anti-ship ballistic missile that can target U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf. The regime’s use of mobile launchers and underground silos makes it difficult to strike the missiles before they are launched.

Iran actively seeks to acquire an ICBM, which would amount to the most dangerous weapon in its arsenal. Using its space program as a cover for this objective, Iran recently launched an experimental satellite into Earth’s orbit containing technology that could “contribute to” Tehran’s “development of a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” according to a June 2015 U.N. report.

Toothless Restrictions

Iran’s continued pursuit of ballistic missiles since the nuclear agreement should hardly come as a surprise: Iran simply took the U.N. resolution at its word. As Simon Chin and Valerie Lincy of the Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control put it in a detailed analysis, the resolution ensures that the regime’s “efforts to advance its nuclear-capable ballistic missile program — through test launches, production, and illicit procurement — will be made easier, while attempts to punish or deter Iran’s ballistic missile activity and illicit procurement will be made more difficult.”

UNSCR 2231 states that Iran is merely “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” (emphasis added). Such non-binding language effectively absolves Iran of any legal obligations, a position Iran’s foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, explicitly hailed before the Iranian parliament on July 21. By contrast, UNSCR 1929 (2010), the fifth, most recent, and now defunct resolution sanctioning Iran’s ballistic missile program, states bindingly that Iran “shall not undertake” ballistic missile-related activity (emphasis added).

In this context, the U.N. resolution has created a new loophole. In his appearance before the parliament, Zarif said the resolution “speaks about missiles with nuclear warheads capability and since we don’t design any of our missiles for carrying nuclear weapons, therefore, this paragraph is not related to us at all.” Similarly, according to a summary of the agreement produced by Iranian state media on July 14, “Obligations on banning Iran’s activities in missile sector such as ballistic missiles will change to limits on missiles designed for nuclear weapons that the Islamic Republic of Iran has never wanted or will never want in the future.”

Such claims, however, are disingenuous. As David A. Cooper of the U.S. Naval War College stated in written House testimony on June 10, “Nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs typically have been developed hand in glove, to the extent that no country that has not aspired to possess nuclear weapons has ever opted to sustain an indigenous intermediate- or longer-range ballistic missile program” (emphasis his). Robert Joseph, a former under secretary of state for arms control and international security, stated in written Senate testimony on August 4, “if the agreement effectively blocks Iran’s path to nuclear weapons, why would Tehran continue to work on a costly weapon system that could never be effectively armed?”

Thus, even though Iran also develops missiles that cannot carry a nuclear warhead, including the Fateh-313, its pursuit of them as part of a larger program points to broader nuclear ambitions. As Michael Eisenstadt of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy noted, the “resources invested” in Iranian launch options “are unprecedented for a conventionally armed force, which indicates that at least some of these missiles would likely be nuclear armed if Iran eventually goes that route.” The U.N. resolution’s failure to recognize this reality encourages Iran to advance its ballistic missiles program rather than halt it.

Finally, while UNSCR 2231 indicates that the ballistic missile embargo on foreign acquisitions remains binding, the absence of a meaningful enforcement mechanism renders the prohibition toothless. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted on August 11, the snapback provisions in the nuclear agreement apply neither to the ballistic missile embargo nor to the conventional arms embargo. “It is tied to a separate set of obligations,” he said. “So they are not in material breach of the nuclear agreement for violating the arms piece of it.” Likewise, while the resolution would enable the Security Council to sanction individuals and entities linked to ballistic missiles, the “designation process would be time consuming,” as Chin and Lincy put it, and would not include the snapback of all U.N. sanctions, thereby severely limiting the penalty’s efficacy.


The text of the nuclear agreement states that the parties will “refrain from any action inconsistent with [its] letter, spirit and intent” (Preamble and General Provisions, viii). Apparently, though, according to Iran, its pursuit of ballistic missiles remains consistent with the deal’s spirit and intent, and suggests that Tehran will exploit any loophole or omission in the U.N. resolution to advance its nuclear ambitions.

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