FPI Bulletin: Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program Mirrors Nuclear Pursuit

June 15, 2015

Iran’s continued development of its ballistic missile program demonstrates its determination to acquire a nuclear weapon despite ongoing negotiations with the P5+1. As the foremost delivery mechanism for any nuclear payload, ballistic missiles constitute an indispensable component of Iran’s nuclear infrastructure—not, as President Obama’s negotiating strategy suggests, a discretionary component that Tehran can retain in good faith as part of a final nuclear deal.

A Projection of Power
Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal emerged during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s thanks largely to the support of North Korea, China and Russia, with Tehran firing more than 600 rockets over the course of the conflict. Today, Iran possesses the largest number of ballistic missiles in the region. Its arsenal can reach virtually any target in the Middle East, including Israel and the Arab Gulf states.
The threat of Iran’s ballistic missiles stems not only from the possibility of their use, but also from their potential to serve as a means of intimidation. As a 2014 Pentagon report noted, Iran’s ballistic missile program aims “to project power in the region.” In March 2015 congressional testimony, Rebeccah L. Heinrichs of the George Marshall Institute observed that missiles constitute a “cost-effective way for a country like Iran to pose an asymmetric threat to much more militarily sophisticated countries like the U.S. and are powerful weapons for coercion; therefore, Iran is motivated to keep and improve its arsenal.”
Similarly, in a 2010 report to Congress, then-Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Dennis Blair said the Iranian regime “views its conventionally armed missiles as an integral part of its strategy to deter—and if necessary retaliate against—forces in the region, including US forces. Its ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and if so armed, would fit into this same strategy.” In a February 2015 report, DNI James R. Clapper called ballistic missiles the “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons.” In her March 2015 testimony, Heinrichs also noted that ballistic missiles could deliver chemical and biological weapons.
A Rapidly Advancing Program
More recently, a June 2015 U.N. report stated that Tehran, in February, had launched an experimental satellite into Earth’s orbit containing technology that could “contribute to” Iran’s “development of a ballistic missile capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” The document further noted that the episode resembles a similar Iranian satellite launch in 2011 that also used ballistic missile technology.
Iran, experts say, may be using the space program as a cover to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), which could directly threaten the U.S. homeland and Western Europe. In testimony before a House Foreign Affairs Committee (HFAC) subcommittee hearing last week, retired Lt. Gen. Michael T. Flynn, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the regime’s “progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).”
The Iranians “are making significant advances in the space program that have a direct correlation to the kind of booster test you would need for an ICBM,” said Anthony H. Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, who testified on the same panel as Lt. Gen. Flynn. “I think those physical indicators,” he added, “are very much something that you need to pay attention to.”
U.S. Policy on Iran’s Ballistic Missile and Nuclear Programs
The Obama administration, for its part, has offered mixed messages about the importance of resolving international concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program. In February 2014 congressional testimony, U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman said the program “is indeed something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.” At the same time, she argued, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would ensure that the “delivery mechanism, as important as it is, is less important.” In July 2014, she stated in further testimony that U.S. concerns relate not to “ballistic missiles, per se. It is about when a missile is combined with a nuclear warhead.”
The later position seems to have prevailed, since the U.S. version of the April 2 framework agreement addresses ballistic missiles only indirectly, noting that a future U.N. Security Council resolution would clarify their status. The Iranian version of the agreement, as well as a joint statement between Tehran and the European Union released concurrently, fails to mention ballistic missiles at all.
Unfortunately, the Obama administration’s approach to the problem reflects a misunderstanding of the nature of the missile threat. “Nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs,” said David A. Cooper of the U.S. Naval War College in HFAC testimony last week, “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). In other words, the only countries that develop intermediate- or longer-range missiles are countries that want to equip them with nuclear weapons. If Iran insists on developing these kinds of ballistic missiles “with no plausible answer for why they would still need these capabilities if not to deliver nuclear weapons,” Cooper added, “then it raises troubling questions about their ultimate goals.”
As Robert Joseph, who served as under secretary of state for arms control and international security during the George W. Bush administration, also stated in HFAC testimony last week, “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?”
Tehran has dismissed such concerns, however. In May 2014, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, called Western demands to curb the missile program “stupid and idiotic,” and has maintained his intransigence ever since. Yet the Obama administration has failed to challenge Tehran’s provocative stance because it fails to understand why it is so dangerous.
U.S. and International Sanctions
Iran has developed ballistic missiles despite five UNSC sanctions resolutions between 2006 and 2010, and an array of unilateral U.S. sanctions, that target the program. The most recent U.N. measure, UNSCR 1929 (2010), prohibits Iran from undertaking “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” U.S. sanctions legislation such as the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act has targeted companies that assist the regime in acquiring missile delivery systems.
According to the U.S. version of the April 2 framework agreement, ballistic missile sanctions “will remain in place under the deal”; the international community would lift only nuclear-related sanctions. Yet as the Associated Press reported last week, the administration may backtrack on this approach by offering Tehran relief on sanctions related to ballistic missiles, terrorism, human rights, and money laundering in order to produce a substantial sanctions relief package.
Such a policy would constitute a profound error. It would effectively lead to the collapse of the sanctions architecture, emboldening Iran to continue its ballistic missile development and hence cheat on its nuclear commitments under a deal. It would also send Tehran the message that it can expect to receive dramatic concessions from the United States without offering any meaningful compromises of its own.
If the Obama administration allows Iran to keep its ballistic missile program in order to persuade Tehran to sign a final deal, no one should be surprised when the threat continues to grow, both in terms of size and in terms of sophistication. The administration’s complacency is especially troubling since Iran could develop the means to launch a direct and rapid strike on the United States or its allies. Despite the lip service paid to the notion that a bad deal with Iran is worse than no deal at all, the administration’s indifference to the ballistic missile threat demonstrates once again that it will make any and every concession required to get to yes with Tehran.

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