Expert Commentary

Nebulous Language Enables Tehran’s Missile Ambitions

David Cooper
Professor and Chair, Department of National Security Affairs, U.S. Naval War College

Although the U.S. has stated that Iran remains in compliance with the Iran nuclear deal, Tehran continues to expand its ballistic missile capabilities and conduct missile tests, which the U.S. and its allies have argued violate the agreement. The Iranian government has asserted that these tests are aimed at boosting Iran’s offensive and defensive conventional capabilities, but the Trump Administration and other U.S. allies have rejected these claims as misleading. The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel spoke with David Cooper, professor and Chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College about why Iran is enhancing its ballistic missile arsenal and if these tests do in fact violate the Iran nuclear agreement.

The Cipher Brief: What are Iran’s objectives in building up its ballistic missile capabilities?

David Cooper: Unfortunately, Iran’s objectives are all too clear. No nation has pursued indigenous intermediate or longer range ballistic missiles that was not also seeking nuclear weapons in tandem. The weapons and the missiles to deliver them go together hand in glove. Conversely, there is no nation that sincerely made a strategic decision to give up an existing nuclear weapons ambition that did not give up the associated missile programs.

History is not proof, but ballistic missiles turn out to be a strong litmus test for nuclear intentions. In fact, I would say that the single most reliable indicator of an intent to acquire nuclear weapons is the pursuit of long-range ballistic missile programs. The fact that Iran continues to invest so much and is going full bore on its missile programs therefore raises very worrying implications about what it’s long-term strategic intentions are in terms of nuclear weapons.

The Cipher Brief: The Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) halted Iran’s nuclear activity but not its ballistic missile programs. How does the timeline for Iran’s ballistic missile development coincide with some of the sunset clauses outlined in the JCPOA? In other words, by the time some of the restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program are lifted pursuant to the JCPOA, how far along will Iran’s ballistic capabilities be?

Cooper: That was a significant cause for concern leading up to the JCPOA agreement that myself and a number of other analysts pointed to, which is that developing long-range missile capability can be a more difficult and longer-term proposition than developing the actual nuclear weapons. And we’ve seen this before, for example with North Korea, which has nuclear explosives but is still working, rather feverishly in fact, to field a force of intercontinental-range ballistic missiles.

So that’s exactly the worry in the case of Iran. What the Iran nuclear agreement essentially does is impose a time-bound pause of Iran’s nuclear weapons capabilities along with some monitoring provisions to try to prevent cheating. But the worry is that the Iranians may not even need to cheat and instead can just wait the thing out. Meanwhile, they continue to make progress on the missiles.

Remember, Iran was already thought to be pretty much where it presumably wanted to be in terms of nuclear weapons technology. Former U.S. President Barack Obama said that one of the accomplishments of the agreement was to move Iran from just a few months away from being able to produce a nuclear weapon to a year or more. But that means that even now, they are within a year or so of the “breakout” capability to do that.

But Iran has a longer road ahead on the missile front, where they too are working feverishly just like the North Koreans. Put simply, the nuclear agreement has at best paused one aspect of becoming a nuclear weapons power, the weapons themselves, where Iran had already gotten close to the finish line, while allowing the Iranians to continue making progress on developing, producing, and deploying ever longer-range and more accurate missiles. Worse still, because of sanctions relief, including the release of vast frozen assets that had been held by the United States for decades, the nuclear deal has infused Iran with new resources that it can plow into its missile programs. All of this at the same time the nuclear deal gives Tehran a greater sense of international legitimacy for abiding by the agreement.

TCB: Do Iran’s missile tests violate United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231, which states “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology?”

Cooper: Initially, I for one was reassured when this language was included in UNSCR 2231, which is the implementing resolution that gives JCPOA broad international standing, since I had been fearful that missiles would be left out altogether.  At the same time, I was concerned that this language is fuzzier than what had been in place before, under the resolution that it was replacing, UNSCR 1929. “Called upon” is not really tough language in the world of UN resolutions.

But the Obama Administration believed, and certainly represented, that this amounted to a parallel arrangement and that, because it was in the JCPOA implementing resolution, it would restrain Iran’s missile program. So I was actually at least a bit reassured by those assurances by the prior Administration when JCPOA was being debated in Washington.  Even though the U.S. negotiators were not able to get missile restrictions explicitly in the agreement, they thought they had still had this problem addressed in this side agreement.

Of course the Iranians just blew through that missile language almost as soon as the main agreement went into effect, and so far they have not suffered any serious consequences. Despite the assurances from the Obama Administration to the contrary, others, notably the Russians, have pointed to the fuzziness of that language and basically have characterized it as more of a guideline than a rule. So it’s hard to escape the conclusion that either the Obama administration never really was focusing on the missiles, or if they did think they had addressed them effectively, then they seem to have been bamboozled.

TCB: And the missiles that Iran has been testing since the JCPOA was implemented would fall under the category of ballistic missiles prohibited by the side agreement?

Cooper: Without any doubt. There are short-range cruise and ballistic missiles and rocket systems that have useful conventional warfighting capabilities, but once you’re into the longer-range missiles of the kind Iran is developing, then these are associated with nuclear weapons.

In the past, there have worries about countries developing missile capabilities under the guise of peaceful space launch programs, since the underlying technologies are the same. But the Iranians have not really even been bothering with such a pretext. Instead they’ve been parading the missiles overtly as offensive military missiles. So there really is no question that Iran is doing things that UNSCR-2231 says they shouldn’t be doing.  And if you look past the bluster of Iranian statements, which talk about their right to have missiles and that missiles are not part of the nuclear deal, if you parse through them, what you notice is that they don’t really offer an alternative explanation about why they need these long-range missiles if not as potential nuclear delivery systems.

The Cipher Brief: Are additional U.S. sanctions the most effective response to Iranian ballistic missile developments and tests? 

Cooper: Sanctions are necessary but not sufficient. I wrote a piece in The Washington Quarterly last fall where I predicted that if Donald Trump was elected President, he wouldn’t tear up the Iran nuclear deal on his first day in office as many expected, and suggesting that he shouldn’t, even though in my judgement he is absolutely correct that this was a bad deal. Why? Because one of the things that makes it a bad deal is that it frontloaded the benefits for the Iranians in what for all intents are irreversible ways. We are not getting those planeloads of cash back, and at least Russia is almost certain to resist re-imposing so-called “snap back” sanctions under any foreseeable circumstances. So the bottom line is that if the U.S. pulls out of the deal absent a convincing smoking gun that Iran has been cheating egregiously, then Iran will keep most of the gain and Washington will get most of the blame.

But just because pulling out now may not be a smart move doesn’t mean that we should fool ourselves that the deal has solved the Iran nuclear problem even as they continue the missile chase. We therefore need to take active steps to thwart them on missiles.  Getting back to your question, sanctions are one key part of how we try to do that. Unilateral sanctions are not going to be as effective as what we had on the international level before the deal, but imposing tough unilateral sanctions targeting the missiles is an obvious step.

Needless to say, Iran will claim that imposing these sanctions violates our obligations under the nuclear deal, but they can’t have it both ways on this one – if missiles are not covered by the deal as they assert, then missile sanctions can’t reasonably be part of the deal either, particularly in response to missile tests that came after the deal.  It is also important to try to get like-minded countries, including our closest allies, to join us in imposing these types of sanctions. That is all necessary and will at least claw back some of the free ride that Iran has been enjoying for its missile programs since the nuclear deal. But missile sanctions alone will not solve the problem.

Another area for action that does not get enough attention is the need to ramp up other efforts, beyond sanctions, to impede Iran’s overt missile programs along with any covert aspects of a residual nuclear weapons program. Since we should not assume that Iran has given up on nuclear weapons now and forever – because those missiles are telling a different story – we need to do everything we can to make that harder for them, regardless of whether or not we remain in JCPOA. That basically means using what is called supply-side non-proliferation. There is a whole range of things we should and could be doing, things like bolstering existing post-licensing verification of dual-use technology going to Iran, and reinvigorating the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI).

But frankly, these things are just too technical and down in the weeds to get the high-level political attention that sanctions receive. But they should get attention, because we should be targeting the Iranian missile and nuclear programs to try to make it as hard as possible for Iran to spoof the system. But time is very short. There is a point on a missile program where a country is going to have accumulated enough knowledge, expertise, and indigenous capabilities that cutting off external sources of help is going to have diminishing and marginal returns. We’re approaching that point already, and given that Iran has a very long history of spoofing export controls, we really should be moving quickly.

Finally, while Iran is busy building up its missile forces, we need to be building up the means to contain them. This means missile defenses as well as the modernization of our own nuclear forces and doctrine. That’s something that is not unique to the Iranian threat, but also applies to the North Korean situation and others. 

The Cipher Brief: At what point do you believe Iran will be satisfied with their capabilities? Once they actually mount a nuclear warhead on a missile or just when they reach a level where they can threaten to do so?

Cooper: From a U.S. perspective, it almost doesn’t matter. Whether Iran follows the North Korean model, and having signed up to an agreement, then suddenly turns around says, just kidding, we were doing it and now it’s too late to stop, or whether they tiptoe up to the threshold and everyone understands they’re just a few months away and that they can do it at any time, it almost doesn’t matter. In terms of the strategic impact of that regionally and globally, either way it will have profoundly negative influences.

That’s the genius about what Iran is doing with these missies. As I said earlier, they are not even pretending that they are anything other than offensive missiles. By having these missile tests and parading these missiles, Iran is essentially getting all of the threat value and scaring those who they wish to, and doing so without actually violating the agreement, without having an actual nuclear weapons test, or provoking international reactions that would really be worrisome to them.

In a sense, Iran has very skillfully threaded this needle where it can say it is not pursuing nuclear weapons and that the agreement doesn’t technically ban missiles, but everyone understands what those missiles are for, and Iran doesn’t work too hard to hide what they are for.  As Iran shows it is making progress on that front at longer and longer ranges up to eventually testing an intercontinental-ballistic missile, then it gets huge intimidation value without even needing to cross the nuclear threshold.

The views expressed by Dr. Cooper are solely his own and do not represent positions of the U.S. Naval War College or any agency or organization.

The Author is David Cooper

David A. Cooper has served as Chair of the Department of National Security Affairs at the U.S. Naval War College since 2010 and holds a faculty appointment as The James V. Forrestal Professor of National Security Affairs. Dr. Cooper is a scholar-practitioner who served for almost two decades on the professional staff of the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD), where he held tenured career appointment in the Senior Executive Service (SES). His last SES assignment was in a 2-star... Read More

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