Constraining Iran’s missile program is a worthwhile objective, but the muddled U.S. approach of sanctions and name-calling appears less likely to contain than to promote it. In the face of recent U.S. criticism, Iranians, ranging from hardline conservatives through reform-minded officials, are more united than ever in support of what they see as their country’s main deterrent against aggression.
Iran in early March staged two days of nationwide ballistic missile launches, the third such tests since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement last summer. The Obama administration has responded with denunciations and a second round of sanctions targeting the missile program. President Barack Obama, on April 1st at the Nuclear Security Summit, criticized the tests, along with Iran’s regional activities, for undermining the “spirit” of last year’s accord.
Iran’s leaders probably do not recognize the spirit the President mentioned, at least not as far as missiles are concerned. Tehran has long held that it is entitled to develop the conventional capabilities—including missiles—to deter and defend against attacks. And, since the JCPOA’s signing, Iran has argued that the agreement does not prohibit such military activities.
Iran’s strongly conservative Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the influential Friday prayer leaders he controls have championed missiles as essential to Iran’s defense, while suggesting that Washington was acting in bad faith by using missile tests as a pretext to not fulfill commitments and prevent Iran from re-integrating economically with the world. Hardline senior Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers, who oppose JCPOA and are generally skeptical of relations with the West, appear happy to goad Washington with anti-Israel statements while describing the program’s continuation as an Iranian red line.
President Hassan Rouhani and his administration’s more moderate members have been similarly supportive of the missile program. They strongly denied that the tests violated UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA and provided for the termination of a previous Security Council resolution on Iran’s missile program. Iranian legislators, meanwhile, say that Iran will increase the program’s budget.
Missiles and deterrence are not some theoretical matter for Iran’s leaders. Foreign Minister Muhammad Javad Zarif recently stated that if Iran had wielded ballistic missiles in 1980, Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein would not have dared to attack. Khamenei, Rouhani, and other current Iranian leaders, already senior officials during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, were in Tehran during the conflict’s final year when roughly 140 Iraqi ballistic missiles hit the Iranian capital over a two-month period, causing more than a million residents to flee.
Spurred by this experience, Iran now has the largest ballistic missile forces in the Middle East, with the ability to strike targets throughout the region. Iran, however, has largely focused on its missile forces because its air, naval, and other capabilities to project power are weak in comparison to regional rivals, especially when U.S. military forces are included in the assessment. In addition, most of Iran’s adversaries, with U.S. help, have strong missile defense systems protecting them. For Iran, this security dilemma has placed a premium on developing more accurate, more numerous, and more survivable missiles.
All of which makes it unlikely Iranian leaders felt a JCPOA spirit that would bar the testing of such an important element of Iran’s national security. The topic of limiting Iran’s missiles was indeed raised early in the negotiations, but Iran resisted its inclusion, and no direct linkage between Iran’s nuclear and missile programs was established in the agreement. Later, Iran, with Russian and Chinese support, wanted all missile provisions dropped from Resolution 2231. Tehran compromised in the final version by accepting non-binding language to refrain from ballistic missile activity “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Because Tehran holds that it has no nuclear weapons, it views missile launches as not being prohibited under the resolution.
Iran’s deterrent strategy rests so heavily on missiles that coercive efforts to constrain or eliminate them can only increase Iran’s insecurity, forcing it to resist even more strongly. But, there are reasons to think negotiations restricting Iran’s missile development are possible. For example, Iran’s emphasis on accuracy over range makes sense if it has indeed decided to forego seeking nuclear weapons as agreed to in the JCPOA. In addition, according to an Iranian official working for Rouhani, Iran already intends to limit its ballistic missile forces to a range of 2,000-2,300 kilometers, because its strategic defense plan currently sees no justification for higher ranges.
Interestingly, none of the three Iranian missile tests since last fall have included the system viewed as a possible foundation for an intercontinental ballistic missile. In fact, the solid fuel Sejjil-2 medium-range ballistic missile was last tested in 2009. In the past month, an anonymous U.S. defense official alleged that the liquid-fueled Simorgh space launch vehicle, also touted as a base for a future ICBM after a mock-up first appeared in 2010, was used for the first time in what was described as either an unsuccessful launch or a test of only the rocket’s third stage. This absence of significant progress in these programs after several years—regardless of cause—suggests that there might be room for a formal agreement limiting the range of Iranian missiles and perhaps offering more transparency into Iran’s missile program and capabilities.
Rouhani already has established his desire and willingness to negotiate on critical security issues in the region and, as he defended the missile program, he reiterated that Iran is prepared for better relations with the world. Even Khamenei in his recent statements allowed for future negotiations with the West, suggesting that Iran’s missiles enabled Tehran to confidently negotiate by strengthening its bargaining position. Iran, however, is unlikely to unilaterally surrender its primary defenses without some significant improvement in its security.
Therefore, Washington should explore with Iran the opening offers for negotiations, as suggested by William Luers, Thomas Pickering, and Greg Thielmann in an article in The National Interest last February. This might include a freeze on the current range of Iran’s missiles—around 2,000 kilometers—to complement the JCPOA’s nonproliferation objectives. Possible incentives for Iran might include increased civil and scientific collaboration in areas, including Iran’s space program, not directed towards military capabilities.
Admittedly, negotiations with Tehran over its missile program almost certainly will be opposed by Israel and Saudi Arabia, who would remain within reach—as they are now—of an Iranian missile force restricted to a 2,000 kilometer range. But, both countries have robust and improving missile defenses capable of handling Iran’s current inventory of short- and medium-range missiles. Should Iran, having giving up its path to a nuclear weapons capability, then stop work on developing strategic missiles, regional security would be improved. Without a means for Iran to threaten the regional states’ U.S .and European allies, the military balance would weigh more heavily against Iran, reducing any later Iranian inclination to use missiles for coercion or aggression. A major sticking point that needs to be anticipated and addressed is a likely request by the Iranians—always sensitive to double standards—that their regional rivals agree to similar constraints on their offensive missile capabilities.
In the near term, any Iranian openness to future negotiations will be affected by how the U.S. continues to handle differences over interpreted obligations under the JCPOA agreement and Resolution 2231. As of now, U.S. criticism and sanctions—plus some of the extreme rhetoric from Republican presidential candidates—appear to bolster Iranian hardliner arguments against future dealings with the United States. In early April, IRGC Commander Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari questioned whether the limited achievements of the first JCPOA should make Iran look for other agreements. Polling from early March suggested that the Iranian public already was losing enthusiasm for the JCPOA along with its confidence that the United States will abide by the agreement’s terms.
A renewed U.S. emphasis on providing incentives to change Iran’s behavior and allow Tehran to receive more of the JCPOA’s anticipated economic gains would go a long way toward undermining the Iranian hardline conservative case against negotiations. In such conditions, Rouhani probably would be better able to argue that compromises on high-cost strategic missile systems, which absent nuclear warheads have limited value, would redound to Iran’s benefit. And, this would serve American and its regional allies’ security interests as well.