The missile impasse

By Ariane Tabatabai | July 11, 2015

Upon resuming talks to end the nuclear crisis with the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany) in 2013, Iran made it clear that its missile program was behind a redline and would not be negotiated away. The missile program, Tehran argued, was an entirely separate issue from the nuclear program, part of the country's conventional capabilities and not aimed at deploying non-conventional weapons such as nuclear warheads.

In the months that followed, the expert community raised the issue of Iranian missiles as a sticking point; many experts argued that without limitations on Iran's missile program, a nuclear deal would fail to reassure the international community that Tehran would not be able to develop and deploy nuclear weapons. But this debate didn't translate into the talks themselves, where the issue of the Iranian missile program didn't become a sticking point—until the 11th hour.

Last week, Tehran's missile program arose—seemingly suddenly—as an obstacle with the potential to derail the process altogether. In the days leading to the original July 30 deadline, the main obstacles to reaching a comprehensive deal on limiting Iran's nuclear program remained economic sanctions, the possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program, and technical details, such as those concerning Tehran's capacity for enriching uranium. But after that initial deadline passed, and leading up to a July 10 deadline relating to US congressional review, a new hurdle appeared on what had seemed a clear path a deal. The missile issue now seems to be the only key matter blocking the way to a deal. At base, the issue is simple: The West wants Tehran to limit its contentious missile program. Instead, Iran has tried to get the P5+1 to agree to lift existing limitations on its missile effort, including those included in the cornerstone of the international sanctions regime against Iran, UN Security Council Resolution 1929, adopted in 2010.

The resolution—along with Resolution 1747 of 2007—heavily restricts Tehran's ability to procure missile-related technology. For the West, particularly the United States, elimination of these restrictions is unacceptable, because they fall within a broader arms embargo and sanctions regime against Tehran. The limits on Iran's missile program and conventional arms purchases extend far beyond the questions around its nuclear program. They also relate to the Islamic Republic's regional role and its support for terrorist organizations throughout and beyond the Middle East.

Iran has heavily invested in its missile program since the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88), with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) developing a range of missiles that Tehran claims are of indigenous origin. Actually, most of the missiles are based on designs developed by other countries, including the Russian Scud for Iran's short-range Shahab 1 and Shahab 2 and the North Korean Nodong for the medium-range Shahab 3 (and the Ghadr 1, a modified version of the Shahab 3 and also a medium-ranged missile). In fact, though much ink has been spilled speculating on the level of Tehran-Pyongyang defense cooperation, the missile program is really one of the only areas where such cooperation has clearly taken place.

Tehran's missile program must be understood in the context of its efforts to develop an indigenous defense industry. These efforts began more than 100 years ago, under the founder of the last dynasty to rule over Persia and then Iran, Reza Shah, the father and predecessor of the last king, Mohammad Reza Shah. Reza Shah, who built a key site for Tehran’s missile program, the Parchin military complex that some suspect as having hosted tests related to the Iranian nuclear program, believed that his country should become as self-sufficient as possible in matters relating to defense. His son, however, chose to rely on the United States for his country's defense needs and began to acquire missiles in cooperation with Israel.

After the 1979 revolution, Tehran could no longer rely on Washington and cut its ties with Israel, as allies turned into enemies following a 444-day hostage crisis during which American diplomats were held hostage in the US embassy. During the same period, Iraq—then a strong regional power ruled by Saddam Hussein—attacked Iran. The war lasted eight years and served as a reality check for the new Iranian leadership, which now found itself without the strong military of the Shah and cut off from the United States. In the brutal war of attrition with Iraq, Iran suffered large-scale Iraqi chemical weapons attacks and indiscriminate bombings of its cities. The country's revolutionary regime began to seriously invest in the defense sector. But developing defense systems was a much more complicated process, now that Iran was isolated.

Tehran was able to procure missile production technology and missiles from several countries during and beyond the 1980s. It also developed a working partnership with other countries, obtaining expertise to further expand its program. In particular, North Korea helped Tehran overcome hurdles in developing its missile program—assistance that Iranian officials, including IRGC commanders, have openly acknowledged. In a way, North Korea was to Iran’s missile program what Pakistan was to Tehran's nuclear program.

Iran's missile program is now the largest in the Middle East. It has the largest number of missiles and the most diverse missile array in the region, with both liquid-and solid-fuel propellant systems  (the latter of which offer improvements in safety and life-span and increase the speed with which missiles can be readied for launch). Its arsenal consists of short-range and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and cruise missiles. One of the ballistic missiles, Sejjil, has a range of 2,500 kilometers. But none of these missiles is particularly accurate, compared to those in the militaries of the United States and other world powers, and Iran is nowhere near acquiring the capability to produce miniaturized nuclear warheads that could be mounted on its missiles.

Why, then, is Iran's missile program so contentious? The controversy over sanctions aimed at limiting Iranian missile efforts boils down to a dispute about intentions.

Tehran argues that its missile program—like the rest of its military posture—is defensive in nature. In proposing that limits on missile-related trade be loosened, Iran highlights its legitimate defense needs, using the example of the Iran-Iraq War as evidence of this need. Other factors come into play on the Iranian side, including sovereignty—why should Iran's missile program be proscribed, when other countries' efforts are not? Another challenge is posed by Iranian domestic politics. The missile program has been a redline for the Iranian political and security establishment, but that redline has also been endorsed by a significant portion of the country's population, who remember their cities targeted by the Scuds deployed by Baghdad three decades ago. It is also a key component of Iran's revolutionary rhetoric, emphasizing national pride and technological prowess in the face of sanctions and external pressure.

But if the Iranian missile program has a defensive function, it also serves other purposes—purposes opposed by the United States and its allies. Tehran's missile program benefits its regional proxies, especially the Lebanese Shi'a group, Hezbollah, which has acquired Iranian rockets (and other weapons) and used them, particularly against Israel. As a result, Israel and other countries in the region have legitimate concerns about the Iranian missile program, and the West views Tehran's support for proxies and other regional military activities as threats to regional and even international security. Particularly, many are worried that Iran will develop a longer-range ballistic missile that would be nuclear capable. What is more, the Iranian space launch vehicles Safir and Simorgh have raised concerns that Tehran could soon develop intercontinental ballistic missiles, threatening the United States.

The missile issue is multidimensional for both sides in the nuclear negotiations, which makes it hard for either to compromise on the issue. Because the inability to procure missile technology is seen in Iran as falling within the context of nuclear-related sanctions now in place, the Iranian team can't go back to Tehran and sell a deal restricting the missile program. Because the United States has promoted the idea that Iranian missiles could threaten not just the Middle East but Europe and even the United States, American negotiators would have a hard time selling a deal at home that allows Iran to procure missile technology.

The missile sanctions problem may be emerging so late in the negotiating game because in the months leading to the March 2015 Lausanne framework agreement, the entire issue of sanctions wasn't fully addressed. The negotiators discussed and addressed many technical aspects of nuclear processes that Iran would or wouldn't be allowed, but they hadn't gone into as much detail about sanctions or made much progress on the UN Security Council resolutions relating to them.

In fact, the US fact sheet issued after the Lausanne agreement went into great detail about technical aspects of the talks, highlighting the approach that would be taken to uranium enrichment, to the reduction of the production of plutonium, to reprocessing (which would be banned), and to monitoring of Iran's various nuclear activities. But in that fact sheet, the details of sanctions relief remained vague, partly because of the complexity of the sanctions regime, which is composed of an overlapping mix of unilateral and multilateral restrictions that cut across several issues, including Tehran’s nuclear and terrorism-related activities and human rights track record.

The sanctions that limit Iran's acquisition of missile technology include both nuclear- and non-nuclear-related provisions. Now, as nuclear negotiations approach the point at which a deal will or will not be struck, the intertwined measures to restrict Iran are proving to be extremely complicated to unwind. Iran insists that the UN Security Council sanctions resolutions, especially 1929, have made that country into an exceptional state—one treated unfairly, and differently than others. This stance preconditions any deal that limits Iran's nuclear program on the normalization of the rest of its status in international affairs—a normalization that should allow the country to purchase conventional weaponry (including missile components), just as any other country can. Of course, the negotiations on the Iranian nuclear program are in some ways premised on a notion, held by the United States and many of its Western allies, that Iran poses the sort of threat that requires exceptional treatment. Whether negotiators for countries that hold such diametrically opposed views of the Iranian missile program can reach a compromise is now the question of the hour.

Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments


Receive Email