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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal,” was adopted in October 2015 between Iran, the EU, Germany and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council. It waived financial sanctions on Iran in exchange for the country to stop its program to develop nuclear weapons.
On 8 May 2018, as he announced that the United States would be quitting the JCPOA, US President Donald Trump criticized the deal for its “near total silence on Iran’s missile programs.” Yet according to the UN Security Council resolution 2231, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” And based on this, for instance, on March 29, 2016, a joint U.S., British, French, German letter to the U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon said that “Iran’s recent ballistic tests involved missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons and were “inconsistent with” and “in defiance of” council resolution 2231, in reference to Iranian missile tests.
Although the UN resolution 2231 mentioned Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Program (BMP), Trump was right on two accounts. The first was that the resolution wasn’t part of the JCPOA, and the second was that it wasn’t legally binding for Iran. And indeed, Iran’s minister of Foreign Affairs, Javad Zarif, has stated time and again that Iran’s missile tests aren’t violating UNSCR 2231. In fact, right after the adoption of that resolution, Zarif and other Iranian officials made it clear that Iran would not accept any limits on its BMP. The question is: why? In other words, why do the Iranians feel the need to continue running missiles tests, despite pressure from the US and the EU to curb it?
Iran began developing a missile program as a means of deterrence in the 1980s, when Iraqi missiles started hitting Iranian cities. Back then, Tehran didn’t have but a small number of Scud-B missiles to respond to these bombings. During the 1990s, with the U.S. dominant presence in the Middle East, Iran’s threat perception moved from Iraq to the U.S. and included Israel. Therefore, providing a valid deterrence against U.S. and other threats led Iranian strategists to try to build a BMP. The program started between the late 1980s and the early 1990s with the production of short-range missiles that over time included Fajr-1 to Fajr-5 with a range of 8 to 80 kilometers, as well as Zalzal-1 to Zalzal-3 with a range of 150 to 250, Fateh-110 (200-300km), and Shahab-1 (350km).
The development of Iran’s medium and long range ballistic missiles started after Tehran bought a number of Scud-B missiles and started a reverse-engineering process, producing them under the name Shahab-1, Shahab-2 (500-750km) and Qiam-1 (700-800km). Shahab-3 was Iran’s first long range ballistic missile, with a range of 1300km, which reached 2000km in its Shahab-3ER version. Safir (2000km), BM-25 (2500km), and Sejil (2000-2400km) were added to Iran’s ballistic missiles later on. But an more important program was Iran’s development of a series of cruise missiles. Soumar was one of Iran’s first surface-to-surface cruise missiles with a range of 700km, to be joined later by a number of others, the latest of which was Hawizeh with a range of 1200km. In addition, Iran has developed missile-defense-systems such as Mersad, which was introduced in 2016 and was followed by other systems such as Zahra-3. The country’s fast development of a wide range of those ballistic and cruise missiles has gradually caused concern in the region and beyond.
To put the Iranian situation in perspective, one should take into account Iran’s and its critics’ arguments. To begin with, it is argued by Iranians that the logic behind Iran’s BMP is defensive and that they need it to deter regional foes as well as U.S. threats. Though this logic is acceptable, one may argue that even within such a logic, the proliferation of ballistic missiles by Iran can trigger a regional race and thereby cause a security dilemma that would, at the end of the day, work against that same logic. Another point is that Iran can use its ballistic missiles, directly or indirectly, against its regional foes and in doing so threaten regional peace in such a way that a local conflict like the Yemeni war can spiral into a regional conflict. The third point is that despite what Iranians say, the program cannot be interpreted as defensive so long as Iran keeps enhancing the range of its missiles. And within a same distrust, it is argued that Iran may be developing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads that can, in the future after the JCPOA sunset clauses are over, be used to carry such warheads.
Iranians on the other hand have their own arguments. Their first point in this debate is that Iran cannot be the only regional power in the Middle East without ballistic missiles and be accused of causing a security dilemma when trying to acquire them. Indeed, Iran is not the first regional actor to acquire such weapons. Israel, for example, also has nuclear weapons. Iranians’ second point is that big powers (the U.S., China and others) had already provided Iran’s foes with ballistic missiles before Iran even started its ballistic missile program. In fact, Iraq used imported ballistic missiles against Iranian cities during the 1980s and Saudi Arabia, Israel, Turkey and others have acquired them before Iran. Therefore, Iranians argue, Iran is not the party to be blamed for the security dilemma in the Middle East. Since Iran’s choices for establishing a credible deterrence are limited, it cannot be singled out as a rogue element adding tension by producing ballistic missiles.
Iranians also argue that Iran has been focusing on the precision of its ballistic missiles instead of enhancing their range. Iran’s Supreme Leader has set the 2000km limit for the Iran’s ballistic missiles. As such, an advisor to Iran’s minister of foreign affairs came up with the argument suggesting that the aim is, therefore, deterrence rather than offence – because for offensive actions, one does not need that much precision. Another point argued by Iranians is that the JCPOA has proved that Iran is not after acquiring a nuclear weapon and that the sunset clauses of the JCPOA are not about the supervision of the IAEA, which is permanent. Tehran also argues that as Iran accepted the JCPOA as a non-proliferation agreement on its own and was proved to be a wrong choice by the U.S. withdrawal, if it is to accept limits on its BMP as a disarmament strategy, then such an agreement should include all parties in possession of such missiles in the region or sharing borders with Iran.
Therefore, the two parties are on two different planets. Reading between the lines, one can summarize the stand-off as follows: 1) Because the world doesn’t provide Iran with ballistic missiles for it to be able to counterbalance and deter its regional foes, provided with the possibility to develop such weapons, it has put a lot of resources and energy to acquire them on its own. 2) The West cannot trust Iran with a growing BMP program and because of that, it is putting pressure on Iran to curb its program. 3) Iran tries, through enhancing its ballistic capabilities to prove on the one hand that Western policies are counterproductive and should stop, and on the other to establish a credible deterrence against their military options vs. Iran. 4) Western pressure, especially from the U.S., goes up after the American decision to quit the JCPOA to force Iran to do the same in order to make it easier for Washington to come up with an international consensus to ratchet up the pressure on Iran’s BMP. 5) Iran sticks to its previous policies, only this time focuses on enhancing the precision of its missiles and on developing cruise missiles, which is again aimed at deterring the growing U.S. threat. Indeed, Iran is pursuing this policy on the assumption that the U.S. eventual goal is in line with that of Israel’s: to do away with Iran’s BMP, so as to facilitate an eventual joint US and Israeli attack on Iranian nuclear installations.
This course of events can lead to further escalation. Iran sees no other choice but to stick to its current options for deterrence. The U.S. wants to deprive Tehran of this capability that can cause trouble for Washington and its regional policy. But the Iranians look at the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA as a betrayal and do not want to repeat the same mistake with regards to their BMP. That’s why some argue that U.S. nuclear deal withdrawal works against its disarmament policy. Therefore, the more Washington has insisted on its position during the past two years, the more Iran has enhanced its capabilities. This policy in itself can be seen as a deterring one. Iran’s Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the IRGC, said last February that “if today the Europeans or others try to plot and pursue Iran’s missile disarmament, then we will be forced to resort to a strategic leap.” He dismissed any possibility of talks on Iran’s missiles programs with outside powers. Generally, it seems that the future of the stand-off depends on whether the U.S. will be able to rally international support for its position and on whether Iran will accept such a pressure to put limits on its BMP.