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Dissecting international concerns about Iran’s missiles

Dissecting international concerns about Iran’s missiles
The UN Security Council Adopts Resolution on Iran Nuclear Deal (Resolution 2231), taken on 20 July 2015. Photo: Flickr/UN Photo/Loey Felipe.

While trying to save the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, some European leaders have stepped up pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile programme, simultaneously demanding talks and threatening sanctions. Iran—which sees ballistic missiles as crucial to the country’s defencehas responded by saying that its missile programme is non-negotiable.

Although Iran’s continuing development and export of missiles was one of the United States President Donald J. Trump administration’s main arguments for withdrawing from the JCPOA—missiles are neither part of the agreement, nor are they subject to any multilateral international treaty. Nevertheless, missiles were mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015 and which calls on Iran ‘not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’ until 2023. While there is no consensus on how to interpret this ambiguous formulation—with Iran arguing that its conventional missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons—Iran’s reported missile transfers violate the 2015 UN arms embargo on Yemen (UN Security Council Resolution 2216).

European powers deserve credit for their efforts to maintain the JCPOA, but their current coercive approach to Iran’s missiles is counterproductive. This topical backgrounder highlights the need to dissect international concerns about Iran’s missiles by distinguishing between potential range extension, development of the existing short- and medium-range missiles, and missile transfers to regional allies. It also proposes ways for the European Union to alleviate the concern that Iran may develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and to address the drivers of Iran’s regional missile policy.


Increased Western focus on Iran’s missiles

When justifying US withdrawal from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018, President Trump referred to the deal’s failure ‘to address the regime’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads’. In the same remarks, he explained that the USA would continue ‘working with our allies … to eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program’. The administration has also called for Iran to ‘end its proliferation of ballistic missiles’ in the region and requested that the UN Security Council punish the country for its ‘provocative and destabilising missile launches’.

Europeans have set themselves apart from the Trump administration’s policy on the JCPOA and are struggling to protect their businesses from the extraterritorial sanctions being imposed as a result of US withdrawal. At the same time, France, Germany and the United Kingdom—the so-called E3—have adopted a tougher approach on Iran’s missiles.

This approach has been spearheaded by France, whose foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned on 30 August 2018 that Iran ‘cannot avoid’ talks on its missile programme. Le Drian has also argued that that the range of Iran’s missiles ‘goes beyond Iran’s need to defend its borders’. In spring 2018, the E3 urged the EU to impose sanctions on Iran because of its ballistic missile tests and role in backing the Syrian Government. They have referred to the ‘proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region’ as ‘an additional and serious source of concern’. Like the USA, the E3 have viewed Iran’s satellite launches as a springboard for ICBM development and have responded accordingly.


Iran’s perspective

Iranian officials have responded to the West’s hard line on Iran’s missiles by stating that its ‘military capabilities are not up for negotiation’ and vowed to further boost missile development.

This is hardly surprising. Since the 1980s, when Iraq attacked Iranian cities, missiles have played a key role in Iran’s national security approach. Missiles serve as a counter to the overwhelming military capabilities of regional rivals (notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). The rivals’ long-range strike capabilities mainly rely on Western-supplied air forces, which are often equipped with cruise missiles and precision-guided bombs. In contrast, Iran—whose aging air force mostly dates back to before the 1979 Islamic Revolution—has sought to maximize self-sufficiency in the production of ballistic missiles.

Iran’s medium-range missiles, which are able to reach Israel and US military bases in the region, serve to deter an attack against Iran. The threat of attack was particularly highlighted with the escalation of the nuclear crisis in 2005–12, as Israel and the USA threatened military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.

To ensure deterrence, Iran is likely to continue testing its missiles to improve accuracy and to ensure an ability overcome missile defences, which have been deployed in increasing numbers by the Gulf Arab states and Israel. As Iranian defence minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami said in August 2018, ‘given the enemy’s efforts to boost anti-missile capabilities, we need to increase our missiles’ accuracy and functionality’. Iran’s interest in developing cruise missiles can also be viewed from this angle.

Therefore, even if the political context were more favourable, there would be little room for negotiating Iran’s missile programme. The situation is further constrained by a lack of trust following the US withdrawal from the JCPOA and its campaign against the Iranian Government. As Iranian cleric Ayatollah Mohammad Emami-Kashani warned in May 2018, the enemy would not leave the country alone even ‘if Iran gives up all weapons and defends itself with rocks like Palestine’.

Yet, Iran has recently shown restraint on its medium-range missile testing, with the last confirmed test occurring in January 2017. However, Iran has test-fired short-range ballistic missiles as part of military exercises and responded to terrorist attacks on its soil by launching missiles to Syria.


Considering missile range limits 

Although curbing Iran’s missile programme does not seem like a realistic goal under the current circumstances, the longest-standing Western concern—namely the possibility of the country developing an ICBM—would be relatively easy to address.

This is because Iran has already set a 2000-kilometre range limit on its ballistic missiles. As Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander-in-chief of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, explained in June, there is no need to further extend the missiles’ range because their strategic targets are already within reach. When it comes to range, Iran thus regards its existing ballistic missile arsenal as sufficient for regional deterrence. Iranian officials’ repeated references to this policy appear to be supported by evidence.

The first step in addressing concerns surrounding the possibility of an Iranian ICBM would be to simply take note of this self-imposed limit. Although the current political context is hardly conducive to diplomatic initiatives, in principle the next step might be to try to codify the limit into an agreement involving reciprocal measures, such as civil and technical cooperation on Iran’s space programme. Such an approach is recommended by a recent report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which also lists technical measures to increase confidence that Iran’s satellite programme does not serve military purposes.


The regional dimensions

While additional assurances on range limits could put an end to speculation about an Iranian ICBM, they would not address the regional dimension, which has received unprecedented attention in the past two years.

In September 2018 Brian Hook, the Senior Policy Advisor to the US Secretary of State and Special Representative for Iran, described Iran’s ballistic missile program as ‘an enduring threat to our allies and partners, including Israel’, pointing to precision-guided missiles as a particular concern for the region. Hook also accused Iran of supplying missiles to its proxies.

A UN panel in January 2018 found that Iran failed to prevent the direct or indirect supply of missiles and related equipment to Yemeni Houthi rebels, in non-compliance with the 2015 arms embargo imposed by UN Security Council Resolution 2216. In particular, the panel highlighted Iran’s involvement in the development of an extended short-range missile known as Burkan 2H, which the rebels have fired towards Riyadh, the Saudi capital.

In Syria, the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards—alongside Russia and Hezbollah—have supported the President Bashar al-Assad’s government against ISIS and various rebel groups. In turn, the rebels have been backed by Turkey, the USA and several Arab countries. Israel, for its part, has launched air strikes against Iranian forces in Syria, with the stated aim of thwarting its supply of precision missiles to Hezbollah and countering Iran’s military presence in the country.

One of Iran’s key interests in Syria is to ensure the continuation of the policy of asymmetric deterrence against Israel, which relies on using the Syrian land corridor for transporting arms to the Lebanese Hezbollah. Similar logic can be seen to explain recent Iranian transfers of short-range missiles to Iraq. The latter policy seems to be aimed at providing an additional layer of deterrence, reflecting increased concerns over a potential US-Iranian military confrontation. According to an Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander, ‘We have bases like that in many places and Iraq is one of them. If America attacks us, our friends will attack America’s interests and its allies in the region.’ 

While its arms transfers are far from unproblematic, Iran is not the only country providing support to conflict parties, nor are Iranian missiles the most lethal weapon in the region; in Yemen, for example, the majority of civilian casualties have been caused by the Saudi-led coalition’s airstrikes. Hence, targeting Iran’s missiles while ignoring the broader conflict dynamics and military asymmetries is unlikely to significantly improve regional security.


The need for regional arms control and security dialogue

The complex problems in the Middle East make banning one weapon system in the hands of one actor an ineffective solution. Rather, the underlying conflict dynamics should be addressed as part of a comprehensive arms control and regional security process.

While any dialogue including all Middle Eastern countries—let alone the longer-term objective of a regional security mechanism—might sound overly ambitious, attempts towards such a process are not without precedents.

In 1992–94, many Middle Eastern states, including Israel, were engaged in Arms Control and Regional Security (ACRS) talks following the 1991 Madrid peace conference. While the ACRS talks eventually collapsed due to Egyptian–Israeli disagreements over nuclear disarmament, they made progress in the area of confidence-building measures.

More recently, Middle Eastern states—including Iran—were at the same table in 2013–14, as part of the informal consultations aiming at a conference on the establishment of a weapons of mass destruction-free zone in the region. Although those plans came to nought, the multilateral consultations alone—which were reportedly carried out in constructive spirit—were a historic achievement. As part of this process, Israel implied that instead of nuclear disarmament it might be ready for more general regional security discussions, wherein ‘all regional states engage in a process of direct and sustained dialogue to address the broad range of regional security challenges in the Middle East’.

It could be added that—prior to the election of President Trump in 2016—the Gulf Arab states and Iran had reportedly explored the possibility of starting a dialogue concerning Persian Gulf security. The current Iranian foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has repeatedly highlighted the need for such a dialogue.


Alleviating international concerns: A role for Europe

Europe could play an important role in addressing international concerns about Iran’s missiles. However, this requires—first and foremost—distinguishing between the various aspects of Iran’s missile activities.

Concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile range could be significantly reduced if the E3 would acknowledge the existing 2000-km limit. Given that such concerns are closely linked with nuclear non-proliferation, Iran’s continued implementation of the JCPOA should also be factored in here. Although the codification of existing limits as part of a mutually beneficial agreement—such as the above-mentioned idea of space cooperation—seems unrealistic in the current political context, the idea might be worth exploring as a basis for future cooperation.

Regarding regional concerns, one must distinguish between missile testing and missile exports. As noted above, and despite recent and misleading references to ‘intensified testing’, Iran has exercised restraint in this respect during the past two years, particularly regarding medium-range missiles. Given that there is no definitive way to judge whether a missile is nuclear capable—let alone whether it was intentionally designed as such—missile testing is also not a clear breach of Resolution 2231, which does not prohibit conventional deterrence.

Missile transfers that violate UN Security Council resolutions and create anxiety in other Middle Eastern countries are more problematic from the perspective of both international law and regional security. While an international response is, therefore, warranted, it might end up doing little to change the situation.

If the E3 and other European countries wish to address the regional dimension of Iran’s missile activities, they might make a more tangible impact by promoting security dialogue among Middle Eastern countries. Europe—having experienced a historic transition from a state of war to one of cooperative security, as well as having diplomatic relations with all regional countries but Syria—would be in a good position to champion such a process.

For starters, the EU could seek to engage other Middle Eastern countries in the dialogue it is reportedly having with Iran on regional issues and ballistic missiles. Instead of beginning with the sensitive issue of Iran’s missiles, the dialogue could start by exploring threat perceptions and potential confidence-building measures. This could eventually pave the way for discussions on regional conflicts, a shared code of conduct and, eventually, arms control—including not only Iran’s missiles, but also other military capabilities in the region. Although talking about missiles, missile defences and fighter aircraft might seem incongruent, these topics must be addressed together to pay equal attention to the security needs and concerns of all countries in the region. 

As the fate of the JCPOA demonstrates, the EU’s rather limited focus on non-proliferation in the Middle East is insufficient. Although the deal succeeded in addressing concerns about Iran’s nuclear program, it was weakened by regional threat perceptions regarding other aspects of Iran’s conduct. A punitive approach to Iran’s missile activities will not fix this problem. Instead, Europe could seek to create a more sustainable foundation for future arms control efforts by promoting a regional security mechanism in the Middle East. In addition to arms control, such an approach could promote peace and prevent conflicts, thus also serving European interest in addressing the root causes of war and refugee flows from the region.


Dr Tytti Erästö is a Senior Researcher in the SIPRI Weapons of Mass Destruction Programme.