For more than a decade, the possibility of Iran developing nuclear warheads for its medium-range ballistic missiles has been at the top of U.S. security worries for the region, followed by Iran’s potential to expand the range of its missile forces to threaten Europe and the United States.
With approximately 1,000 short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran has one of the largest deployed ballistic missile forces in the Middle East. Its most sophisticated deployed ballistic missile is the liquid-fueled Shahab-3. Based on the North Korean Nodong missile, the Shahab-3 has a range of about 1,300 kilometers. Variations of the Shahab-3, including the Ghadr-1, are reported to have a range of almost 2,000 kilometers.
Iran has made progress in developing and testing solid-fueled missile technologies, which could significantly increase the mobility of Iran’s missile force. Iran first tested a two-stage, solid fuel-propelled missile, the Sajjil-2, which has a reported range of roughly 2,000 kilometers, in 2007. It conducted several more tests through February 2011. However, export control restrictions have prevented Iran from developing the capacity to domestically produce solid-fueled motors, which may account for Iran not having recently tested the Sejjil-2. Iran has also developed a two-stage, liquid-fueled, space launch vehicle (SLV), the Safir. Between February 2009 and February 2015 Iran successfully launched five satellites into space using the Safir SLV. A 2009 report by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC) assessed that the Safir "can serve as a test bed for long-range ballistic missile technologies" and could serve as an intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) if converted to a ballistic missile. It is believed that Iran is also developing a larger space launch vehicle, the Simorgh, which has yet to be tested.
Iran Deal Heads Off Threat of Nuclear Warheads, Continues Restrictions on Missiles
Now, with the conclusion of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) between the P5+1 and Iran, which will block Iran from building nuclear weapons for well over a decade, along with a new UN Security Council resolution (2231) on the nuclear deal, which extends restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities and trade, the potential threat from Iranian ballistic missiles has been radically reduced.
In the long negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 countries (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the parties had avoided contentious issues beyond the nuclear realm in the belief that resolving the nuclear imbroglio was the highest international security priority and including other issues could overload the agenda and jeopardize reaching any agreement.
Senior U.S. officials stressed the talks were focused exclusively on resolving concerns about Iran’s growing nuclear program—not, for example, on its support for terrorism, behavior in the region, or human rights practices.
However, among the restrictions established by six UN Security Council resolutions in response to Iran’s sensitive nuclear activities are restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activities relating to the delivery of a nuclear weapon and restrictions on heavy conventional arms transfers to Iran.
UN Security Council Resolution 1737, passed in December 2006, stated that countries must not provide technical or financial assistance, training, or resources related to certain nuclear and ballistic missile-related goods, and that all member states must refrain from importing designated nuclear and ballistic missile-related items from Iran.
UN Security Council Resolution 1929, passed in June 2010, established a comprehensive arms embargo on Iran, banning the sale of “battle tanks, armored combat vehicles, large caliber artillery systems, combat aircraft, attack helicopters, warships, missiles or missile systems” to Iran. Iran was also prohibited from undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles, and the resolution requires states to take necessary measures to prevent technology relevant to ballistic missiles from reaching Iran.
The primary purpose of these resolutions was to restrict Iran’s sensitive nuclear activity until such time as negotiations could resume and lead to an agreement preventing Iran from building nuclear weapons.
Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman had assured Congress during her early testimony on the negotiations that Iran’s ballistic missiles would be addressed, but she did not specify how this would occur.
Iran’s position was that the negotiations were about its nuclear program and not about its ballistic missiles or conventional military capabilities; a replacement resolution in response to an agreement on the nuclear issues should therefore not maintain any restrictions on its ballistic missile activities and acquisition of conventional arms. The Russians and Chinese were in support of Iran’s view.
Even U.S. Secretary of State Kerry acknowledged in response to a question at his July 14 press conference that the earlier UNSC Resolution (1929) pertaining to Iran’s missiles “… says specifically that if Iran comes to negotiate—not even get a deal, but comes to negotiate—sanctions would be lifted.”
Missile Restrictions and Heavy Weapons Embargo Extended
Despite the Russian, Chinese and Iranian opposition, U.S. negotiators dug in their heels. Although not explicitly addressed in the JCPOA, UN Security Council Resolution 2231, unanimously adopted on July 20, contains an eight-year restriction on Iranian (nuclear-capable) ballistic missile activities and a five-year ban on conventional arms transfers to Iran, including missiles and missile systems.
Specifically, Annex B of the new resolution “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” The proscription regarding Iran’s nuclear-capable ballistic missile activities in UNSC Resolution 2231 (“calls upon Iran not to…”) is less definitive than UNSC Resolution 1929 from 2010, which said Iran “shall not undertake,” yet the restriction remains. The resolution also grants the Security Council the authority to review and deny on a case-by-case basis any transfer to Iran of materials, equipment, goods, or technology that could contribute to nuclear weapons delivery systems.
Moreover, even after restrictions on arms sales and ballistic missile activities are lifted under the new resolution, they would still be subject to re-imposition “in the event of significant non-performance by Iran of its JCPOA commitments…”
These features of the arrangement have not gone over well in Tehran. According to the official statement from Tehran, issued in response to the resolution, “Iranian military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, are exclusively for legitimate defense. They have not been designed for WMD capability, and are thus outside the purview or competence of the Security Council resolution and its annexes.” A prominent Iranian hardliner complained, “The negotiating team was not supposed to negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile technology.”
Despite the U.S. negotiators’ success in retaining features of the earlier resolution’s constraints on ballistic missiles and conventional arms, U.S. critics of the JCPOA either entirely ignore the UN’s adoption of a new multi-year arms trade embargo and its continuing restrictions on Iranian (nuclear-capable) ballistic missile activities or they complain that these restrictions are not permanent.
Opponents of the Iran deal also discount the other continuing international measures of control over Iran’s ballistic missiles outside the JCPOA and UNSC Resolution 2231. Iranian missile transfers to a number of specified hot spots would violate other UNSC resolutions and thus be susceptible to international interdiction. The Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) are other multilateral impediments to Iranian transfer of ballistic missiles.
Finally, a number of U.S. unilateral tools remain in place to impede ballistic missile proliferation, including executive orders, legislative prohibitions and sanctions, and bilateral cooperative measures in support of regional interdiction activities.
A Much Lower Threat From Iran’s Ballistic Missiles
In spite of the hurdles, which must still be overcome to fully implement the JCPOA, it is important to consider how carrying out the nuclear deal is likely to affect Iran’s potential ballistic missile capabilities during the coming decade.
First and foremost, the comprehensive nuclear deal with Iran will block Iran’s pathways to nuclear weapons, thus ensuring that Iran cannot develop a nuclear warhead capable of being delivered via ballistic missile. This renders Iran's ballistic missiles far less of a threat to regional and international security.
Second, even without the nuclear weapons constraints in the JCPOA, the reality of Iran’s ballistic missile program has never quite lived up to its reputation. Iran never developed or flight-tested a long-range ballistic missile; it has never even asserted a need to build one. This professed disinterest stands in contrast to Tehran’s boastful posture with regard to many other home-grown weapons programs and its explicit justification for medium-range missiles as a deterrence against Israeli attack.
In fact, after developing a modest inventory of relatively inaccurate medium-range ballistic missiles, Iran seems to have put most of its recent energies into improving the performance of shorter-range missile systems, more relevant to Iran’s immediate neighborhood around the Persian Gulf. No medium-range missiles have flown since 2012; even the long-awaited Simorgh space-launch vehicle, with technology relevant to developing longer-range ballistic missiles, has yet to appear. Although “death to America” may still be heard during Friday prayers in Tehran, neither the nuclear warhead nor the delivery vehicle for administering such a blow is being built.
Now, with both the JCPOA’s impediments to pursuing nuclear weapons and the new UN Security Council resolution extending restrictions on nuclear-capable ballistic missile activity and missile trade years into the future, the potential magnitude of the Iranian ballistic missile threat has been significantly reduced.