By Sina Azodi
The election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president represents a consolidation of power by hard-liners who generally oppose engagement with the West. These forces, who previously worked to undermine President Hassan Rouhani’s engagement agenda, are now in control of all three branches of the Iranian government. Meanwhile, Raisi is grappling with several other major challenges, including a crumbling economy battered by U.S. and international sanctions, high unemployment, and the COVID-19 pandemic, all of which have put the country on its heels.
Although Raisi has expressed a desire to revive the nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), and to achieve a lifting of U.S. sanctions, he has repeatedly refused any modifications in Iran’s ballistic missile program and its regional activities, two other areas on which the United States and its partners in the nuclear deal—China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom—have demanded action. Historical factors and a complicated geostrategic environment are also driving Iranian decision-making, thus making compromise with the West even more unlikely. The United States still has some policy options for dealing with Iran’s regional activities and missile program, but they are likely to fall far short of what was once envisioned.
The JCPOA, signed in 2015, was a diplomatic achievement that ended decades of tensions over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. From the onset, however, critics undermined the deal by claiming it did not cover such critical issues as Iran’s ballistic missile program and regional involvement in places such as Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen. Ultimately, President Donald Trump used these shortcomings as a pretext to withdraw the United States from the agreement, reinstate previously lifted sanctions, and impose even tougher new ones on the Iranian economy, all in an attempt to force Tehran to submit to a “better” agreement. This “maximum pressure” campaign failed miserably as Iran responded first by exercising restraint, then by expanding its nuclear program. Today, Iran is enriching uranium to a level of 60 percent uranium-235 and has much more advanced centrifuge machines compared to where things stood when the JCPOA was being fully implemented by all signatories.
The Consequences of Choices
Critics ignore that exclusion of Tehran’s missile program and regional activities from the nuclear agreement was a deliberate choice. Both sides preferred to focus attention on the more dangerous issue—the nuclear program—and neither was ready to accept a compromise on the ancillary issues. In January 2021, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif contended during the negotiations that “[w]e agreed from the beginning [of nuclear negotiations] that regional and missile issues will not be negotiated in the JCPOA…. This [missile] issue was raised, but we refused to negotiate over it, and we paid a price for not talking [about it]."1
After he took office, Trump cited the agreement’s “near total silence on Iran's missile programs”2 as a pretext for the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA. The Biden administration, although committed to reviving the agreement, has expressed its intention to eventually seek follow-up talks with Tehran on the missiles and regional topics. As U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed last February, the United States, working with its allies and partners, “will also seek to lengthen and strengthen the JCPOA and address other areas of concern, including Iran's destabilizing regional behavior and ballistic missile development and proliferation.”3 Similarly, in March, he told members of Congress that “[w]e have fundamental problems with Iran’s actions across a whole series of things, whether it is support for terrorism, whether it is a ballistic missile program.”4
The View in Washington
Given that ballistic missiles are a primary method of delivering nuclear weapons, Iran’s large and diverse inventory of short- and medium-range missiles, in conjunction with its quest for nuclear capability, has raised many concerns among U.S. officials, intelligence analysts, and think tank experts. Shortly after the nuclear deal was implemented in April 2016, President Barack Obama criticized Iran for undermining the “spirit” of the agreement by testing ballistic missiles.5 Two successive intelligence directors also raised alarms: James Clapper argued in 2016 that Iran’s ballistic missiles are “inherently capable of delivering” weapons of mass destruction,6 and three years later, Daniel Coats warned that Iran’s missile program continues to pose a threat to the countries of the Middle East.7
Such comments reflect a strong consensus in Washington that because Iran’s ballistic missile program jeopardizes the national security interests of the United States and its allies, the United States must somehow contain the program.
Meanwhile, in 2018, Federica Mogherini, the European Union foreign policy chief who played a pivotal role in the JCPOA negotiations, made clear that the EU shares some of the U.S. concerns over Iran’s ballistic missiles.8 Similarly, in June 2021, the foreign ministers of the Gulf Cooperation Council states urged that the revived nuclear negotiations also encompass Iran’s “sponsorship of terrorist and sectarian militias” and missile program.9
The View From Tehran
For the Iranians, however, ballistic missiles are the backbone of the country’s national defense strategy and a symbol of its power projection capabilities in a hostile and unstable neighborhood. Although much attention has been given to Iran’s missile development, it is noteworthy that the country’s quest to acquire indigenous ballistic missile technology dates back to the time of Shah Mohammed Reza Palavi, who was then a close ally of the United States. After Washington refused to sell nuclear-capable Lance surface-to-surface missiles to Iran, the shah joined Israel in a secret multibillion-dollar project code-named Project Flower to develop missiles capable of carrying 1,650-pound warheads a range of up to 300 miles.10 Although the project was abandoned after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the backbone of Iran’s defense strategy remained its U.S.-supplied air force with state-of-the-art fighter aircraft.
The fall of the shah, the subsequent taking of U.S. diplomats hostage by Iranian student radicals, and the outbreak of the Iran-Iraq war in 1980 fundamentally reshaped Iran’s national defense strategy. The hostage crisis destroyed the U.S.-Iranian relationship and deprived Tehran of its primary source of weapons. Iraq’s invasion of Iran in September 1980 and the systematic use of chemical weapons on Iranian troops and population centers taught bitter and important lessons about the nature of regional threats that left an indelible mark on the Iranian political psyche.
Official UN documents reveal that the Iraqi army began systematically using chemical agents against Iran as early as October 1983,11 and by the end of the war, up to 100,000 Iranian civilians and soldiers had been exposed to these weapons.12 These atrocities were largely ignored by international organizations and world powers, some of whom actively supported Saddam Hussein’s war machine. The United States, for instance, reportedly gave Iraq intelligence on Iranian positions.13
These memories are still raw. As Zarif stated in 2016, “We really wish and hope for the day when nobody spends any money on weapons…. [W]e spend a fraction of others’ expenditure. We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defense, which we need to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner to attack us with chemical weapons.”14 In 2018, Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator, recalled that “[w]e still remember the French Super Etendards [fighter jets], British Chieftain tanks, German chemical weapons, U.S. AWACS planes and Saudi dollars…[which aided Iraq during the war]. Our missile program is defensive.”15
The Value of Missiles
The brutal eight-year conflict also taught Iranians an important lesson on the strategic value of ballistic missiles and their retaliatory function against an adversary’s population centers. Similar to World War II tactics, Iraq during the conflict with Iran launched a variety of ballistic missiles on Iranian population centers, including Shiraz, Isfahan, and Tehran, with the aim of breaking the Iranian will to fight. Over the course of the conflict, Iraqi military units reportedly launched 533 ballistic missiles on Iranian cities, resulting in nearly 14,000 deaths and injuries among Iran’s civilian population.16 Iran initially lacked a ballistic missile capability, but illicitly acquired a small number of Soviet-made Scud missiles from Libya, North Korea, and Syria.17 These missiles set the foundation for Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Equally important for Iran’s security calculations is the country’s current strategic environment and the ongoing military imbalance in the region. To the west, Iran faces an existential threat in nuclear-armed Israel. Because of the decades-long international arms embargo, Iran’s conventional military has been unable to modernize and procure new weapons systems, but its Arab neighbors are among the top customers of advanced U.S. and European military equipment. Iran’s estimated defense spending in 2020 was $12 billion, while Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, spent $55 billion dollars in that same period.18 Iran has compensated for its lack of access to an array of modern weapons systems by heavily investing in an arsenal of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, which can target large population centers and, with improved accuracy, can conduct precision strikes almost anywhere in the Middle East.
In addition to its defensive qualities, the missile program symbolizes Tehran’s power projection capabilities in the Middle East. After a terrorist attack by the Islamic State group in Ahvaz in October 2018, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which controls the country’s ballistic missile arsenal, showcased its capabilities by launching six ballistic missiles into Syria targeting Islamic State bases. More significantly, in January 2020, after the United States assassinated General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the IRGC Quds Force, the IRGC launched a dozen ballistic missiles at the Al-Assad base where U.S. forces were stationed. This strike marked the first state-sponsored attack on U.S. military bases in decades. Although no U.S. personnel died, the attack sent a strong political message that Tehran is willing and capable of directly targeting U.S. military in the region.
These factors can explain the widespread domestic popularity of Iran’s missile program. An Iranian public opinion survey in October 2019 found that 92 percent of respondents believed it is important for Iran to develop its missile program, while 60 percent of respondents view the program as an effective deterrent.19 By February 2021, that number had increased to 66 percent, demonstrating steady support.20
Raisi and the Future of Talks
For the moment, the talks to revive the JCPOA are stalled, primarily due to the transition of power in Tehran and the new administration’s apparent ambivalence about resuming them. Although Raisi and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have spoken in favor of the nuclear negotiations and the lifting of sanctions, several factors have chilled Tehran’s appetite for follow-up talks over Iran’s missile program and its regional activities, as the United States and its European partners are demanding.
Unlike the Rouhani administration, Raisi and his cabinet are more aligned with Iran’s deep state which works in parallel with the elected bodies, often undermining their efforts to engage the West.21 One example is newly approved Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, a career diplomat with ties to the IRGC. Because of his support for Iran’s regional activities, including Iran’s intervention in Syria and support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, he is often referenced as Diplomat-e Movaghemat, or the Resistance Diplomat, a reference to Iran’s “axis of resistance” in the Middle East.22
Amirabdollahian has an academic background in regional affairs and previously served as deputy foreign minister for Arab and African affairs. He speaks fluent Arabic and halting English, meaning that, unlike his predecessor, he likely will find it more difficult to effectively communicate with officials in Washington and Europe. His linguistic skills, regional expertise, and close relationship with the IRGC could enable him to focus on improving Iran’s relations with its neighbors, especially Saudi Arabia.
Regarding ballistic missiles, the Raisi administration’s approach is quite similar to its predecessor’s. The new president has stated that Iran will not negotiate on the program or its regional activities.23 His foreign minister has asserted that “American dreams for negotiations over Iran’s missile program will never come to realization…. Iran’s missile capability is a strategic asset for regional stability.”24 It bears noting that Amirabdollahian, who holds a Ph.D. in international relations, shares the view with “realist” scholars that the essence of foreign policy and international relations is “power.”25 As a result, one should expect Iran’s new chief diplomat to be even more hawkish than Zarif in support of the country’s ballistic missile program.
More importantly, Khamenei, who has the final say on Iran’s national security decisions, deeply distrusts the West and has repeatedly rejected any negotiations beyond the nuclear program. He reinforced this point in July when he said, “In this government, it became clear that trust in the West does not work and they do not help, and they strike a blow wherever they can, and if they do not strike somewhere, it is because they cannot.”26 Two years earlier, he warned that Iran “will not negotiate over the issues related to the honor of our revolution. We will not negotiate over our military capabilities. Negotiations means a deal, meaning that you need to compromise over your defense capabilities.”27 In short, Iran’s key national security decision-makers all favor the country’s missile program and regional interventions, which they perceive to be in the vital interests of the state.
Nevertheless, there may be some wiggle room. Notwithstanding his strong opposition to negotiations over the missile program, Khamenei claimed in June 2021 that he ordered the IRGC to limit the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles to 2,000 kilometers. “At a time we could only produce two types of artillery shells, now we have ballistic missiles with the range of 2,000 kilometers; they [the military] wanted to go to 5,000 kilometers, but I didn’t allow it…. [T]hese precision-strike capabilities are notable,” he said.28 This view has been echoed by Iranian military commanders and reflects the leadership’s threat perception. Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of IRGC Aerospace Force, noted in December 2018 that although Iran has no technical limitation on increasing the range of its missiles, the current range satisfies Iran’s existing security needs.29
Reaching a Consensus
The U.S. decision to unilaterally renege on its JCPOA commitments in May 2018 has deepened Iran’s distrust of Western countries. Iran is unlikely to participate in any negotiations that would jeopardize the backbone of its national defense strategy; no sensible country would. Meanwhile, credible reports have indicated that the United States plans to impose new sanctions on Iran’s drone and precision missile capabilities.30 Sanctions alone, however, will not prevent Tehran from advancing its national defense, as security concerns always trump other issues.
Nevertheless, a face-saving missile compromise might be achievable. Under favorable circumstances, the United States and Iran could agree to codify Tehran’s self-imposed 2,000-kilometer-range into a formal agreement. That is far less than what the United States has advocated, but at least it would restrain the program somewhat. Washington must be willing, however, to reciprocate Tehran’s concessions and recognize its legitimate security concerns. In the words of U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, “[E]very agreement generally reflects reciprocal concessions rather than unilateral satisfaction.”31 Washington has a number of options in its foreign policy toolbox. These concessions could include a U.S. commitment not to prevent other countries from selling conventional weaponry to Iran or a commitment to lift sanctions on Iran’s missile program, if such a framework is reached.
With regard to Iran’s regional activities, the United States should take a hands-off approach and instead throw its diplomatic and political support behind a regional dialogue that offers the possibility of a favorable outcome for all regional powers, including Iran. Washington, for example, could support the ongoing talks between Riyadh and Tehran, which aim to mend relations between the two regional powers. Recently, Amirabdollahian attended the Iraqi Neighboring Countries Conference, which was aimed at supporting Iraq.32 He also met with a number of Arab leaders, including Kuwait’s foreign minister and Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai. “What we need more than ever today is sustainable regional security…. Security can only be achieved through mutual trust between the countries of the region…strengthening communication and good neighborliness,”33 Amirabdollahian observed. Such initiatives can create a platform for regional leaders to meet and discuss their outstanding issues, including the devastating war in Yemen. A framework for considering the interests of all parties could advance regional peace and stability and enable the United States to focus more of its attention on the rise of China.
Raisi’s inauguration marks a hostile takeover by hard-liners in all three branches of Iran’s government. Given the alignment of views among Raisi, Amirabdollahian, and Khamenei, in addition to the IRGC, the resulting synergy is certain to create a more homogenous and effective decision-making environment within national security circles, potentially leading to a more assertive Iran. In other words, Raisi’s tenure fills the gap between what Zarif once dubbed “diplomacy and field,”34 a reference to the struggle between the Foreign Ministry and the IRGC in determining and executing Iran’s foreign policies in the region.
To produce the economic results so vital to Iran’s survival, the Raisi administration is certainly interested in and requires a revival of the JCPOA and the termination of what has been effectively the economic strangulation of Iran. Even so, the U.S. withdrawal from the JCPOA has left very little appetite or political capital in Tehran to negotiate with Washington and European capitals. Perhaps the best approach for the Biden administration is first to revive and then implement the nuclear agreement in good faith, allowing Iran to see the benefits of negotiations. Only after that is Tehran likely to be amenable to follow-on negotiations to reach a broader framework agreement with Washington.
2. “Iran Nuclear Deal: Trump’s Speech in Full,” BBC, October 10, 2017, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-41617488.
3. “Antony Blinken on Iran,” The Iran Primer, June 25, 2021, https://iranprimer.usip.org/blog/2021/jan/21/antony-blinken-iran.
6. James R. Clapper, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, February 9, 2016, https://www.armed-services.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/Clapper_02-09-16.pdf.
7. Daniel R. Coats, Statement on the worldwide threat assessment of the U.S. intelligence community, January 29, 2019, https://www.dni.gov/files/ODNI/documents/2019-ATA-SFR---SSCI.pdf.
8. “Iran Deal: EU United in Keeping Iran Nuclear Deal in Place for European Security,” European Union External Action Service, May 29, 2018, https://eeas.europa.eu/topics/multilateral-relations/45352/iran-deal-eu-united-keeping-iran-nuclear-deal-place-european-security_en.
9. “Gulf States Want Iran Deal Talks to Address Tehran’s Missiles Program, Support for Proxy Groups,” Al-Monitor, June 16, 2021, https://www.al-monitor.com/originals/2021/06/gulf-states-want-iran-deal-talks-address-tehrans-missiles-program-support-proxy.
11. UN Security Council, “Letter Dated 9 November 1983 From the Permanent Representative of the Islamic Republic of Iran to the United Nations Addressed to the Secretary-General,” S/16140, November 10, 1983.
13. Shane Harris and Matthew M. Aid, “CIA Files Prove America Helped Saddam as He Gassed Iran,” Foreign Policy, August 26, 2013, https://foreignpolicy.com/2013/08/26/exclusive-cia-files-prove-america-helped-saddam-as-he-gassed-iran/.
14. “Iran FM Javad Zarif Responds to a Reporter's Question Regarding Ballistic Missiles,” YouTube, April 20, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ejudkZgs5Vg.
15. Sina Azodi, “U.S. Should Offer Incentives for Iran Missile Testing Moratorium,” Atlantic Council, February 20, 2018, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/iransource/us-should-offer-incentives-for-iran-missile-testing-moratorium/.
16. Ali Khaji, Shoadin Fallahdoost, and Mohammad Reza Sorush, “Civilian Casualties of Iranian Cities by Ballistic Missile Attacks During Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988),” Chinese Journal of Traumatology, Vol. 13, No. 2 (April 1, 2010).
17. “Shahab-1 (Scud B-Variant),” Center for Strategic and International Studies, July 31, 2021, https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/shahab-1/.
18. “SIPRI Military Expenditure Database,” Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, https://www.sipri.org/databases/milex (accessed September 14, 2021).
19. Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland (CISSM), “Iranian Public Opinion Under ‘Maximum Pressure,’” October 2019, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2019-10/Iranian%20PO%20under%20Maximum%20Pressure_101819_full.pdf.
20. CISSM, “Iranian Public Opinion, at the Start of the Biden Administration,” February 2021, p. 28, https://cissm.umd.edu/sites/default/files/2021-02/CISSM%20Iran%20PO%20full%20report%20-02242021_0.pdf.
21. Mohammad Ayatollahi Tabaar, “Iran’s War Within,” Foreign Affairs, September/October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/iran/2021-08-05/irans-war-within-ebrahim-raisi.
22. “Naagofte-haye Diplomat-e Moghavemat az Nabard-e Shaam,” Islamic Republic News Agency, January 7, 2017, https://www.irna.ir/news/82787902/.
24. “Ro’yaye kelid Khordan e Moazekereh Moushaki Iran Hargez Ta’bir Nemisahavd,” Iranian Students News Agency, September 21, 2018, https://www.isna.ir/news/97063014707/.
25. Iran Documentary, “Hossein Amir-Abdollahian Interview With Dast-Khat Documentary,” YouTube, June 24, 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=fUWe8g3F1X4.
27. “Ali Khamenei: We Will Not Negotiate Over Issues Related to the Honor of Revolution,” Radio Free Europe, May 29, 2019, https://www.radiofarda.com/a/f4_ali_khamenei_statement_iran/29970492.html (in Farsi).
28. Ali Javid, “Iran Ayatollah Khamenei: Missile and Range,” YouTube, June 17, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cdk0VqG7Ni4.
32. Sara Masoumi, Twitter, August 14, 2021, https://twitter.com/SaraMassoumi/status/1430200197972381702?s=20.
Sina Azodi is a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council and a lecturer of international affairs at the Institute for Middle East Studies in the Elliott School of International Affairs at the George Washington University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in international relations at the University of South Florida, where he studies Iran’s nuclear program.