How Should Washington Respond to Iran’s Ballistic Missile Tests?

Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, while extremely unhelpful, should not come as a surprise. And although the missile tests violate UN Security Council Resolution 1929, they are not a violation of the soon-to-be-implemented nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran.

There should be consequences for violations of Security Council resolutions. However, U.S. policymakers should put the risks posed by the missile tests in perspective and pursue effective actions that address the violation, but do not undermine progress toward reducing Iran’s nuclear potential.

Despite the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010, which prohibits Iran from testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, Tehran has carried out at least eight tests of medium-range systems in violation of resolution, including the most recent tests on Oct. 10 and Nov. 21. Although Iran has stated its commitment to abiding by the terms of the July 14 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has repeatedly asserted that it does not and will not in the future accept UN Security Council-imposed limits on its ballistic missile program, which it says is necessary for its own self-defense.

Over the years, U.S. and U.N. sanctions have slowed, but not stopped, Iran’s ballistic missile program. Despite the continued tests, experts credit sanctions with helping to stem the development of solid-fueled ballistic missiles in Iran, which would be less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. U.S. officials have recently said that while Iran continues to test and develop medium-range ballistic missiles, it is at least a decade away from developing and testing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile.

Nevertheless, Iran’s decision to continue testing ballistic missiles is extremely unhelpful, particularly as Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) take steps to implement the July 14 nuclear deal. But the missile tests are not a violation of that agreement, and it is important to remember that the missile restrictions were added to Resolution 1929 to pressure Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear program, which it did.

Implementation of the nuclear agreement, which is already underway in Iran, dramatically restricts Tehran’s nuclear program and subjects it to intrusive monitoring. Full implementation of the agreement will significantly reduce the threat posed by Iran’s missiles by eliminating their potential to deliver nuclear weapons.

In a Dec. 17 letter  to President Barack Obama, a group of 35 Republican senators say the United States should respond to the missile tests by suspending U.S. sanctions relief as called for under the terms of the nuclear deal. Such a move would be counterproductive. It would be a violation of U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal, provide Iran with an excuse to stop implementation of its obligations under the deal, and would in the long-term increase, not reduce the risks posed by Tehran’s ballistic missiles.

A group of 21 Democratic senators in a letter released today are urging the president to take unspecified “unilateral” actions in response to the recent Iranian ballistic missile tests if the UN Security Council does not do so.

Rather than pursuing additional unilateral sanctions at this time or taking the draconian step of suspending the sanctions relief as outlined in the July 14 P5+1 and Iran nuclear agreement, the United States, our allies and partners should consider other effective means to curb Iran’s missile development.  

The United States has a variety of effective options, including:

  • Strengthening multilateral interdiction efforts: Iran has skirted sanctions to procure technologies and materials for its ballistic missile program. Existing UN sanctions on Iran’s ballistic missile program will remain in place for eight years, so it would not come as a surprise if Tehran continues to try to find ways to use illicit procurement networks to keep working on its ballistic missiles. Strengthening interdiction capacity, through mechanisms like the Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI), will assist states in identifying and inspecting illicit cargo. In several cases in the past, PSI is credited with preventing ballistic missile materials from reaching Iran. In 2013, the United States and the United Arab Emirates co-hosted a PSI exercise to focus on WMD interdictions. Additional exercises and workshops in the Middle East could help countries in the region develop tactics, techniques and procedures to enhance interdiction capacities.
  • Expand and strengthen the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR): The MTCR is a voluntary, multilateral initiative designed to stem the spread of ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and UAVs capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. The 34 member states of the regime commit to establishing export control policies and sets out criteria for evaluating the sale of materials and technologies relevant to such systems. It is credited with stemming the spread of ballistic missiles in several countries. However, over ten countries are seeking to join the MTCR and its control lists could be reviewed and updated to reflect new technologies.
  • Support efforts to negotiate regional ballistic missile limits: No other country in the Middle East is subject to ballistic missile limits. Given the tensions between Tehran and its neighbors, it is extremely unlikely that Iran will stop developing its ballistic missile capabilities when countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel field ballistic missiles capable of targeting Iran. However, Iran might be willing to abide by missile limits as part of a region-wide effort to ban longer-range ballistic missile systems. The United States could encourage, and support, a region-wide effort to negotiate a ban on missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
  • Request an updated assessment of Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities: The intelligence community long asserted that Tehran was capable of testing an intercontinental ballistic missile, with sufficient foreign assistance, by 2015. U.S. officials have recently said that an ICBM is at least a decade away and Iranian officials have emphasized that they intend to focus on medium-range systems. Yet a number of lawmakers, including the Dec. 17 letter signed by 35 Republican senators, insist that “Iran is developing ICBM capabilities for the sole purpose of enabling delivery of a nuclear weapon to the United States.” A updated intelligence assessment of Iran’s capabilities would give a clearer picture of Iran’s capabilities and missile threat.

It is also important to keep in mind that Resolution 1929’s days are numbered. When Iran is certified as completing its implementation commitments under the nuclear deal, Resolution 1929 will be lifted and superseded by Resolution 2231. The new resolution, which endorses the nuclear deal, “calls upon” Iran not to test any ballistic missiles that are “designed to be nuclear capable.” This language, which is less restrictive than the prohibition on missile testing in 1929, is still unlikely to convince Iran to abandon its short and medium range ballistic missile development efforts.

The United States should not sit by and allow Tehran to flout its international obligations. However, a rush to additional sanctions is not the most effective course of action at this time.

Washington should focus its efforts on strengthening enforcement of the extensive ballistic missile sanctions on the books to continue isolating Tehran’s missile program and pursue region-wide restrictions on ballistic missiles in the Middle East.