Missing the Mark on Iran's Missiles

Despite implementation of the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and the six world powers known as the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States), the Iranian missile program remains controversial. Last week, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley excoriated Iran for its “destructive and destabilizing role” in the region, with Iran’s missile testing and procurement of missile-related technology featuring prominently in her remarks.

Yet as the Trump administration conducts its Iran policy review, it would be wise to consider the facts when considering how to push back against Iran’s ballistic missiles. The nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), successfully removes the threat of a nuclear-armed Iranian missile. Further, a recent government report indicates that Iran is not increasing the range of its arsenal. Given these realities, a balanced approach to Iran and its missiles is required.

Haley’s remarks came at a June 29 meeting on the UN Security Council Resolution that endorsed the nuclear deal and lifted certain sanctions. Resolution 2231 (July 2015) kept in place the arms embargo on Iran and restrictions on its ballistic missiles. It also replaced a previous resolution that had prohibited Iran from testing ballistic missiles. According to the text of the new resolution, Iran is now “called upon” to refrain from activity involving ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons,” a distinction which Tehran claims does not apply to its missile arsenal. The multiple interpretations of this text have contributed to the heated rhetoric over the Iranian program and prevented the Security Council from achieving consensus as to whether Iran’s January 29 missile test violated the resolution.

According to Haley, the UN Secretary General’s most recent biannual report on implementation demonstrates that Resolution 2231 has been “repeatedly and deliberately violated by the Iranian regime.” To be sure, the report does include some troubling aspects, including alleged illicit procurement of ballistic-missile related materials. Yet while France, Germany, and the United Kingdom joined the United States in condemning the January 29 missile test in a letter to the UN Secretary General, Haley was alone in her harsh tone during last week’s meeting. The other states of the negotiating team, along with the United Nations, unanimously pushed back on the US ambassador’s rhetoric and praised the nuclear deal’s continued implementation. 

Concern over Iran’s ballistic missiles is partially fueled by misconceptions that Iran is developing longer-range systems.  But that is not borne out by the U.S. government’s own analysis.

The National Air and Space Intelligence Center (NASIC), in collaboration with the Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee (DIBMAC), recently released their updated findings detailing the threat posed by ballistic and cruise missiles across the globe. The report suggests that Iran is in a holding pattern with respect to missile range. While the report notes that Iran has increased the effectiveness of its Shahab 3 medium-range missile, its estimated range of 2,000 km is the same as detailed in NASIC’s previous study, published in 2013. No Iranian system is noted in the 2017 report as having a longer range. 

With respect to an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the previous 2013 NASIC study included the intelligence community’s standard refrain at the time that Iran could begin developing and testing an ICBM with the ability to reach the United States by 2015. (ICBMs have a range that exceeds 5,500 kilometers, although Iran would need closer to 9,000 kilometers to strike the United States.) The updated report maintains that Iran could field an ICBM as a strategic counter to Washington, but does not provide a revised timeline. Absent the necessary testing required to deploy such a weapon, which Tehran is not undertaking, such a threat would be years away. The report goes on to note that Iran’s space program could hasten Iran’s route toward an ICBM due to similar technologies. But, according to the report, there is no evidence of Tehran’s efforts to pursue such a weapon.

The report does contain troubling information, noting that Tehran is working to increase the lethality and the quantity of its missiles. Further, extensive training exercises have allowed Iranian forces to “hone wartime operational skills and evolve new tactics.” 

Clearly, Iran’s missile program continues to pose a challenge to the United States and our allies and partners in the region. And when Iran’s procurement activities for its missiles violate Resolution 2231, there should be consequences. But Washington’s policy approach must take the facts into account. Ultimately, a measured response is required to meet this threat.

Most importantly, the United States should not respond with actions that risk the nuclear deal, an agreement that maintains wide support among our negotiating partners and is being successfully implemented by Iran. With the deal in place, the most pressing security concern posed by Iranian missiles has been removed for well over a decade. A more prudent approach toward Tehran would acknowledge this reality.