America Risks Another Flawed Deal with Iran

Tehran's ballistic missile program is a growing danger.

Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile drills continue to present a problem without an effective solution. Specifically, last month, three former U.S. government officials called in the National Interest for a plan linking “pressure and diplomacy” to address Iran’s missile program. While their argument is sensible on its face, they are wrong about the path needed to do so. By agreeing to last year’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, Washington has diminished its ability to engage in coercive diplomacy with Tehran. Absent dramatic measures to restore that leverage, a renewed diplomatic endeavor would merely replicate the negotiating mistakes which produced that flawed agreement.

Having reached the deal’s “Implementation Day” in January, sanctions relief is now taking effect. For many European firms, Iran’s lucrative energy sector is now back open. For its part, Washington has removed secondary sanctions on trade with that sector, dismissed four executive orders and delisted a number of individuals from the Treasury Department’s Specially Designated Nationals List. Taken collectively, these moves translate into shrinking American bargaining power as the JCPOA continues to be implemented.

A major flaw in the JCPOA was that it did not include ballistic missiles at all. Despite the advice of analysts (including this author), P5+1 negotiators opted to focus on fissile material rather than the delivery mechanism for that material. While accommodating Iranian intransigence, their concession overlooked U.S. law on the termination of sanctions, and missed the broader purpose of Iran’s missile program. As Director of National Intelligence James Clapper reiterated in a recent congressional testimony, Iran’s “ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD.”

It is against this backdrop that the authors call for both “pressure and diplomacy” to address Tehran’s missiles. However, the pressure component that they offer is lacking. Even incentives which the authors endorse, such as “civil and scientific collaboration. . . including on Iran’s space program,” provide ample room for Tehran to obscure the end user. Their argument also overlooks a key objective behind the Islamic Republic’s space efforts. As Clapper noted, beyond their deterrent value, Iran’s improvements in space-launch platforms also offer it “the means and motivation to develop longer-range missiles, including ICBMs.”

The authors also call for exploring restrictions on Iran’s missile program in return for lifting UN missile sanctions. The most recent UN language urges Tehran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Since that Security Council resolution was unanimously passed last summer, Iran has tested ballistic missiles multiple times, in addition to releasing another upgrade to its arsenal. Rather than lifting UN missile sanctions, as the authors urge, the recent drills indicate that United States should actively reinforce them.

The authors’ recommendation to trade away the resolution’s sole missile provision early in the bargaining process would only repeat a pattern set too often in the JCPOA talks: allowing Tehran to prematurely pocket concessions. Throughout the negotiations, Iran used one concession on the part of negotiators to force another. When its interlocutors relented on domestic enrichment, for example, Tehran stood firm, moved its red lines and raised the number of centrifuges it would be allowed tenfold. Although the P5+1 were reportedly prepared to concede only five hundred centrifuges, the final agreement allowed Iran to enrich uranium in no fewer than 5,060.