Off-Target: The Folly of Removing Sanctions on Iran’s Ballistic Missiles

Unfortunately, Tehran’s ballistic missiles are “inherently capable of delivering WMD.”

UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which enshrines the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear agreement, stipulates that restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles will expire eight years after the deal’s implementation. This expiration date is a strategic blunder. Permanent relief for ballistic missiles will allow Iran to not only reinforce its deterrent capacity, but to redouble the offensive threat it poses to the region.

Iran’s ballistic missiles have long been at the top of the list of asymmetric threats posed by Iran. While initially envisioned under the late Shah, missiles ultimately grew to be a core part of Iran’s security doctrine after its bloody eight-year war with Iraq. During that conflict, it was none other than a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) who proposed to “reverse-engineer” Scud missiles Tehran had procured from the Libya and Syria to give it an edge in projectile manufacturing.

Thus began the Guards’ decades-long affiliation with the Islamic Republic’s missile program. Since then, Iran has become home to “the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East,” including copies and variants of North Korean and Russian platforms, with both solid and liquid-fueled weaponry.

The past decade of developments in Iranian missile power mirrors its rising adventurism in the Middle East. The more confident Iran feels that its inventory will deter retaliatory strikes, the more likely it is to engage in conflict by proxy throughout the region. By enhancing the reach of a conventionally weak Iran, this arsenal affords Tehran deterrent benefits at the same time as it threatens U.S. regional allies.

Now, pursuant to the JCPOA, entities linked to the missile program—like Iran’s Ministry of Defense (MODAFL) and a host of its subsidiaries—are slated for EU sanctions relief in approximately eight years (or sooner if the IAEA reaches a “broader conclusion” that it has accounted for all of Iran’s past nuclear work).

As stipulated in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, this is also when restrictions on ballistic-missiles activity formally lapse. Worse, the resolution appears to contain no enforcement mechanism to ensure Iranian compliance.

In the past, Iran has transgressed UNSC restrictions on ballistic missiles, as evidenced by a UNSC Panel of Experts report from 2013. More recently, UN experts noted that Tehran had tested short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) during a war game conducted by the IRGC. While scholars often cite the threat posed by Iran’s medium- or long-range ballistic missiles like the Shahab-3 or Sejjil-2—both of which can deliver unconventional warheads—SRBMs too possess the capability to carry such payloads.

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