The Real Iran Threat (Hint: It's Not Just Nukes)

An Iran deal that doesn't include missiles should be rejected.

Why is the national debate now swirling around a prospective nuclear deal with Iran entirely missing a key point? Because it is all but ignoring a huge proverbial elephant that is not in the room but should be: Iran’s nuclear missile programs. These are part and parcel of what makes the Islamic Republic’s growing nuclear weapons infrastructure so menacing. Ignoring Iranian missiles is nothing less than an original sin of omission in the Obama administration approach to trying to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions by negotiating a comprehensive grand bargain. Far from being a peripheral problem, this lapse represents a fundamental flaw that is likely to bedevil the viability of any agreement that emerges from these negotiations.

To be sure, many other important issues regarding the so-called P5+1 (Britain, China, France, Russia, United States plus Germany) talks with Iran are now coming to the fore of public awareness. In spite of the all too predictable media fixation on a pair of recent partisan brouhahas that have flared up between the Obama administration and congressional Republicans—the invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to address Congress on the Iran talks, and then the open letter to Iran from forty-seven Republican senators stressing the constitutional limits of any agreement that is not approved by Congress—the national press deserves credit for also focusing on the actual substance of the deal that is starting to come into focus. Recent coverage has explored many arcane and interrelated issues at an impressive level of sophistication. These include the agreement’s legal status, duration, and durability, the scope of its restrictions such as the number of centrifuges allowed and disposition of existing stocks of nuclear fuel, and even highly technical aspects of the Iranian weapons program that are not covered such as neutron initiators, and fusing, arming and firing systems. For his part President Obama himself has gone out of his way to stress the importance of verification as a critical element in any agreement, although it is unclear how intrusive a process the President deems necessary or what verification mechanisms Iran may be willing to tolerate. These are all important factors that taken together will rightly shape judgments about any deal that is reached. In all of this debate and analysis, however, there is scant notice that Iran’s nuclear missile programs do not seem to be anywhere in the mix.

Although details filtering out of the high level talks in Switzerland have been sketchy, it is readily apparent that the Obama administration has all but ruled out trying in any serious way to include missile restrictions, including for Iran’s most threatening medium and long range ballistic missile programs that would presumably therefore remain in development. The President and his team seem to have decided very early on—or perhaps even preemptively—that pressing Iran for missile restrictions was a negotiating bridge too far in wooing Supreme Leader Khamenei.

Instead, the administration has concentrated on what, to be fair, is widely understood by almost everyone as being the core issue; namely, Iran’s ability to produce nuclear explosives. On its face, this seems a perfectly reasonable approach based on the logic that, if they are not armed with nuclear warheads, then the missiles themselves are relatively harmless. Of course, this same logic can be turned around, since it is also true that nuclear warheads are far less worrisome without missiles to carry them to distant targets. The larger point, however, is that this is not an either-or proposition. To the contrary, because nuclear weapons and delivery systems are integrally linked, any nonproliferation framework must deal with both to have any real chance of lasting success. Here are three big reasons why those missing missiles matter.

Testing Iranian Intentions

Not having an indigenous medium or long range ballistic missile program is arguably the single most reliable indicator of any state’s peaceful nuclear intentions and vice versa. In practice the lengthy time horizons, vast expense, and international taboo of such programs only make sense in the context of needing them to deliver nuclear payloads. Nuclear weapons and missile programs have thus typically been developed hand in glove, and no state that has not aspired to have nuclear weapons has ever opted to sustain a medium or long range ballistic missile program. Over time, this correlation has proved to be absolute. Litmus test, anyone? 

Iran steadfastly continues to deny that it has or has ever had any desire to obtain nuclear weapons, notwithstanding prior shenanigans with inspections, data, secret facilities and so forth. Rather, the Iranian regime claims that it wishes to retain significant nuclear enrichment capabilities for entirely peaceful and legitimate energy production needs. Well then: do the missiles tell a different story?