Why Iran Wants So Many Ballistic Missiles

Iranian-made Naze'at missile. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Hamed Malekpour

Iran and the West both see a terrifying threat on the other side.

Unlike Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s arsenal of ballistic missiles has received only scant scholarly attention. At best, some highly technical analyses have been offered. At worst, the missiles have been considered only as part of the nuclear project, designed to carry nuclear warheads. However, the missile program is a complex and sophisticated response to Iran’s unique security challenges, and should be analyzed on its own.

The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015 has made this task more urgent. With the nuclear program rolled back, Iran’s missiles have become a new target of international attention. The ballistic program is run by the Revolutionary Guards, which has been subject to numerous sanctions because of its alleged terror activities.

The focus is especially intense in Washington, where the Obama administration’s drive to conclude the nuclear accord was divisive. For instance, some critics urged imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran to curb its missile program. Others suggested using American anti–ballistic missile defense capabilities in the region to target Iranian ballistic trials. According to this rational, denying the Revolutionary Guards the ability to test missiles would disrupt its research and development opportunities.

Both courses of action have potentially far-reaching consequences. Slapping more sanctions may prompt Tehran to abrogate the JCPOA. Intercepting the missiles of a sovereign country violates international law and may lead to a huge conflagration in the Middle East and beyond. Given the high-level stakes of these policies, an analysis of Iran’s rationale for developing its ballistic arsenal is in order.

Intentional-relations theory indicates that the decisions that drive the proliferation of nuclear weapons are quite similar to those that prompt the quest for a ballistic-missile program. Both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are instruments of power that may be used as deterrent or compellent threats. They both serve to enhance the security of a state through raw power. As John Mearsheimer, a leading realist theorist, put it, states always strive to maximize their power over their rivals, with hegemony as their ultimate objective.

A large body of research indicates that states make rational choices when deciding to proliferate or acquire a ballistic arsenal. In the case of Iran, however, discussions of the regime’s motives are underpinned by rational choice theory of varying degrees of rigor. At best, some analysts seek to apply the restrictive mathematical basis of formal rational-choice models; at worst, it is a projection of the authors’ views of what rational behavior should be.

Absent conclusive evidence to prove or disprove either side, the discourse has turned into a profession of faith. As one observer put it, when it comes to Iran, rationality or lack of it is in the “eye of the beholder.”

Developing indigenous missile and anti-missile systems has been a key components of Iran's deterrence strategy. The regional tension between Iran and its powerful neighbors goes a long way toward explaining why Iran feels the need for greater defense capabilities. Iran was forced to consider nuclear and ballistic options because of its long and bloody war with Iraq, which had a profound role in shaping Iran’s strategic thinking.

The history of the bloody conflict between the two countries is well known. The second-longest war of the twentieth century, it has been frequently compared to World War I. Like the 1914 war, it relied on trench warfare, human wave attacks, indiscriminate assault on civilian populations and, most importantly, Iraq’s use of chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers and civilians.

Although Iran’s dedication to exporting its revolution, a goal that the regime was not willing to forgo in the face of extreme hardship, exacerbated the conflict, the war left deep and enduring scars on the Iranian collective psyche. Even a casual perusal of cultural narratives indicates a deep sense of insecurity and vulnerability.

Thus, the leadership concluded that Iran would need a powerful deterrent of some kind.

But the embargo on weapon sales pushed by the United States after activists seized the American embassy in Tehran in November 1979 proved to be a huge obstacle for obtaining a strong deterrent. Strained relations with the United States even made it difficult for Iran to access technology needed to maintain its air force. Obtaining standard weapons and munitions on the black market involved extremely complex arrangements. Things got much worse when, at Iraq’s request, the United States launched Operation Staunch, a global ban on the sale of weapons to Iran in 1983.

The weapons embargo led the regime to believe that, ultimately, Iran must rely on its own resources for self-defense. From Tehran’s point of view, such a decision was a highly rational step—one that met the criteria for many of Kenneth Waltz’s proliferation factors.

Struggling to rebuild a traditional army and air force in a dangerous neighborhood, they opted for a ballistic shortcut. Technologically, missile production, as envisaged by Hassan Tehrani-Moghaddam, the father of Iran’s ballistic-missile program, was close to ideal for a country that had enshrined “self-sufficiency” in its security doctrine. A ballistic arsenal was also a rational response to Washington’s long-standing policy of arming and protecting its allies in the region.