There are several important things to understand about ballistic missiles and Iran, beyond the fact that this topic has become one of the latest on which those who want Iran to be an ostracized and feared pariah forever, and who still want to kill the agreement to restrict Iran's nuclear program, have seized.
Ballistic missiles are any projectiles that follow, after an initial powered and guided phase, a ballistic trajectory. Devices with this name include an enormously wide variety of sizes, ranges, and capabilities. They run from short-range battlefield weapons to missiles with intercontinental range. Ballistic missiles are in the armed forces of many states. They have become important and accepted parts of the defense posture of many states. Most of those states do not have what are commonly called weapons of mass destruction, and the missiles in their arsenals are not intended or designed to be used with such weapons. Instead they are part of a standard conventional defense strategy. If there is a genie involved with ballistic missiles, it has long been way, way out of the bottle.
Scary rhetoric about Iran has repeatedly referred to the supposed prospect of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile, evidently to try to get Americans to believe that Iranian missile programs pose a threat to the United States. Such rhetoric bears little or no resemblance to what the Iranians have been doing in the way of development and testing of ballistic missiles. As missile expert Greg Thielmann, who studies the Iranian program closely, has concluded , an Iranian ICBM “is nowhere in sight.” Iranian work on missiles has focused on shorter-range systems that are more relevant to Iran's defense needs within its own neighborhood.
Those needs, and how Iranian leaders perceive them, are shaped by a painful history of neighbors using ballistic missiles against Iran and by the prospect that missile-armed neighbors might use such weapons again. The Iran-Iraq war, begun by Saddam Hussein's aggression against Iran in 1980, included several rounds of the “war of the cities” in which civilian populations were subject to bombardment from the air. Iraq used manned aircraft as well as ballistic missiles to attack Iranian cities, but during the later phases of the war the destruction of cities came mainly from Iraq's missiles. It is impossible to come up with an accurate figure of losses sustained by these missile strikes amid what was a very bloody war overall, but probably in even just the first round of the war of the cities in 1984, civilian casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.
In the Persian Gulf region it was Saudi Arabia that made the single biggest move in the proliferation of ballistic missiles: its then-secret purchase in the 1980s from China of intermediate-range CSS-2 missiles. Today, Iranian leaders look across the Gulf at their regional rivals in Saudi Arabia and see a substantial missile force incorporating technology from China and Pakistan. It would be a non-starter for any Iranian leader, regardless of his politics or ideology, to disavow continued efforts to try to improve and develop Iran's own force.
Additional confusion from the sort of rhetoric one hears today concerns exactly how missiles do and do not relate to the recently concluded nuclear agreement. That agreement—one of the signal achievements on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation—was achieved only by the parties agreeing to focus on the nuclear issue itself rather than wading into other grievances that the parties have against each other. Those include not only Western grievances against Iran but also Iranian grievances against the West and the United States, some of which have to do with U.S. military activities in Iran's immediate neighborhood. Missiles, like a lot of other issues that each side may have otherwise been anxious to raise, were not the target of the nuclear agreement.
Despite frequent references today to Iranian missile tests as a “violation,” they do not constitute any violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e., the nuclear agreement) or of the two-year-old preliminary agreement. In fact they do not involve a violation of anything that Iran has agreed to. Iran has never been under any obligation to help sanction itself.
And it is only as sanctions that the issue of missiles legitimately comes up at all in connection with the nuclear agreement. An embargo on export to Iran of missile-related materiel and a variety of other types of conventional armaments was part of a host of nuclear-related sanctions specified in a series of resolutions of the United Nations Security Council enacted prior to the beginning of the negotiations that led to the JCPOA. So was a call in a resolution in 2010 for Iran itself not to engage in missile development activity. All of these sanctions, like the other nuclear-related sanctions, were intended to induce Tehran to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program. In that respect they were no different from sanctions involving banking access or pistachio exports. The missile-related sanctions had the added purpose of freezing or retarding any possible development of Iranian missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons, as long as there was not yet an agreement precluding Iran from producing the fissile material that would be needed for such a weapon.