In March of this year, Iran conducted tests of two variants of the Qadr medium-range ballistic missile. Shortly afterwards, a group of GOP senators introduced new sanctions legislation which included provisions sanctioning persons and entities involved with Iran’s ballistic missile program.
For decades, the most contentious issue between Iran and the United States was the former’s nuclear program. Following the signing and implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), this has changed. To be sure, the nuclear deal itself still generates quite a debate, but Iran’s actual nuclear program has fallen out of the world’s attention.
Nature abhors a vacuum. It was only a matter of time before another issue took the place of the nuclear issue as the most intransigent point of contention between the U.S. and Iran. It would appear, from all indications, that Tehran’s ballistic-missile program will soon assume that dubious position.
Indeed, the missile issue seems to be picking up right where the nuclear one left off. Instead of repeating the same counterproductive diplomatic strategy, however, it’s time we learned from the past. It would be a similar mistake to approach Iran’s ballistic-missile program with the same political and diplomatic myopia that characterized both sides’ approach to the nuclear issue for decades. In fact, Iran’s missiles should not even be on the agenda at this point in time or, at the very least, they should not be an immediate diplomatic priority. There are several reasons for this.
First of all, despite rhetoric to the contrary, Tehran’s missile program is not a serious threat; none of the missiles currently in Iran’s arsenal could reach the United States. And without developing longer-range ICBMs, which would take many years, the U.S. will never be seriously threatened by an Iranian missile program.
However, many of our regional partners—namely Israel—do find themselves within range of the missiles most recently tested by the Iranians. According to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, (which runs Iran’s missile program) the Qadr-H variant has a range of 1,700 kilometers and the Qadr-F variant has a two-thousand-kilometer range. If you are inclined to believe these figures, Israel is now within range of the missiles, as Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jaafari has claimed. But merely being within range of the missiles does not necessarily mean that they are a threat, or at least not a serious threat.
Speaking to this point, Mike Elleman, a Consulting Senior Fellow for Missile Defense with the International Institute of Strategic Studies, gave testimony at a recent hearing on Iran’s ballistic missile program before the Senate Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs. In his testimony, Elleman explained that despite their range, Iran’s missiles are fairly inaccurate. Therefore, if Iran wanted to seriously damage a target—particularly a hardened military target— they would need to utilize a sizeable percentage of their arsenal against just one target to do so. Furthermore, as Elleman stated in his testimony, missile-defense systems would further limit the overall efficacy of Iran’s missiles. An example of such a system would be Israel’s Hetz (Arrow) program, which was developed in collaboration with the United States. The inaccuracy of Iran’s weapons is a weakness that significantly lessens the strategic threat Tehran’s ballistic-missile program poses, even to those regional states that find themselves within range of the missiles.
In addition to the risk that Iran’s ballistic-missile program poses being exaggerated, the current political situation, particularly inside Iran, is not conducive to negotiations on this issue.
First of all, the missile program is quite the touchy subject in Iranian domestic politics. Perhaps the best example of this was the to-do between Ayatollahs Khamenei and Rafsanjani. In an incident that showed that not even high-ranking Iranian Ayatollahs are immune from twenty-first-century public-relations minefields, Rafsanjani came under fire from Khamenei for a tweet the former posted in late March (roughly two weeks after the missile tests) saying that “the world of tomorrow is the world of discourse, not missiles”. In a speech soon after, Khamenei said in response to Rafsanjani that individuals who used such a phrase knowingly were “treasonous.” Rafsanjani was quick to correct his tweet, but not before enduring significant backlash from his harder-line opponents.
While this might seem like a fairly tame exchange to those used to American political bickering (particularly these days), the pointedness of Khamenei’s criticism was relatively rare. Preferring the use of innuendo, Iran’s supreme leader seldom criticizes anyone so directly, much less Rafsanjani, who is probably his most powerful domestic rival. Hardline opponents of Rafsanjani and engagement with the U.S. were quick to seize the opportunity to slam Rafsanjani for his comments. While certainly political posturing to some degree, the backlash against even moderate criticism of the country’s missile program shows the extent to which the issue is such a third-rail topic in Tehran.
It is also important to remember that the Iranians view their missiles as a defensive necessity. Ayatollah Khomeini gave the order for the development of a conventional domestic missile program in response to the inability of Iran to deter or at least respond to the use of chemical weapons against Iranian troops and civilians by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War. During that war, Iran approached several states to purchase missiles to defend themselves from the Scud attacks with. These attempts were all unsuccessful.
For many inside the regime, the trauma of the Iran-Iraq War and its lessons still play a large role in foreign-policy decision making. Iran’s conventional wisdom has been that it can only depend upon itself for territorial defense. Even Javad Zarif, the pragmatic foreign minister and old diplomatic hand, showed a strong display of emotion when the legitimacy of Iran’s ballistic missile program in a post-JCPOA world when a reporter questioned him.
The foregoing is meant to highlight the extremely limited political space for Iranian negotiators if negotiations on their missiles were to take place - if any space exists at all. Regardless of what the current Iranian administration might be willing to do, final authorization for such diplomacy would need to come from Ayatollah Khamenei himself. And despite the fact that he has shown a willingness to negotiate with the United States and the West on different issues over the years, Khamenei has never once publicly authorized the discussion of their missile program. Iran’s missile program was not even included in the unprecedented proposal (which Khamenei personally authorized) sent to the Bush White House following the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The proposal laid out a comprehensive roadmap for negotiations on several of the most contentious issues between the United States and Iran at a time when the United States had armies on two of Iran’s borders. Not even under such pressured circumstances was Khamenei willing to negotiate on what Iran viewed as its most vital positions when it came to national defense.
Fast forward to the present day. Iran’s security situation in the region has improved since 2003, but not to the point that Iran’s position on the necessity of their missile program would have changed. Iran is still significantly outspent by its Gulf neighbors/rivals on defense, and the geopolitical rivalry with said states (especially the Saudis) has, if anything, intensified following the nuclear accord. And despite claims of a shift towards Tehran by some critics of the Obama administration’s Iran policies, the relationship between the United States and Iran is still borderline hostile at best, not to mention the fact that sanctions on their missile program and other areas remain.
The United States’ own position on the matter is not all that flexible either. In fact, I am aware of no examples of the United States clarifying what potential compromises on the missile issue (e.g. limits on the range, payload capacity, or arsenal size) might look like. There’s simply not much to start with on this issue from a diplomatic standpoint.
Attempting to reconcile the inflexible Iranian position while the U.S. holds a similarly inflexible (or at least ambiguous) position does not exactly make for a formula for successful negotiations. On the contrary, making this issue a diplomatic priority seems far more likely to perpetuate the maximalist tendencies on both sides that have governed most of the U.S.-Iran relationship since 1979.
Pursuing such a course of action is all the more misguided when you take into account the post-JCPOA political environment, especially in Iran. The Iranian side has repeatedly claimed that the United States has not done enough to ensure that Iran attains the benefits it was promised upon the lifting of the sanctions related to the nuclear program. Valiollah Seif, governor of the Central Bank of Iran (sometimes referred to in English as Bank Markazi), went so far as to say during a visit to the U.S. that “almost nothing” has been done to actualize the terms of the JCPOA. Subsequently, several hardliners in Iran (whose disdain for the nuclear deal is matched in intensity only by American opponents of it) have used the Central Bank governor’s statement of “almost nothing” as a slogan, of a sort, to rail against the deal while emphasizing the nuclear accord is another example of why the United States cannot be trusted to negotiate and act in good faith.
Whether or not the Iranian assessment of the post-deal situation is accurate is a fairly irrelevant question, however. Whatever their assessment, the fact is that the Iranian perception of the United States’ willingness (or a lack thereof) to follow through with a negotiated agreement would very likely lead them to harden their positions on the missile issue.
Not to be outdone, the American position is likely to harden as well with the new administration next January. Whichever of the two candidates is elected, it’s fairly safe to make the assumption that the American line towards Iran would be noticeably tougher in a Clinton or Trump administration than it was during the Obama administration.
In summary, you’re dealing with an Iranian side with very little flexibility and/or political will for negotiation on the missile issue and an American side with position that’s ambiguous at best, along with a new executive who will likely take an equally hard line. This would all be for negotiations on an issue that does not pose a very serious threat to the United States, nor to its regional partners.
Designating the Iranian missile program a priority under such conditions would achieve nothing except the perpetuation of the mutual enmity and gridlock that has defined U.S.-Iran relations since the revolution. The progress made towards ending (or at least reducing) the pervasive maximalism in both sides’ negotiating postures with the JCPOA should not be wasted on something that is, at this point in time, such a dead-end endeavor.
A more prudent diplomatic strategy would be to focus on an issue (or issues) where the interests of the United States and Iran are closer than they are on the missile program. One option could be narcotics trafficking from Afghanistan into Iran. Another potential option is discussing each other’s intentions in Persian Gulf waters. Whatever the choice, the specifics aren’t as important as the process. As long as it’s something that shows the other side that there is something to be achieved by negotiating with you.
Negotiating with Iran, or with the United States for that matter, will never be easy, nor will it ever be without hurt feelings. However, neither does it have to be doomed to devolve into the tit-for-tat exercise in positional bargaining that would almost surely come to pass if future negotiations between Iran and the United States are myopically focused on Iran’s missiles.
Robert Andrea is an incoming postgraduate student in the Department of War Studies at King’s College London. His research primarily focuses on Iranian politics & foreign policy, diplomatic strategy, and proxy warfare as statecraft.