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

August 17, 2015 Topic: Security Tags: IranSanctionsBallistic Missiles

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.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his deputy Abbas Araghchi—two instrumental figures in Tehran’s nuclear negotiating team—both claim that since Iranian ballistic missiles weren’t built with an explicit nuclear purpose, their testing and use should not be subject to the resolution. (Iran’s official response to the JCPOA said the same). This contention, of course, defies the assessments of the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, James Clapper, who has consistently assessed Tehran’s ballistic missiles to be “inherently capable of delivering WMD.”                                                      

Sunset provisions in the JCPOA will only compound the threat. After 15 years of compliance with the JCPOA, Iran will legally be able to ramp up its enrichment capacity and output to industrial scale. Fissile material, coupled with diminished breakout timelines and no international check against ballistic missiles will only whet Tehran’s appetite for weaponization.

According to former CIA director Michael Hayden, U.S. negotiators “dismissed” the ballistic missile component of its negotiations with Iran. This took place despite UN resolutions, U.S. Treasury designations, and statutes in U.S. law stipulating the contrary, as well as advice from a cacophony of analysts (this author included).

The administration not only failed to integrate the ballistic-missiles issue into the talks, it derided the claim that paying attention to delivery platforms was a worthwhile endeavor. In a February 2014 testimony to Congress, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs—and chief U.S. negotiator—Wendy Sherman, likened such platforms to being “almost irrelevant.”

By contrast, Iranian negotiators did what they do best. They defined the negotiating parameters in their favor. By late August 2014, Iran’s Minister of Defense boasted, “The missile issue has not been raised in the negotiations and Iran's missile power will never be an issue for negotiations with anyone.” Instead, after numerous extensions to the talks, Zarif raised the issue of ballistic-missile sanctions in the eleventh hour—and won. The missiles concession flew directly against the advice of Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”

More recently, in August 2015, Parliamentary Speaker Ali Larijani claimed that UNSCR 2231 contained clauses on missiles “which we will not listen to, and we do not accept…” which would allow Iran “to continue [its] missile work.”

Negotiators’ singular focus on the threat of fissile material left the door ajar for unprecedented compromises on delivery mechanisms. Their overriding commitment to curb—even if just temporarily—Iran’s ability to build nuclear weapons led them to concede on the very means by which those weapons could ultimately be delivered.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is an Iran Research Analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/M-ATF