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European leaders have clearly set themselves apart from the United States and the administration of President Donald J. Trump in relation to the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal. They view the deal—also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—as a success for non-proliferation and international security. In contrast, the current US Government has criticised the deal for failing to address non-nuclear issues, notably Iran’s continuing ballistic missile development, which the USA has long viewed as both a regional and a global threat.
Iran’s missile programme was also one of the main justifications for President Trump’s recent refusal to certify that continuing the suspension of sanctions—a key US commitment under the agreement—is proportionate to Iran’s respective commitments under the JCPOA. As a result, continued US adherence to the deal now depends on the US Congress.
However, while defending the JCPOA, the major European powers have joined the Trump administration in squarely condemning Iran’s missile tests and satellite launches. This commonality of views was highlighted in a joint statement on 13 October 2017 by the United Kingdom, France and Germany, which said that ‘as we work to preserve the JCPOA, we share concerns about Iran’s ballistic missile programme and regional activities [and] . . . stand ready to take further appropriate measures to address these issues’.
The Trump administration expects European countries to take a harder line on this issue. As part of an attempt to address the JCPOA’s ‘many serious flaws’, the US President has urged ‘allies to join us in . . . through sanctions outside the Iran Deal that target the regime’s ballistic missile program’.
Given the transatlantic disagreement over the JCPOA, European countries might feel increasing pressure to focus on Iran’s ballistic missile activities in order to find common ground with the USA. But is the Western perspective on Iran’s missile programme based on an objective threat assessment, and is a punitive approach helpful in addressing it?
Transatlantic disagreement over the JCPOA, solidarity against the missile threat
The JCPOA is a multilateral agreement negotiated between Iran, the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and Germany, with the specific aim of putting an end to concerns that Iran’s nuclear programme might be used for military purposes. Although ballistic missiles were left out of the agreement, they were mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015.
More specifically, the missile-related provision in the resolution calls on Iran ‘not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’ until 2023. This ambiguous formulation has been a source of increasing controversy. The Iranian position is that its missile testing has nothing to do with the JCPOA, because its missiles are conventional and not designed to carry nuclear weapons. This diverges from the Western expectation that Iran should have suspended missile testing for eight years.
On these grounds, the Trump administration argues that Iran’s continuing missile tests violate the spirit of the JCPOA—as well as Resolution 2231. The USA’s Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, has repeatedly called for the Security Council members to punish Iran for its ‘blatant violations’ of Resolution 2231, including ‘provocative and destabilising missile launches’.
European countries, in contrast, have stressed that the JCPOA is essentially a nuclear deal, and that everything else is outside its scope. At the same time, however, they too have condemned Iran’s missile activities as inconsistent with Resolution 2231, even though they do not subscribe to the USA’s accusation of violation.
France, for example, has threatened to push for European sanctions in response to Iran’s missile tests, and has said that it would consider ‘the means to obtain from Iran the cessation of its destabilizing ballistic missile activities’. France, Germany and the UK have also joined the USA in calling for UN Security Council action in response Iran’s missile tests and satellite launches, arguing that the tested missiles are ‘inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons’, and pointing to similarities between satellite launcher and long-range missile technologies.
The link between nuclear weapons and missiles
Although there is no binding international treaty controlling ballistic missiles, they are often associated with nuclear proliferation. This is because ballistic missiles, particularly long-range ones, have historically been the most important delivery system for nuclear warheads.
At the same time, several countries rely on conventionally armed missiles as part of their national security strategies. Of the 31 countries that currently possess ballistic missile capabilities, only 9 are nuclear-armed. The arsenals of most of the remaining 22 states are not generally viewed as problematic due to their short range and small numbers. However, there are also political factors behind the lack of attention to their capabilities, which is why it is rare to hear that Israel and Saudi Arabia actually possess the longest-range ballistic missiles in the Middle East—not Iran.
Nevertheless, Iran’s missiles stand out from the rest for several reasons. Apart from having the largest arsenal of ballistic missiles in the region, Iran actively develops its missiles through testing. It also has an adversarial relationship with the USA, which has long suspected Iran of having nuclear weapon ambitions. Although it was hoped that the JCPOA would put an end to such concerns, critics argue that Iran might still develop nuclear weapons after the deal expires—in which case it could mate its missiles with nuclear warheads.
Finally, Iran’s past purchases of North Korean missiles and related technology continue to fuel speculation about ongoing missile cooperation between the two countries. Iran has also reportedly provided assistance to the Syrian Government in missile technology.
Iran’s missile programme as a regional deterrent
Iran views its missiles as a counter to the military capabilities of its regional rivals—particularly their state-of the-art, Western-supplied military aircraft. Despite US and international sanctions, which have considerably restricted Iran’s ability to develop its conventional armed forces, the country has become increasingly self-sufficient in developing ballistic missiles.
The role of ballistic missiles in Iran’s national security was highlighted in the 1980s, when its cities were left defenceless against Scud missile and air attacks from Iraq under President Saddam Hussein. Iran’s acquisition and use of its own short-range missiles is regarded as a crucial turning point in the Iran–Iraq War. Since then, Iran’s ballistic missiles have gained further importance as a conventional deterrent—particularly during the escalation of the nuclear crisis in 2006–13, when Israel and the USA threatened military action against Iranian nuclear facilities.
Iran’s missile arsenal consists of short- and medium-range missiles. Its longest-reaching operational missiles have a range of 1600 kilometres, which means that they could hit Israel or US military bases in the Middle East. Although Iran continues to develop its missile capabilities, its focus for the past decade has been on enhancing the accuracy, rather than range, of its missiles. As noted by Michael Elleman, a leading missile expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, there is ‘no evidence to suggest that Iran is actively developing an intermediate- or intercontinental-range ballistic missile [ICBM]’.
In other words, Iran’s pattern of missile testing—which has sought to address the long-standing problem of poor accuracy—is consistent with the programme’s stated purpose as a regional deterrent. It also reinforces the argument that Iran’s missiles are designed to be conventional, not nuclear: nuclear-armed missiles do not need to be accurate, due to their disproportionate destructive power. For conventional purposes, however, inaccuracy severely limits the missiles’ military utility.
Iran’s missile development has also been influenced by the perceived need to respond to the growing number of anti-ballistic missile systems in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states and Israel. For example, Iran’s Emad missile is equipped with a manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle, and the Khorramshahr missile is reportedly able to carry multiple warheads. Such features can increase the chances of overcoming missile defences.
The link between space rockets and long-range missiles
Iran successfully used the Safir space launch vehicle (SLV) to send its first satellite into space in 2009, and has since then delivered at least three more satellites into the Earth’s orbit. In addition, Iran has launched animals into space and has plans to send humans there as well. It is currently developing a larger Simorgh SLV to reach higher orbits.
Given the technological similarities between missile and SLV technologies, Iran’s satellite programme has raised suspicions about its potential aims to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Indeed, there are many historical examples of states having converted ICBMs into SLVs, or developing the two technologies in parallel. However, the reverse scenario—that is, SLVs being turned into long-range missiles—has never happened, because ICBM development is more demanding in many ways. Missiles carry warheads that must not just reach space, but must also withstand re-entry into the atmosphere. Further, they need to work reliably under various conditions, with little advance warning.
Although having a satellite programme can contribute to ICBM development, it is not a shortcut to long-range missiles. Even if Iran converted the Simorgh SLV into a long-range missile, it would still need to undergo the normal, time-consuming routine of missile testing, which would not go unnoticed.
Iran’s missiles and NATO’s missile defence policy
Some of the current Western solidarity against the Iranian missile threat can be traced to the missile defence policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)—also known as the European Phase Adaptive Approach (EPAA). Introduced by the USA under the Obama administration, EPAA was preceded by the Bush administration’s plans to put large interceptors in Europe to defend the US mainland from hypothetical nuclear-armed ICBMs coming from Iran.
Instead, the aim of EPAA was to protect south-eastern parts of Europe from Iran’s existing arsenal of short- and medium-range missiles. The key idea was to adapt to changing circumstances: while systems against ICBMs were envisioned in the later stages of EPAA, President Obama said that there would be no need for the system if the threat from Iran’s nuclear and missile programs were eliminated.
The NATO Secretary General at the time, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, also referred to the Iranian threat when arguing for EPAA to be adopted as official NATO policy. However, since that decision was made at the 2010 Lisbon Summit, the alliance has avoided direct references to Iran. At the same time, NATO has never openly challenged the US argument that EPAA is essentially about Iran—except for stressing that the system ‘is not about any one country, but about the threat posed by proliferation more generally’.
Arguably, European countries valued EPAA primarily because it was seen to strengthen the transatlantic link and provide additional reassurance against Russia. Unlike many other forms of military cooperation, land-based missile defences have meant permanent US presence on European soil. This trade-off seemed unproblematic during the height of the Iran nuclear crisis, but the picture has changed considerably since then. Despite the landmark nuclear deal, in May 2016 NATO began to construct a new missile defence site in Poland against intermediate missiles—which Iran does not possess.
Nevertheless, US officials justify the new Polish site in terms of the Iranian threat, pointing to the possibility that Iran might still develop longer-range missiles. Meanwhile, NATO continues to talk about the generic threat of missile proliferation and points to over 30 countries with ballistic missile capabilities, without unpacking what this threat means in concrete terms.
European disinclination to subject NATO’s missile defence policy to critical scrutiny can be understood in terms of inertia, the desire to ensure US presence on the continent, as well as the heightened need to maintain transatlantic unity after the events in Ukraine. This creates a bias that makes European countries less prone to question US assessments of the Iranian missile threat, also outside the context of EPAA.
Putting Iran’s missile programme in context
The prevailing Western tendency to target Iranian missiles while ignoring the overall military balance in the Middle East reflects the historical experience of the USA and its regional loyalties. Despite mounting pressure to join this approach and the related punitive measures, European countries should put the issue of Iran’s missiles in its proper context.
Iran’s ballistic missile programme does not constitute a global threat. Rather, it is part of broader regional security dynamics, and cannot be addressed in isolation. As missiles play a key role in Iran’s national security strategy, it is unrealistic to expect that the country will forgo efforts to improve their operationality and survivability through testing.
In September 2017, President Hassan Rouhani responded to US condemnation of Iran’s missile development by stating: ‘No matter if you like it or not, we will boost our defence and military capabilities to the extent deemed necessary for defence. We will not seek permission from anyone to defend our country and our land.’
A punitive approach to Iran’s missile programme is not only likely to be ineffective, it could also undermine simultaneous European attempts to maintain the JCPOA, lending legitimacy to potential measures by the US Congress to link US adherence to the JCPOA with the missile issue. Even if the US measures do not directly impact the JCPOA, new sanctions against Iran’s missile programme might further impede international trade with Iran, thus increasing the already pervasive Iranian perception that sanctions relief is not being implemented.
Therefore, it is important that European countries do not let the missile issue distract them from seeking to maintain the JCPOA as their first priority. The former US Department of State coordinator for the deal’s implementation, Jarrett Blanc, recently argued that ‘Iran and its missiles are less dangerous because of the JCPOA. That accomplishment cannot be sacrificed for an unrealistic effort to pressure Iran on ballistic missiles’.
However, this does not necessarily mean that there is no way to constrain Iran’s missile programme. Given repeated statements by Iranian officials that the country has no need of missiles beyond the range of 2000 km, Iran could in principle agree to limit its missiles to that level. As for any further limits to Iran’s ballistic missile programme, they are unfeasible without parallel discussions with other states in the region about their respective military capabilities.
Unfortunately, it is not an optimal time to discuss either Iran’s missiles or the broader issues of regional security. As the JCPOA has shown, arms control negotiations require at least some mutual respect and trust, both of which are clearly absent from the current US–Iranian relationship and in relations among Middle Eastern countries. This also casts a shadow on any attempts by others to start a missile dialogue with Iran, which would probably be rejected as part of the controversial US plans to ‘renegotiate’ the nuclear deal. Further, any new Iranian compromises with the West should not be expected at a time when previous promises under the JCPOA are in such serious doubt.
Yet this should not discourage long-term thinking. European countries could use their political channels with Iran and other regional actors to get a more thorough understanding of their respective security concerns. Such knowledge could then be used to inform future discussions on Iran’s missiles, as well as a more comprehensive arms control dialogue in the region—a goal that has long evaded international efforts, but is still worth pursuing.