Missiles have emerged as a significant issue in the Iran nuclear talks, since they would be the most likely means for delivering a future Iranian nuclear weapon. However, missiles are not the core issue – Iran’s nuclear potential is –so United States and partner negotiators should not let their desire to limit missiles armed with conventional warheads derail a final deal with Iran.
Iran insists that it will not consider limits on its ballistic missiles, which it argues are needed for defensive purposes. Russia appears to agree that missiles should not be on the agenda of the nuclear talks, according to Iranian media reporting of remarks by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. Obama administration officials, on the other hand, say the missile issue must somehow be addressed in the talks, noting that a United Nations Security Council resolution in 2010 required that Iran “not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Members of congress have even sought to block a final deal that does not include severe limits on missiles.
The UN Security Council resolution is being taken out of context. The 2010 resolution sought to address specific concerns at the time over Iran’s failure to fully comply with its obligations under the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty by expanding the list of previous sanctions. When Iran was increasing its capacity to produce nuclear bomb material while refusing to negotiate seriously, it was logical for the U.S.(and other countries) to seek limits on Iran’s nuclear-capable missiles.
However, seeking to graft a missile ban into a future nuclear accord would ignore the significant evolution that has occurred in the three years since. The ban on missile activity was never intended to be permanent; it was a means to an end – achieving resolution of compliance and transparency issues. Trying to make it a prerequisite now for reaching a final nuclear deal is likely to hurt negotiations.
A militarily weak Iran relies heavily on its conventionally-armed ballistic missiles for defense and deterrence. Iran has invested significant resources on developing and deploying several dozen medium-range ballistic missiles, which can reach the territory or the military forces of countries (Israel and the U.S.) that threaten it with attack (“all options on the table”). Neither the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty to which Iran is a party nor the Joint Plan of Action to which Tehran recently agreed contains any prohibitions on ballistic missiles. Moreover, there is no universally accepted definition of what constitutes a nuclear capable missile.
The last time the international community was in a position to forestall the emergence of a nuclear-capable missile threat from a state of proliferation concern was following the defeat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1991. In connection with the cease-fire, Baghdad was banned from any ballistic missiles with ranges in excess of 150 kilometers. From Tehran’s perspective, such a ban would constitute a humiliating surrender of its right to self-defense.
There are other possibilities in the realm of multilateral arms control for mitigating the proliferation concerns generated by Iran’s missile forces. Tehran could be encouraged to subscribe to the Hague Code of Conduct, a confidence-building regime involving prelaunch notifications for missiles and space launch vehicles. Likewise, getting a ban on Iranian ballistic missile flight tests beyond a certain range would be more feasible in the context of multilateral regional constraints, rather than through limits imposed only on Iran as part of a final nuclear deal. Indeed, a regional ban on testing and deployment of ballistic missiles with ranges of greater than 3,000 kilometers could be seen as beneficial in Tehran as well as in the capitals of the nuclear-weapons states outside the region.
The best way at the moment to address Iran’s potential to exploit nuclear capable missiles is to ensure that Iran’s nuclear program is sufficiently limited and transparent that missile limits become unnecessary. As the lead U.S. negotiator, Under Secretary of State Wendy Sherman testified to congress in February: “If we can get to the verifiable assurance that [the Iranians] cannot obtain a nuclear weapon…then a delivery mechanism, important as it is, is less important.” Recognizing this critical distinction between the good and the necessary will be key to achieving a satisfactory outcome in the ongoing negotiations.