What Are Iran’s Missiles For?

Any resolution of the stand-off between the US and Iran hinges increasingly on Iran’s missile program. While much of the drama has focused on the Iran nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Program of Action (JCPOA), which the US pulled out of last year, Iran’s ballistic missile program has been elevated by the administration of US President Donald Trump to equal status with Iran’s nuclear program as a threat to international peace and security. The Iranian program recently drew further attention following a failed attempt with a space launch vehicle (SLV). While the US insists that any resolution of the ongoing crisis must include a cessation of both ballistic missile and nuclear activity, Iran treats the two as completely separate issues. The US claims that the Iranian ballistic missile program exists for the purpose of delivering a future Iranian nuclear weapon. Iran maintains it has no nuclear weapons program, and that its missile fleet exists purely for legitimate self-defense. Unraveling these mutually exclusive positions is essential for a solution to the current crisis.

An accident late last month involving an Iranian SLV, the Safir, precipitated an escalation of the conflict between the US and Iran over its ballistic missiles. “The United States of America,” Trump announced in a tweet that also contained a declassified satellite photograph by way of illustration, “was not involved in the catastrophic accident during final launch preparations for the Safir SLV Launch at Semnan Launch Site One in Iran.” The president’s choice of words and release of the photo were curious, suggesting obliquely that, in fact, the US may have been connected to the accident. “I wish Iran best wishes and good luck in determining what happened at Site One,” Trump concluded.

In response to Trump’s odd announcement, an Iranian spokesperson noted that while there was, in fact, an accident at the Semnan facility, it involved a malfunction that was technical in nature, and was not the result of sabotage. “This has been a technical matter and a technical error. Our experts unanimously say so,” the spokesperson explained.

Within days of the apparent Iranian failed SLV launch, the Trump administration announced the first-ever sanctions against the Iranian Space Agency, which targeted both the space agency and two of its research institutions. The US claims that Iran is using the tests as a covert means to advance its ballistic missile program. Iran claims they are for space research and the launch of its own satellites.

“The United States will not allow Iran to use its space launch program as cover to advance its ballistic missile programs,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo noted when announcing the sanctions. “Iran’s August 29 attempt to launch a space launch vehicle underscores the urgency of the threat,” Pompeo said, further declaring that “these designations should serve as a warning to the international scientific community that collaborating with Iran’s space program could contribute to Tehran’s ability to develop a nuclear weapon delivery system.”

The State Department reinforced Pompeo’s declaration, releasing a statement declaring that Iran’s space launch vehicle technology is “virtually identical and interchangeable” with that of a ballistic missile that could deliver a nuclear warhead. However, Pompeo’s declaration and the State Department’s follow-on statement are at odds with the technology and physics that distinguish an SLV program from a long-range ballistic missile program.

Misguided Missile Comparisons

Iran’s SLVs — such as the Safir rocket that exploded on the launch pad — are derivatives of the ubiquitous Soviet-era Scud liquid-fuel missile. While launching a satellite into earth’s orbit requires acquired expertise in guidance and control systems and stage separation, both of which have applications in the delivery of warheads via a ballistic missile, SLV’s are not effective for use in a militarily viable intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). An ICBM requires sustained brute power to lift a militarily significant payload, measured in thousands of pounds, into a trajectory capable of striking a target thousands of miles away. While the Scud missile (which achieved notoriety during the 1991 Gulf War) was designed to be used in ballistic missile applications, these are range-limited, and fall far short of what is needed for ICBM-like capability.

The technology associated with an ICBM usually pairs a powerful, efficient booster with a second and possibly third stage that sustains this power to allow the payload to be lifted into the higher altitudes necessary for ballistic missile trajectories. By way of contrast, the second stage of an SLV uses low-thrust engines with long burn times, ideal for accelerating a satellite on a path parallel to the surface of the earth to attain a sustainable orbit, which is not adequate for delivering a nuclear payload.

While Iran does not have a dedicated ICBM program, North Korea — another nation accused by the US of using an SLV program as a cover for developing an ICBM capability — does. The North Korean experience shows that the propulsion technology used to launch its satellites differed greatly from the system eventually incorporated into its ICBM. Both the North Korean and Iranian SLVs are derived from the Soviet-era Scud liquid-fuel missile. But the North Korean ICBM uses a different liquid-fuel technology that alters engine design and system performance to such an extent that it cannot be viewed as being derived from the SLV program. Rather, it is a completely different system altogether.

One of the fundamental intelligence failures of the US when evaluating North Korea’s potential to field a viable ICBM was to focus on its SLV program. When North Korea eventually unveiled the Hwasong-15 ICBM, analysts discovered that it made use of an entirely new engine design, fuel composition and flight control system. In short, it was a completely different missile. With Iran, the US is conflating a peaceful SLV program with a non-existent ICBM capability.

The US intelligence community understands the differences between an SLV program and an ICBM program. Thus, the State Department announcement regarding the sanctioning of the Iranian space program cannot reflect an intelligence assessment concluding that the Safir SLV poses an existential threat to either the US or its allies. If it had, the Iranian program would have been sanctioned long ago. Instead, the sanctions are an extension of the ongoing “maximum pressure” campaign designed to compel Iran to return to the negotiating table regarding both its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. Iran, however, has made it clear that whatever agreement may or may not be reached regarding its nuclear program, its ballistic missiles will not be a part of it.

This Iranian position does not mean ballistic missiles are off limits in possible negotiations. Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif indicated back in July that Iran’s ballistic missile program could be up for negotiations, but the preconditions for such negotiations — the cessation of American arms sales to both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — make such talks unlikely, bringing into question the sincerity of the Iranian offer.

Zarif’s offer, regardless of its sincerity, offers insight into how Iran views its ballistic missile program. While the US is focused on Iran’s missiles being used to carry a nuclear weapon that can threaten its allies and interests, Iran views its missiles as a force of regional deterrence; a means by which it can hold at bay regional actors such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, which otherwise possess superior military capabilities largely provided by the US. Moreover, Iran’s shorter-range ballistic missile capability is seen by Iranian leaders as a deterrence to any aggressive military action by the US or Israel. While the neutralization of Iran’s ballistic missile capability would be a priority in an attack against Iran, the reality is that much of Iran’s missile arsenal would survive that initial engagement. It would then be able to inflict significant damage on US military bases located in the Middle East as well as Israel itself.

Ultimately, Iran’s ballistic missile force is the one thing that prevents any precipitous military action by the US or its allies regarding Iran’s nuclear program or its projection of geopolitical power throughout the Middle East region. Iran knows this and will not simply negotiate this capability away. The solution to the threat posed by Iran’s ballistic missile capability does not lie in increased sanctions like those levied on the Iranian space organization, but rather resolving the tensions created by the nuclear crisis precipitated by the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, as well as a resolution to the ongoing unrest in Yemen, Syria and Iraq. Once Iran is no longer viewed as a nuclear proliferation risk or the primary threat to regional stability, then it might be willing to sit down and discuss how to resolve international concern over its ballistic missile programs. Until then, Iran’s opponents will have to learn how to peacefully coexist with a missile threat that is not going away anytime soon.


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