TSG IntelBrief: Iran’s Missile Threat
March 15, 2016

Iran’s Missile Threat

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Bottom Line Up Front: 

• Iran’s recent tests of ballistic missiles and its launches of space vehicles are intended to demonstrate that Iran remains a regional power despite the recent nuclear agreement

• Iran’s missile program is the largest and among the most advanced in the region, enabling Iran to threaten its adversaries, particularly Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

• Iran’s negotiations to purchase combat aircraft and tanks from Russia demonstrate the growing strategic relationship between the two countries

• Iran’s missile tests and arms purchases will provoke responses, including stepped up cooperation between the United States and its regional allies on missile defense.   

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The U.S. intelligence community assesses Iran’s missile program as the largest and among the most technologically sophisticated in the region, with growing accuracy and lethality. Last week, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), a bastion of Iran’s hardliners, conducted ballistic missile tests from several underground silos around Iran. Among those tested were the Qiam missile, a smaller variant of Iran’s Shahab-3 missile, with a range of about 500 miles. The Qiam and other short range ballistic missiles are capable of reaching any of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries (Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman). With the possible exception of Oman, all of the GCC countries are, to varying degrees, adversaries of Iran and its Shi’a allies such as Lebanese Hizballah and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Another Shahab-3 variant, the Emad, was tested in October and November 2015: it has an estimated range of about 1,100 miles. The Emad and the Shahab are capable of reaching Israel and southeastern Europe, including any of the military bases of Turkey, a NATO member. Iran’s production of large numbers of short-range cruise missiles signals that U.S. ships in the Persian Gulf might be vulnerable as well.

The United States has called all of Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests ‘provocative and destabilizing’ and violations of UN Security Council resolutions. Resolution 1929, of June 2010, contained an explicit ban on Iran’s testing of ‘nuclear-capable’ ballistic missiles. Resolution 2231 of July 2015, which enshrines the Iran nuclear deal and superseded Resolution 1929 in January 2016 (implementation of the nuclear agreement), continues the missile launch ban for eight years. However, Resolution 2231’s language is somewhat vague—’calling on Iran to refrain’ from nuclear-capable missile development and launches. Iran argues that the nuclear agreement ensures that it cannot develop a nuclear weapon, and that its missiles therefore cannot be ‘nuclear capable.’ Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has vowed to continue the missile development apace, perhaps to mollify the IRGC and other hardliners who assert that the nuclear deal limited Iran’s deterrent capacity.

There are additional signs that Iran seeks to affirm that the nuclear deal did not diminish its role as a pre-eminent regional power. Iran has placed on a launch pad the latest Simorgh rocket for the launch of a satellite, possibly this week. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper testified before Congress in February that ‘Iran’s progress on space launch vehicles—along with its desire to deter the United States and its allies—provides Tehran with the means and motivation to develop longer range missiles, including [Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles] ICBMs.’ Iran has not tested an ICBM to date, but critics of the nuclear deal assert that an ICBM would be developed for only one purpose—to deliver a nuclear payload. Even if Iran’s space launches are not intended to develop an ICBM, they signal to Iran’s regional adversaries that Iran remains the most technologically-advanced country in the region, aside from Israel. 

After the January 16, 2016 implementation of the nuclear agreement, Iran undertook further initiatives to enhance its military capabilities. In February, Defense Minister Hossein Dehgan, an IRGC stalwart, visited Moscow to discuss major conventional arms purchases. Although no firm deals were announced, Iran and Russia are negotiating Iran’s purchasing, and possibly even co-producing, the Su-30 combat aircraft and the T-90 tank. Iran has been impressed with the degree to which Russia’s use of the Su-30 and its transfer of the T-90 to the Syrian army has shifted Assad’s battlefield fortunes since late 2015. In connection with his Moscow visit, Dehgan announced that Russia would soon deliver the S-300 air defense system that it sold to Iran in 2007, but which was held up in accordance with international sanctions.   

The weapons sales represent an expansion of Iran and Russia’s alignment in seeking to preserve Assad’s rule against rebels backed by Saudi Arabia and the GCC, Turkey, and the United States. Iran and Russia see Assad as a bulwark against Sunni Islamist radicals including, but not limited to, the so-called Islamic State. However, any such Russian conventional arms sales to Iran would violate Resolution 2231, which continued for five years the prior ban on sales of major weapons systems to Iran. Proceeding with the sales is likely to aggravate tensions between Russia and the United States over Syria and Ukraine.    

Iran’s missile tests and arms purchases will likely provoke regional responses. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to use the Iranian actions to reiterate that the nuclear deal was a strategic mistake, while at the same time the United States and Israel will expand their missile defense cooperation to counter the Iranian programs. The United States will also continue working with Turkey and the GCC to develop a region-wide missile defense network. The Russian sale of arms to Iran might encourage other suppliers, such as China, to resume supplying Tehran with technology that could improve the accuracy of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Additionally, the GCC countries will likely seek to buy more sophisticated U.S. arms, including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter that the United States has said will initially only be sold to Israel.

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