Don’t Forget About Iran’s Missile Program

COMMENTARY Middle East

Don’t Forget About Iran’s Missile Program

Mar 1st, 2021 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Peter Brookes

Senior Research Fellow

Peter researches and develops Heritage's policy on weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation.
Two Iranian missiles are displayed in a public square in Tehran on Feb. 10, 2021. Morteza Nikoubazl / NurPhoto / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Few might realize that Iran has the largest missile arsenal—which includes ballistic missiles and cruise missiles—in the Middle East.

The Iranian space program, which Tehran insists is a peaceful undertaking, is rather a likely cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile program.

Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a clear national security imperative for the United States—and others.

An Iranian young boy wearing an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) uniform holds an Iran flag while Iran-made, Dezful medium range ballistic missile (Bottom) and Zolfaghar road-mobile single-stage solid-propelled liquid fueled missile are pictured in the Azadi (Freedom) square during a rally to commemorate the 42nd Victory anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, that held with motorcycles amid the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Iran, in Tehran on February 10, 2021.

With so much discussion about Iran’s provocative nuclear activities and the Biden administration’s contemplation of rejoining the problem-ridden Iran nuclear deal (or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), other issues with Iran are being overshadowed.

Its missile program is surely one.   

For instance, few might realize that Iran has the largest missile arsenal—which includes ballistic missiles and cruise missiles—in the Middle East, posing a significant regional threat to U.S. allies, partners and, of course, American forces on duty there.

And while Iran has been fraying nerves with its long-standing and repeated violations of the Iran nuclear deal, such as increasing levels of uranium enrichment, it has also been advancing its missile programs, including its space launch vehicle program.   

Of course, the Obama-era Iran nuclear deal did not capture Tehran’s on-going development of ballistic missiles. In fact, the deal weakened the language of 2010 U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, which prohibited Iran’s ballistic missile activity.

The Iran nuclear deal loosened the language barring “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons” to language that merely “calls upon” Iran to refrain from activities “related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Naturally, Tehran has taken advantage of this rhetorically and practically, frequently citing the “calls upon” language as a suggestion rather than a requirement to halt nuclear-capable missile development.

The Iranian space program, which Tehran insists is a peaceful undertaking, is rather a likely cover for an intercontinental ballistic missile program that might someday carry a nuclear weapon

For instance, last April, Tehran’s paramilitary Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps launched Iran’s first military reconnaissance satellite into space, revealing the distinct military nature of its space program.

As noted in the Defense Intelligence Agency’s 2019 Iran Military Power report, “Progress in Iran’s space program could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because [space launch vehicles] use inherently similar technologies.”

And in early February, according to Iran’s Defense Ministry and other Iranian state news sources, Tehran launched another space launch vehicle, this time with three-stages and possibly even more powerful, solid and liquid-fueled engines.

Of course, setting aside Iran’s space launches and possible ICBM programs, Tehran is already able to reach all of the Middle East and parts of southeastern Europe with its existing longer-range ballistic missiles.

It gets worse.

Iran is also reportedly working (again) with, and receiving assistance from, North Korea to develop its long-range missile program. Pyongyang and Tehran may also be cooperating on their space and nuclear programs.

This situation is significant since North Korea is already a nuclear weapons state with a highly-capable ballistic missile arsenal—including ICBMs—and both Pyongyang and Tehran see Washington as an enemy.

Unfortunately, missile, space, and possibly nuclear weapon cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang could significantly shorten the timelines Iran would require to develop and field nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of reaching the U.S. homeland.

Stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons is a clear national security imperative for the United States—and others.

In order to prevent Tehran from developing weapon systems to deliver these same nuclear weapons—in the region or beyond—we must avoid making the dangerous mistake of returning to the Iran nuclear deal as currently constructed.

This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal.