While much of the international community has been focusing on maintaining the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, Iran’s latest acceleration of its ballistic missile program has received little attention, scrutiny or criticism.
In spite of the economic and political pressure the Iranian regime has been facing, its ballistic missile program has been advancing at a rapid pace, particularly when it comes to the proliferation of longer-range precision-guided weapons. The regime last month unveiled several new missiles — including a surface-to-surface ballistic missile called the “Martyr Haj Qassem” and a naval long-range cruise missile named the “Martyr Abu Mahdi” — as well as several high-quality jet engines.
Iran possesses the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East, and no other country has ever acquired long-range ballistic missiles before obtaining nuclear weapons. Its ballistic missile capability is one of the most critical pillars of the regime’s national security policy. They can be used for offensive or defensive purposes, but sophisticated missiles are mainly developed as delivery vehicles for nuclear weapons.
The regime’s expansion of its ballistic missile program poses a threat to the stability of the region and the national interests of other countries for several reasons. First, the regime has not been shy about showing off its ballistic missile capabilities and threatening other governments. For example, one day after the UN Security Council last month voted against extending the arms embargo on Iran, the headline of a report by the state-controlled Afkar News stated: “American soil is now within the range of Iranian bombs.” The story boasted about the damage the Iranian regime could inflict on the US. “By sending a military satellite into space, Iran now has shown that it can target all American territory; the Iranian parliament had previously warned that an electromagnetic nuclear attack on the United States would likely kill 90 percent of Americans,” it read.
The report also threatened Europe, whose JCPOA members intriguingly abstained in the vote on extending the arms embargo against Iran. It stated: “The same type of ballistic missile technology used to launch the satellite could carry nuclear, chemical or even biological weapons to wipe Israel off the map, hit US bases and allies in the region and US facilities, and target NATO even in the far west of Europe.”
Iran’s expanding ballistic missile program and frequent tests create a sense of insecurity in the Middle East and this will inevitably lead to further destabilization, militarization and an arms race.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
Secondly, Iran’s expanding ballistic missile program and frequent tests create a sense of insecurity in the Middle East and this will inevitably lead to further destabilization, militarization and an arms race in the region. For example, Israel has reportedly improved its Arrow missile defense system in response to Iran’s missile program.
While the Iranian leaders argue that they are not breaching any international laws by test-firing ballistic missiles, Tehran is clearly violating UN Security Council resolution 2231. This resolution calls on the Islamic Republic “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.”
In addition, as Iran and the other remaining JCPOA signatories still argue that the nuclear deal remains effective, Tehran should not undertake any ballistic missile activity “until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day (Oct. 18, 2015) or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the broader conclusion, whichever is earlier.”
The third threat is linked to the fact that the beneficiaries of Iran’s expanding ballistic missile arsenal are generally terror and militia groups. Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Lebanese group Hezbollah, has previously admitted: “We are open about the fact that Hezbollah’s budget, its income, its expenses, everything it eats and drinks, its weapons and rockets, come from the Islamic Republic of Iran.” Iran has also advanced Yemen’s Houthis’ missile technology. As a UN panel of experts acknowledged, it is extremely unlikely that the Houthis could manufacture such missiles on their own. “The design characteristics and dimensions of the components inspected by the panel are consistent with those reported for the Iranian-designed and manufactured Qiam-1 missile,” the panel reported.
Furthermore, the Iranian regime has reportedly set up weapons factories abroad and is manufacturing advanced weapons in foreign nations, including in Syria. Some of the arms that Tehran is producing in Syria include precision-guided missiles. Such weapons factories give Iran the capability to wage wars or strike other nations from countries such as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq or Yemen. In other words, Iran’s ruling clerics would not need to be directly engaged in any war, which could jeopardize their hold on power; rather, they could exploit third parties to pit other nations against one another.
The UN must take the Iranian regime’s build-up of ballistic missiles seriously and counter the regime’s distribution of missile technology to its militia and terror groups throughout the region.
- Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated Iranian-American political scientist. Twitter: @Dr_Rafizadeh