Iran's missile program is the elephant in the room in discussions about renewed U.S. sanctions on Tehran. This month the Trump administration sought to snap back sanctions on Iran, a demand that has been met with a cold shoulder by Russia, China and even U.S. allies in Europe. While the main point of contention has generally been Iran's nuclear program, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has indicated that Iran's ballistic missile threat is also a major target of U.S. sanctions.
Iran has been building ballistic missiles for many years—reverse engineering components, building on Russian or Chinese models and even working with North Korea to increase the range and precision of the rockets. When Washington announced new sanctions on Iran in late September, a U.S. official familiar with the sanctions said that Iran had resumed work with North Korea on long-range missiles. But the controversy over Iran's missile program is frequently misunderstood.
In June there was a mysterious explosion at an alleged Iranian missile facility east of Tehran, near an area called Khojir. Days later, another explosion damaged the nuclear facility at Natanz. Iran suspects foreign sabotage. It may be a coincidence that the two incidents happened in such rapid succession. But Iran's missiles are closely connected to the country's nuclear program.
Stockpiling enriched uranium that could be used in a nuclear bomb, as Iran is doing, is only part of Tehran's nuclear agenda. Even if Iran built a nuclear bomb it would have to test it and would need a way to deliver it. Nuclear bombs can be dropped from aircraft, as the U.S. did in 1945, but the preferred method since the Cold War is to put them on long-range missiles. Iran has been using missiles for decades. These include the Shahab series started in the 1980s and the Zelzal and Fateh series of the 1990s and early 2000s.
Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East.
In the last decade Iran increased the capabilities of these missiles. It said it used Fateh 313 and Qiam missiles to target U.S. forces in Iraq in January 2020 after Washington killed Iranian IRGC Quds force commander Qasem Soleimani. In 2018 it also achieved extreme precision using Fateh 110 missiles against Kurdish dissidents near Koya in northern Iraq. It also fired missiles over Iraq into Syria to target ISIS in October 2018. These are major accomplishments and should be understood to represent an achievement for Tehran. Despite many years of sanctions, it increased its ballistic missile capabilities, with longer ranges and better precision. It has also trafficked this technology and missiles to its allies, including Houthi rebels in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militias in Iraq and Syria. Iran's own government media frequently boast about these missile capabilities and Tehran's intention to export its weapon systems.
Pompeo, who has championed the new sanctions, has frequently identified the missile program as a major threat. "Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East, and it has exported both missiles and missile production," the State Department said on September 21. However the U.S. has not spelled out how it intends to counter a threat that has grown even as sanctions increased.
This is where the problem comes in. Iran keeps showing off its missiles. It shot a military satellite into space this year and continues to work on expanding both liquid- and solid-fueled rockets. Iranian foreign minister Javad Zarif has dismissed US complaints about the program. This means that Iran will continue to tinker with missiles that would likely be the delivery mechanism for a nuclear bomb if the regime ever builds one. Even without the bomb, the increased precision of the missiles, combined with drone and cruise missile threats, is a growing threat to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and U.S. bases in the Gulf and Iraq. It is a threat Iran already showed off with an attack on Saudi Arabia last year aimed at the Abqaiq oil facility.
Investing in better missile defense is one way to help protect against such an attack. U.S. support for Israeli missile defense programs such as Arrow, David's Sling and Iron Dome has proven successful. That is why the U.S. army is looking at Iron Dome as a solution for short-range threats. But the overall threat is more complex because long-range missiles can threaten sites across thousands of miles, from the Gulf of Oman to the Mediterranean. Putting in place enough missile defense batteries of multiple layers across a half-dozen U.S. allies in the region is a complex challenge.
Iran will continue to develop its missile arm. In some ways international focus on the nuclear program was a welcome distraction for Tehran, which has since poured investment into this alternative danger. Understanding what Iran has accomplished in the last few years is at least a first step toward understanding what Tehran is up to with its long-range missiles.
Seth Frantzman is a Ginsburg-Milstein Writing Fellow at the Middle East Forum and senior Middle East correspondent at The Jerusalem Post.