Iran Project Brief on Missile Testing

February 2, 2017

The Iran Project, a non-governmental organization, dedicated to a balanced, objective, and bipartisan approach to preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon, released a short briefing paper on Iran’s missile testing. Tehran most recently tested a medium-range ballistic missile on January 29. The following is an excerpt from the paper.


Does Iran Violate Agreements By Testing Missiles?

  • Twice in the fall of 2015 Iran violated UN Resolution 1929 when it tested medium-range  ballistic missiles. Since the JCPOA Implementation Day on January 16, 2016, the new operative UN Resolution 2231 only “calls upon” Iran not to test missiles “designed to be nuclear capable.” Although Iran’s test of a medium-range missile in January 2017 is inconsistent with the spirit of UNSC Resolution 2231, it has not been considered a “violation” of that resolution by the UN Security Council.
  • Would Iran’s testing of medium-range missiles violate the spirit of the JCPOA? The JCPOA does not address the testing or possession of ballistic missiles, and UN Resolution 2231 is ambiguous on what would constitute a violation.
  • Iran has not tested or developed intercontinental or intermediate-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs/IRBMs, respectively). Iran is likely to test its new Simorgh space-launch vehicle, which appears to be designed only to place satellites into orbit. Although the development of such a launcher could be used eventually to build long-range ballistic missiles, the Simorgh is not a weapons system.
  • Iran’s military establishment may have considered testing longer-range missiles in anticipation of Iran acquiring a nuclear weapon. Iran’s leaders may recognize that since they have foregone the nuclear weapon option there is now no “justification” for long-range missiles. President Rouhani reportedly said in 2016 that “Iran will constrain its ballistic missile forces to a range of 2000–2300 kilometers. Iran’s strategic defense plan currently sees no justification for higher ranges.”
  • Iran’s missile testing is not comparable to North Korea’s since North Korea has fissile material that could be used to make nuclear warheads, has conducted nuclear tests, has conducted missile tests that threaten the territory of its neighbors, and has refused to negotiate on the nuclear threat it presents.

Why Does Iran Have Ballistic Missiles?

  • Iran’s defense and deterrence posture relies heavily on ballistic missiles, since the 1980’s Iraq-Iran War, when Saddam used missiles to kill hundreds of thousands of Iranians.
  • With its missiles, Iran seeks to balance the longer-range and more accurate Israeli and Saudi missiles, but they are obviously not comparable to Israeli missiles, as Israel is believed to be able to equip its missiles with nuclear warheads.
  • Because of its inability to acquire modern aircraft due to effective sanctions, Iran has sought to offset that weakness with a large and diverse stock of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles for deterrence and defense. Iran is now reported to be seeking to purchase modern fighter aircraft from Russia.

Who Is Threatened By Iran’s Missiles?

  • Iran’s missiles without nuclear warheads, complicate but do not gravely threaten U.S. forces or partners in the region. Under the JCPOA, Iran is prevented from acquiring a nuclear warhead capability for at least 15 years.
  • Iran has medium-range ballistic missiles with a range of less than 2,500 km that could strike Israel and the southeastern corner of Europe from Iranian territory. The inaccuracy of Iran’s missiles limits their military utility but Iran is making progress increasing accuracy. Continued testing could increase the threat they pose.
  • The United States has maintained an active missile defense presence and support for regional partners for years in part to deal with this challenge.

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