Iran’s ballistic missiles not part of deal

Friday 17/04/2015
Iran’s ambitions: The sky is the limit

While the administra­tion of US President Barack Obama hails the landmark break­through agreement to curtail Iran’s nuclear programme as a major triumph that will reshape the geopolitics of the Middle East, the Iranians are probably congratu­lating themselves on a significant success of their own: their adamant refusal to allow any intrusion into their drive to develop the ballistic missiles that would be needed to deliver nuclear weapons.

Throughout the negotiations, a process that began in secret sev­eral years ago, Iran’s missile pro­gramme, particularly an apparent push to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), has been a major concern for the United States and its allies in Europe.

Any direct ICBM threat to them is likely to be some way off – “2020, at the earliest”, according to Michael Elleman of the International Insti­tute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in London.

But the danger is real right now for countries on the western shore of the Gulf. They are already within the reach of even medium-range, conventionally armed Iranian mis­siles that could blast their military bases, oil and gas infrastructure and desalination plants that pro­vide just about all their water sup­plies.

The US administration is un­der intense Israeli pressure to do something about Iran’s missile programme, which, in tandem with the nuclear project, is seen by the Jewish state as an existential threat. Public discourse on the is­sue in Israel centres on concerns of cataclysmic bombardment by the Islamic Republic and its allies.

“Iran has the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. Israel has more ca­pable ballistic missiles but fewer in number and type,” Elleman said.

Western and Israeli analysts es­timate Iran has 400-plus Shahab-3 missiles operational and a produc­tion rate of 70 a year, under the con­trol of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).

The Sejjil-2 and Shahab-3 inter­mediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) are the most formidable missiles in Iran’s growing arsenal and the main worry of the Israelis, who are widely seen as being be­hind a series of covert operations inside Iran to sabotage the missile programme in recent years.

The Sejjil-2 is the most advanced. It has a range of about 2,000km. It uses solid fuel, which means it requires less time to launch than systems using liquid fuel, like the Shahab-3, and thus less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes by aircraft or other – read Israeli – ballistic mis­siles.

The Iranians have persistently declined to discuss their ballistic programme, arguing that it has no nuclear dimension and will not al­low their defence industry as a whole to come under scrutiny.

In April 2014, as the talks be­tween Iran and the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Se­curity Council – the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France plus Germany) gained momentum, the US State Department’s nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, de­manded that Iran’s ballistic mis­siles, particularly its IRBMs, be dis­cussed as part of a comprehensive agreement.

But General Hossein Dehghan, the Iranian defence minister and a senior IRGC commander, bluntly refused. “Iran’s missiles are not up for discussion under any circum­stances,” he declared. “Iran’s mis­siles are our concern… We do not accept any intervention from any­body on this issue.”

Other hardline commanders in the IRGC, the most powerful mili­tary force in Iran and bitterly op­posed to any move it deems would impede the nuclear project, have repeatedly reinforced that position since then, despite the April 2nd agreement to scale back Iran’s nu­clear programme in return for eas­ing economic sanctions.

Israel and Saudi Arabia want sweeping restrictions across the board on Tehran’s ballistic pro­gramme, not just ICBMs which are the Americans’ primary focus. They do not trust Tehran to abide by any deal it makes with the P5+1. Secu­rity analysts fear they could yet try to sabotage the negotiations before a final agreement due June 30th.

“Considering these underlying factors, it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to unilaterally stop its missile programme or dismantle its arsenal but the Iranians might still be encouraged or even compelled to undertake transparency meas­ures and adhere to certain capping mechanisms,” observed Farzin Na­dimi of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“The international emphasis… should be on establishing a viable monitoring regime for Iranian mis­sile efforts.