Iran’s ballistic missiles not part of deal
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.