Trump administration raises alarm about Iran’s missile programme

The discovery of Iran-made missiles in Saudi Arabia — fired by Houthi rebels from Yemen — illustrates the danger of Iran’s programme to develop ballistic missiles.
Sunday 23/09/2018
A Ghadr H ballistic missile on display by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. (AP)
Wild card. A Ghadr H ballistic missile on display by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps in Tehran. (AP)

WASHINGTON - A top US diplomat warned that Iran’s “lawless pursuit of ballistic missiles” is endangering the Middle East and countries as far away as Western Europe, which Tehran could target if it continues developing its missile programme.

The discovery of Iran-made missiles in Saudi Arabia — fired by Houthi rebels from neighbouring Yemen — illustrates the danger of Iran’s programme to develop short-, medium- and long-range ballistic missiles, Brian Hook, US State Department special envoy for Iran, said in a speech September 19.

“When you look at the number of [Iranian] missiles launched from Yemen to inside Saudi Arabia, this is truly a threat to international peace and security. This is very dangerous work that they’re doing,” Hook said.

Hook’s warnings come less than three weeks after reports that Iran transferred short-range ballistic missiles to its Shia proxies in Iraq and that satellite photos revealed an Iranian missile-production facility in western Syria. Iran’s Foreign Ministry denied transferring missiles to Iraq.

Hook’s speech was part of a campaign by the administration of US President Donald Trump to draw attention to Iran’s missile programme, which has been overshadowed by Iran’s nuclear programme. The efforts to develop missiles and nuclear weapons are tightly linked, Hook said, noting that the ballistic missiles under development could be used to carry nuclear weapons to Western Europe.

“Enhancements in ballistic systems often go hand-in-hand with nuclear development. Ballistic missiles are the most likely way Iran would deliver a nuclear weapon. They must be addressed together with Iranian nuclear weapons,” Hook said.

A ballistic missile has a high, arcing trajectory, falls to the ground unpowered and can travel thousands of miles. Ballistic missiles have a greater range but less accuracy than cruise missiles, which are self-propelled for almost their entire flight.

Hook noted that Iran has said it was trying to develop a long-range, precision-guided cruise missile and recently unveiled two short-range ballistic missiles that could hit targets 500-700km away.

The exclusion of Iran’s missile programme from the nuclear accord negotiated in 2015 drew criticism from some US officials and lawmakers at the time and was a major reason that Trump withdrew from the deal in May.

Former US President Barack Obama and his European partners at the time said it would be impossible to get Iran to agree to curb both its nuclear and missile programme.

Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), “somehow became a seal of approval that Iran was fine in all the other categories” of Iranian malfeasance, such as exporting terrorism and destabilising the Middle East, Hook said.

The JCPOA was accompanied by a UN Security Council resolution that weakened prohibitions on Iran’s missile programme that had been contained in an earlier resolution.

“The reality that UN member states ignore at their peril is that Iran has continued to develop and test ballistic missiles. Iran’s pace of missiles did not diminish after the Iran [nuclear] deal was implemented in January 2016. They’ve conducted multiple ballistic missile launches since then,” Hook said.

Hook said the State Department was working with allies in the Middle East and Europe to constrain Iran’s missile programme. After his speech at a Washington think-tank, Hook avoided answering a question from the audience about whether the United States would allow China and India to continue to import Iranian oil if those countries helped put pressure on Iran over its missile programme.

Hook spoke generally about the reinstatement of US sanctions but said nothing about possible waivers to certain countries.

The United States intends to reinstate sanctions on Iranian oil exports in early November and Hook said the goal was “to get imports of Iran oil to zero.” China and India are major importers of Iranian oil. China has said it intended to continue to buy Iranian crude, a move that could draw US sanctions. India reduced its purchases of Iranian oil and is asking the United States for a waiver from sanctions so it can continue some imports.