The Iran Nuclear Agreement and Iranian Missile Developments
July 22, 2015
The proposed nuclear agreement with Iran calls for an eight-year ban on the sale of new conventionally armed missiles. Like the fact the agreement permits conventional arms sales after five years, this has led to concerns that it might allow Iran to carry out a major military buildup in the future, aided by the fact that Iran could receive a major increase in its ability to fund such imports once sanctions are lifted.
One needs to be very careful about making such assumptions. Unlike its conventional weapons, Iran has already made major progress in producing its own ballistic and cruise missiles. It seems to have deliberately delayed some tests to give its missile efforts a lower political profile during the nuclear negotiations, but it already has a major missile force, is working on larger boosters and solid fuel systems, and seems to be seeking to develop a precision strike capability for its conventionally armed missiles.
It is also clear that Iran has already had major technology transfers from North Korea and that it has been able to use its extensive network of purchasing offices and cover organizations to buy critical missile technology. There are far too few unclassified data to be certain of Iranian capabilities, and some speculation about intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) programs and its progress in precision guidance is just that—even though it is sometimes described as reliable intelligence.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Department of Defense no longer publishes extensive unclassified surveys of missile developments, and far too much of the other data on Iran’s missiles confuse the accuracy of the guidance platform with the accuracy and reliability of the missile and use nominal warhead payload data without making it clear that the assumed payload is just that—not a meaningful figure on the actual missile warhead.
These issues are addressed in detail a new CSIS study of the Gulf military balance. This study is entitled The Arab-U.S. Strategic Partnership and the Changing Security Balance in the Gulf, and it is available on the CSIS website at http://csis.org/files/publication/150713_Cover_and__Report%20_Gulf_Military_Balance_2015.pdf .
Chapters VIII and IX of the study analyze the Iranian and Arab Gulf missile programs and progress in Arab Gulf, Israeli, and U.S. missile defenses. Chapter X expands upon the trade-offs Iran faces in choosing between nuclear and conventional precision strike warheads, the impact of Israel’s current monopoly of modern nuclear-armed ballistic missiles, and U.S. options for extended deterrence.
It should be stressed that there are no reliable ways to predict Iran’s future missile developments, but several points need to be kept in mind in assessing how the P5+1 nuclear agreement with Iran does or does not affect its future missile capabilities:
- Iran is already a serious and growing missile power, has a steadily more sophisticated technology and production base, and has access to North Korean missile developments.
- It is far from clear that Iran will seek to buy entire missile systems from other countries eight years from the time the agreement goes into force. But it will be a steadily growing missile threat regardless of the nuclear arms agreement.
- Iran can probably acquire enough key technology through various cover organizations, under the guise of building its space program or by buying dual-use technology to make steady improvements in the accuracy and reliability of its missiles. The eight-year limit in the Iran nuclear arms agreement seems unlikely to have much impact on this aspect of Iranian capability.
- The is no valid way to estimate how soon Iran can shift from a missile force that largely lacks the accuracy and lethality to hit and destroy critical military and infrastructure targets with conventional warheads to gaining such a capability. It is possible—and perhaps even likely—that it will make major progress well before the eight-year limit expires.
- Iran already has considerable capability to use its other antiship missiles to carry out precision strikes against combat or commercial surface ships. Some are long range and land based. Iran’s missile threat needs to be viewed in broad terms, not simply in terms of the capability of its ballistic missiles to strike land targets.
- Iran already has armed Hezbollah with more accurate shorter-range missiles, as well as given it a much largely overall inventory it could use against Israel. It does not have to rely only on its own missile forces to present a more advanced threat.
- The Arab Gulf states—and Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in particular—already have advanced strike fighters and are arming them with long-rang precision air-to-surface missiles. These forces are currently far more capable of doing critical damage to Iran’s key military and infrastructure targets than Iran’s current missile forces can inflict on the Arab Gulf states.
- The Arab Gulf states have only limited missile capabilities, and the Saudi ballistic missile force lacks the accuracy and lethality to do more than carry out retaliatory strikes on large area targets if Iran uses its missiles to attack Arab Gulf targets.
- Israel does, however, already have steadily improving theater missile defenses. The Arab Gulf states have steadily growing Patriot advanced capability-3 (PAC-3) point or limited area missile defenses, Qatar and the UAE are considering terminal high-altitude area defense (THAAD) theater missile defenses, and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has approached the United States regarding possible purchase of an integrated missile defense system based on THAAD or Standard. The United States has also already deployed missile defense ships to the Gulf and can deploy them to support Israel.
- The United States has offered the Arab Gulf states “extended deterrence” in the past. This may be the time to guarantee that it will provide both nuclear extended deterrence if Iran violates the agreement and conventional extended deterrence if Iran develops and deploys precision-guided conventional missiles.
In summary, no one can dismiss the possibility that Iran will buy missiles from outside powers eight years from the time the nuclear agreement goes into force. In broad terms, however, it is far from clear that this represents a meaningful security issue. Iran already is a serious and growing missile threat, the real world impact of the eight-year limit may well be negligible, and the United States and its allies need to act now to deal with the Iranian missile threat in ways that are likely to be largely independent of the Iran nuclear agreement.
Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategic at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.
Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
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