by Greg Thielmann
Iran’s January 29 flight test of a medium-range ballistic missile helped prompt an ominous if ambiguous warning by U.S. National Security Advisor Michael Flynn on February 1: “As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.” Since it is facing so many other international crises, it is curious that the new administration gives such a prominent place to Iranian missile testing, which poses no existential threat to the United States or its allies and is not prohibited by the Iran nuclear deal or any other widely accepted rules of international behavior.
The problem is not that the Trump administration is trying to control Iran’s destabilizing behavior and to inhibit Iran’s ballistic missile programs. These objectives have been vigorously pursued on a bipartisan basis for many years. The problem is that Trump’s team is failing to appropriately prioritize the serious threats it now faces and is in danger of derailing the existing opportunities for mitigating them.
The Obama administration focused on constraining Iran’s ability to produce fissile material as its highest priority nonproliferation objective. It marshaled the support of the international community in imposing tough sanctions on Iran and engaged Iran’s government diplomatically in constructing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which has now cut off the pathways to an Iranian bomb for some 15 years.
The US government rightly concluded that without nuclear warheads, Iranian ballistic missiles would be a tolerable and manageable threat. Although the Obama administration helped achieve a UN Security Council resolution in 2010, which banned ballistic missile tests, it did so then primarily as an inducement for Tehran to negotiate constraints on Iran’s nuclear program.
When the JCPOA was achieved, the new resolution (UNSC Res. 2231) largely set aside the elements of the previous resolution (UNSC Res. 1929) that were not germane to the production of nuclear material. In fact, there was little enthusiasm among the other six states parties to the JCPOA for any mention of ballistic missiles in the follow-on Security Council resolution. The language referring to ballistic missile activity that the United States managed to insert into the replacement resolution was therefore hortatory rather than mandatory. As a consequence, when it tests ballistic missiles, Iran can be justly accused of doing what it has been “called upon” not to do, but it should not be accused of “violating” the UNSC resolution.
In fact, the UN Security Council agreed to the proscriptive language of Res. 2231—“not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons”—knowing that it permitted differing interpretations. Accordingly, Iranian officials deny that its missile tests constitute a violation of either the relevant UN Security Council resolution or the JCPOA. Having foresworn nuclear weapons, Iran argues that none of its missiles is designed to be capable of delivering such weapons. The United States and its allies contend that since any ballistic missile that can deliver a 500-kilogram payload more than 300 kilometers tested is capable of carrying a nuclear payload, the resolution’s language applies to Iran’s latest test.
Ignoring the legal nuances, much of the commentary in the United States about Iran’s activity is both belligerent and inaccurate. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) calls the latest missile test a “violation” of the UN Security Council resolution. House Democratic Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-MD) stated that the Iranian test “ought to be a reminder …that [Iran] continues to flout international laws…” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley says the world should be “alarmed” by the test. Former ambassador Mark D. Wallace, head of United Against a Nuclear Iran, labels the test “an unacceptable act of aggression.”
It’s high time for the United States to interject some realism into discussions about Iranian missiles.
First, after one year of successful implementation of the JCPOA and the passing of another year with no long-range Iranian missile tests, these weapons do not rank very high on the list of actual U.S. security threats. They do not pose the existential threat of Russian missiles, the devastating threat of Chinese missiles, or the serious regional threat to U.S. military forces and close allies of North Korean missiles.
Second, Iranian missiles are more a symptom than a cause of regional proliferation concerns. During the eight-year war following Iraq’s invasion, Iran was more the victim of than the source of ballistic missiles raining down death and destruction. In spite of its large missile arsenal, Iran has no long-range ballistic missiles; three of its regional neighbors do. Iran has no nuclear warheads for its missiles; two of its regional neighbors do. Iran does not have a large and modern air force as an alternative means of projecting force as do Saudi Arabia and Israel.
So a word of advice to the new security team in Washington: You can continue to exercise vigilance over Iran’s putative missile might and take steps to hinder its development, but please don’t jeopardize the enormous nonproliferation achievement of the JCPOA or get distracted from dealing with the larger security threats lurking at the door.
Greg Thielmann is a 25-year veteran of the U.S. Foreign Service, serving two tours in the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. He subsequently worked as a senior staffer on the Senate Intelligence Committee and a senior fellow of the Arms Control Association. Photo of Michael Flynn courtesy of US Naval War College via Flickr.