Tehran can already make an ICBM anytime it wants, and there's nothing Donald Trump can do about it.
- By Jeffrey LewisJeffrey Lewis is director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program for the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.
If you like North Korea’s nuclear-armed ICBM, you are going to love America walking away from the nuclear deal with Iran.
On this week’s episode of the Federal Apprentice, the staff forced Donald Trump to certify that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal brokered by his predecessor. None too happy with that outcome, Trump is reportedly exploring ways to collapse it. That’s a terrible idea. Two rocket tests launched last week in a single 24-hour span by Iran and North Korea help explain why. They offer a useful opportunity to compare two very different possibilities: what Iran looks like today, with the nuclear deal in place, and how things have turned out with North Korea following the collapse of efforts to negotiate limits on Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.
Last week, Iran launched a rocket called the “Simorgh” as part of a program to place satellites in orbit. The Simorgh itself is not an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, but the technologies are broadly similar.
Space launches do not, however, violate the terms of the nuclear deal, contrary to the claims of some of the deal’s opponents. The text of the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), is silent on the subject missile launches. Accordingly, U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231, which implemented the deal, toned down the tough language in previous resolutions. Iran is merely “called upon” — the diplomatic equivalent of a suggestion — to refrain from activities related to “ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” (And the term “designed to be capable” is so ambiguous as to be almost meaningless.) Indeed, the fact that the deal contained no limits on Iran’s missile program was something opponents highlighted and supporters, like me, lamented.
These details, though, don’t matter. The Trump administration is already signaling that it intends to sabotage the nuclear deal by insisting on inspections in a transparent and cynical effort to push Iran out of the agreement. The JCPOA already provides for inspections, but Team Trump seems to be envisioning the equivalent of a safeguards colonoscopy, not to catch Iran cheating but to make life under the agreement a constant source of friction. Whether or not a space launch is legally permitted or prohibited, Team Trump is likely to decide that it is one more calumny to launch against what Trump modestly called the “worst deal ever.”
But a casual glance at North Korea helps illustrate why that is shortsighted.
According to Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, the Trump administration won’t be talking about North Korea’s missile launch. After all, what’s to talk about? North Korea’s recent tests of an ICBM clearly violate various U.N. Security Council resolutions, and the United States isn’t going to do anything about it. North Korea’s Hwasong-14 ICBM flew more than 3,700 kilometers in altitude, before landing in the Sea of Japan. Had North Korea fired the Hwasong-14 on a normal trajectory, it would have traveled far enough to hit most major U.S. cities including New York and Los Angeles. The people who are promising you a better deal with Iran have exactly no plan to deal with North Korea. It’s the equivalent of repeal and replace, except that stripping 20 million people of health care looks like a walk in the park compared with blundering into nuclear war.
During the 1990s, a lot of U.S. officials objected to any diplomatic agreement with North Korea that would allow it to use its own rockets to launch satellites into space, arguing that the country would learn too much about ICBMs in the process. The Barack Obama administration walked away from a deal with North Korea in April 2012 because Pyongyang insisted it be able to conduct a space launch to celebrate Kim Il Sung’s birthday.
The shortsightedness of those decisions should now be obvious. North Korea has tested an ICBM that can deliver a nuclear weapon throughout the United States. Did it convert its Unha space launcher, which the United States calls the Taepodong-2, into an ICBM? No, it did not. It built something far more frightening.
North Korea’s ICBM, known as the Hwasong-14, looks nothing like the Taepodong-2 or Iran’s Simorgh. The latter missiles are very large because their first stage uses the inefficient propellant types found in Scud missiles. It takes North Korea and Iran a long time to assemble these missiles using cranes and then to fuel them. The Simorgh was reportedly visible on the launch pad for an entire day. While this technology might be useful for an ICBM in a pinch, in a war the United States isn’t going to give either Iran or North Korea a day to assemble a nuclear-armed missile.
That is precisely why North Korea developed the Hwasong-14, which has a better first-stage engine, more advanced propellants, and a lightweight airframe. These innovations mean that the missile is small enough to be transported by a big truck that can drive to a remote location and then ready the missile to launch, probably in under an hour. That makes the Hwasong-14 extraordinarily difficult for the United States to track. For the most recent test, North Korea seems to have fired the missile from a surprise location deep inside the country to drive that point home. If you had to choose between North Korea armed with jerry-built space launchers as ICBMs and North Korea armed with the Hwasong-14, you would always take your chances with the space launchers.
There are, of course, links between space launch programs and ballistic missiles. At CNS, my research institute, we suspect that the second stage of North Korea’s Hwasong-14 missile is similar to the upper stages designed for the Iranian space launch vehicles. And while that does mean that Iran’s space programs could help advance an ICBM program, it also suggests something else — that the flow of technology has reversed. We are now seeing innovations in Iran that later appear in North Korea. Iran could build an ICBM just as well as North Korea, if not better, whenever it wants.
So what’s stopping Tehran? It’s not that Iran can’t build an ICBM; it’s that Iran is choosing not to. And that is probably because, unlike short- or medium-range ballistic missiles, it is hard to imagine an ICBM with any purpose other than delivering a nuclear weapon. That would throw the Iran nuclear deal into chaos and trigger a confrontation that, for the moment, Tehran seems to want to avoid. In other words, the deal is working.
If we want it to keep working, we have to learn to live with Iran’s aspirations for spaceflight, just as we have learned to live with its nuclear energy program in exchange for limits that help prevent Iran from building a bomb. In both cases, the sticks of sanctions and military attack have to come with carrots — incentives like accepting the peaceful use of dangerous technologies. That includes a fair amount of research that might well be used for nefarious purposes. In life, there are some risks that you simply cannot eliminate.
And there is this: Idle hands are the devil’s playthings. If we really want to discourage Tehran from building an ICBM, we need to keep Iran’s missileers busy doing something else. If Iran’s missile scientists are content with sending satellites into space, that’s fine by me. We can sanction them when they sell their services to North Korea, but if they stop, we need to be prepared to welcome them into the community of space-faring states.
Perhaps that’s not the best outcome, but it could be worse. Look at North Korea.
Photo credit: VAHID REZA ALAEI/AFP/Getty Images