Length Doesn’t Matter
The United States and Europe need to get serious about limiting Iran’s missiles of all ranges — and the Missile Technology Control Regime should guide them.
U.S. President Donald Trump has made it clear that he intends to remedy the flaws of the nuclear deal achieved between six world powers and Iran in 2015. He has therefore urged Congress to legally constrain Iran’s long-range missile and nuclear programs, while appealing to the Europeans to agree on punitive measures — primarily economic sanctions — against Iran’s missile program. The president warned that if his conditions are not met, he will terminate the deal in May.
Iran’s missile program now lies at the heart of the Trump administration’s efforts to strengthen the deal through new legislation, and it features prominently in U.S. talks with European allies. So far, the Europeans have shown no interest in reassessing flaws in the nuclear deal, which could risk its collapse and jeopardize their economic interest in advancing business deals with Iran. But over the past months they have expressed a new willingness to concentrate on Iran’s missile program, which was excluded from the nuclear negotiations due to Iran’s uncompromising demand to limit the discussions to its nuclear program. The negotiators conceded to this demand despite the fact that Iran’s missile program is directly relevant to Iran’s future ability to pose a nuclear threat. If Iran acquires nuclear bombs, it would need delivery systems to establish a credible operational nuclear threat and become a de facto nuclear power.
The United States’ insistence on addressing Iran’s missile program and the newly expressed European willingness to cooperate in this endeavor should be welcomed. To effectively cope with the Iranian missile challenge, however, the administration should abandon its current focus on long-range missiles, because the threat is tied to the warhead, not the missile’s range. Rather, the United States and European countries should be encouraged to embrace the already well-established “gold standard” for combating missile programs capable of delivering weapons of mass destruction that has existed for 30 years: namely, the Missile Technology Control Regime, which they helped establish in 1987.
Trump’s formal acknowledgment of the fact that Iran’s missile capabilities and nuclear program are not separate issues is an essential precondition for effectively tackling the Iranian missile challenge. Artificially separating them has proved ineffective for other nonproliferation campaigns as well, as the North Korean case indicates. However, if the administration adheres to the term “long-range missiles,” which was used by the president in his Jan. 12 announcement, it will play to the hands of the Iranian regime. Constraining Iran’s missile program based on the “range test” would implicitly allow Tehran to continue to improve other aspects of its missile technology, including accuracy and launching technologies. Unless development of other technologies such as cruise missiles, satellite launch technology, and unmanned aerial vehicles is banned as well, Iran’s path to building missiles that can carry nuclear weapons will remain open. Ultimately, Iran will be able to exploit the knowledge that it has developed — including satellite technology — in order to manufacture advanced and precise nuclear-capable long-range missiles within a very short time frame. To put it simply, every missile that can reach a target 1,100 miles away can be very rapidly adapted to reach 1,500 miles and farther.
Another crucial flaw of the long-range rationale — which in recent discussions has tended to focus on missiles that have a range beyond 1,200 miles — is that it differentiates between missiles that threaten Europe and the United States and those capable of hitting their allies in the Middle East. By focusing only on long-range missiles, the implicit message to Iran is that there would be no consequences for continuing to develop its short- and medium-range missiles — which could carry nuclear warheads. Indeed, it would virtually give Iran a green light to threaten U.S. allies such as the Gulf countries, Egypt, Jordan, and Israel with nuclear-tipped missiles. This would send the message that neither Europe nor the Trump administration is committed to the security of its regional allies.
Instead, the Trump administration should look much more seriously at the Missile Technology Control Regime, which was originally created in order to curb the proliferation of WMD-capable missiles — missiles with a range of at least 180 miles that can carry a 1,100-pound payload. The goal was to limit the risks of nuclear (and other WMD) proliferation by controlling the exports of the key missile manufacturers. This benchmark covers other unmanned aerial delivery systems such as space launch programs, cruise missiles, sounding rockets, and drones.
By joining the MTCR club, countries could reduce the risk of missile proliferation, maintain a small club of missile powers, and exchange information concerning missile-related technologies. This benchmark was developed by a group of like-minded states in 1987, led by the United States, Britain, France, and Germany. What these four powers need to do now is to adapt their original rationale for creating the MTCR to present-day negotiations over the correct collective policy for confronting Iran’s missile program.
By adhering to the MTCR conditions, the United States and Europe could make their campaign more effective by controlling the entire span of Iran’s missile capabilities. This would prevent Iran’s ability to threaten them in the future, persuade President Trump to keep the Iran nuclear deal in place, and strengthen well-established missile-related norms that would not only help mitigate current Western misgivings about Iran’s missile capacity but also enhance the Western norm against proliferation of WMD-capable missiles more generally.
Although the original purpose of the MTCR was to create a voluntary export regime — namely, to restrict the export of technology from the member states to others that might develop missiles capable of carrying weapons of mass destruction — it also provides tools to constrain pre-existing missile programs. It does so by taking advantage of the admission process, which necessitates consensus among today’s 35 members. It is worth noting that current U.S. policy mandates that new members that have not yet been recognized as nuclear states are required to shun missiles that exceed the MTCR’s parameters. Those that wish to join the MTCR regime and already possess those capabilities are required to eliminate them. Hence, the missile regime has been informally extended to restrain pre-existing missile programs.
Ideally, the United States should call on Iran to join the MTCR. The Iranian regime continues to insist that its missile program is merely for defense purposes while denying any intent to develop nuclear weapons despite its past military program. If Iran indeed has no nuclear ambitions, it should not view this restriction as a problem. However, it is extremely unlikely that Iran would accede to this demand and accept further limitations on its missile program, which also has implications for its satellite and drone programs and other dual-use technologies. Nevertheless, Iranian membership should be put forward as one of the main conditions for any future negotiations about a follow-on agreement to the Iran deal.
For now, because there is little prospect of getting Iran to agree to the MTCR gold standard, this norm should be promoted in a bilateral framework between the United States and its European allies, and as a basis for the joint policies they devise toward Iran. These conditions should also be set as a trigger for U.S. sanctions as part of the new legislation taking shape in Congress.
Accepting the MTCR conditions as agreed-upon red lines will take on greater urgency in the face of the expected termination of the military embargo on Iran in October 2023, as mandated by a United Nations Security Council resolution. Once that embargo ends, Iran will be able to use foreign military assistance to improve its missile program. At that point, it will be critical to prevent Iran from dashing toward nuclear-capable missiles. Accepting the MTCR gold standard will help counter these efforts.
In fact, the U.S. strategy to counter Iran’s missile program should aim to push for a new U.N. Security Council resolution. The current one, Resolution 2231, merely “calls upon” Iran not to undertake such activities. It also adds the problematic phrase “designed to carry” a nuclear payload. Because Iran denies any intent to work on nuclear weapons, it insists that no missile it develops could logically meet that condition. However, Iran’s actual capability, not its stated intent, should be the focus of the restriction. A new resolution should be formulated that explicitly bans any prohibited Iranian missile activities, using the MTCR’s rules to define those activities.
Stopping Iran’s missile program before it can equip its missiles with nuclear warheads will not be easy. Adopting MTCR language and norms is the only framework capable of effectively hindering Iran’s missile progress while strengthening the international nonproliferation regime against any state with aspirations of acquiring or building nuclear-capable missiles.
Ironically, because Iran insisted on not including ballistic and cruise missiles in the framework of negotiations over its nuclear program, the field is open for the international community to push for new standards. The United States and Europe need to get serious about confronting Iran’s most likely delivery system for any nuclear weapons that it might develop down the line — and that means targeting missiles of all ranges.
Avner Golov is a research fellow and director of research programs at Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies.