How to Strike a Missile Deal With Iran
Tehran will never give up all of its ballistic missiles, but a compromise is possible.
The United States’ confrontational posture toward Iran is not likely to enlist any international partners apart from those already in the anti-Iran camp. But as European leaders try to salvage the nuclear deal with Iran, they should seek to find common cause with Washington to address their shared concerns.
A key issue is the potential threat inherent in Iran’s ballistic missile program: If Iran ever decides to go for broke in building nuclear weapons, some of its missiles, which today are fitted with conventional warheads, could be repurposed to deliver nuclear warheads.
The lack of limits on Iran’s missiles is one of the three reasons U.S. President Donald Trump cited for withdrawing the United States from the nuclear deal. But he offered no solutions to the missile challenge other than the unrealistic demand that Iran give up all of its missiles. Given the central role that missiles play in Iran’s sense of defense and deterrence, total abandonment of the missile program is not remotely possible.
There is a better way: Concerned governments should prevent Iran from developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) by locking in the 2,000-km (1,200-mile) range limit that Iran has already said is its maximum requirement.
While Iran is generally staying within this self-imposed limit, there are troubling signs of a hedging strategy to develop longer-range systems. A missile agreement is therefore needed, with verification and enforcement provisions. Concerned countries should swiftly codify a range limit before Iran manages to advance its missile program.
Iran would never put such a limit in writing or accept the verification and penalty measures needed to police it unless it received something in return. As a trade-off, Iran could be allowed to continue a space launch program, but with technology limits and transparency rules to minimize the risk that satellite launches would be used for military purposes. It’s true that satellite programs rely on dual-use technology, but there are eight technical and transparency measures that would make the risk manageable.
Technical restrictions to minimize the risk posed by Iran’s space launch system would also benefit the ongoing U.S. negotiations with North Korea. What precisely Pyongyang means by its commitment to denuclearization, as promised to Trump in Singapore two months ago, remains unclear. That definition has been a key stumbling block in the negotiations before and after the summit.
North Korea’s nuclear-capable missiles, both short- and long-range, should be included in any denuclearization agreement. Washington’s default position in previous negotiations has been to include rockets used to launch satellites into orbit, like the one that quickly scuttled the last deal with North Korea in 2012.
North Korean civilian satellite rockets could be exempted this time, with the right limits and transparency requirements. After all, Pyongyang has already demonstrated that it did not use its space launchers for the ICBMs it tested last year. Rather, it used entirely different hardware and technology.
While the technologies and components employed in satellite launches and military-use missiles are similar, key features and operational demands differentiate civilian space launchers from military ballistic missiles. Iran’s satellite launchers are vulnerable to preemption, lack re-entry protection, employ lower-thrust propulsion systems, and have less demanding all-weather reliability standards. This is why the risks of allowing either country to continue civilian satellite launch programs in exchange for a long-range missile flight-test ban are manageable, and doing so advances U.S. security interests.
Limiting the range of Iran’s missiles to 1,200 miles would not eliminate the potential threat posed to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and other neighbors. It would be ideal if Iran were to abandon all missiles that can deliver a 1,100-pound payload at least 180 miles—the threshold set by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) for missiles deemed inherently capable of carrying a nuclear weapon. Eight of Iran’s 13 current ballistic-missile systems exceed that standard.
But let’s be realistic. Iran will not roll back its capabilities to that extent, especially while its regional adversaries improve their air forces and retain their own missile capabilities that are not subject to any limitations. Ideally, a range limit agreement should cover all countries in the region. Absent this, Iran’s leaders would need other incentives, such as the space program exception that we propose, to encourage them to make a deal. Recognizing the reality that Iran would never agree to give up all of its missiles, it is important to focus on its most dangerous missile systems: those that clearly were designed to deliver nuclear weapons.
Contrary to the argument made in Foreign Policy earlier in the year by Avner Golov and Emily Landau, length and size matter. First, longer-range systems typically can carry a larger warhead, depending on the geometry of the nose cone, and the rudimentary nuclear weapons that Iran would most likely develop if it went down that path would be large. Second, longer-range systems fly faster and are thus harder to shoot down. The missile defense batteries fielded by Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are battle-tested and can reduce the danger posed by Iran’s conventionally armed, shorter-range systems.
Rather than an impossible absolutist standard for defanging Iran’s missiles, Western nations should seize the potential for precluding the most dangerous long-range systems. This would not give Iran a free pass on shorter-range systems, because the MTCR’s export control guidelines would remain in place, blocking technology transfers for such missiles.
It is regrettable that creative and technically sound trade-offs were not offered earlier to restrain ballistic missile development by Iran and North Korea. It is not too late, however. And it is increasingly imperative.
Michael Elleman is a senior fellow for missile defense at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the principal author of the IISS Strategic Dossier Iran’s Ballistic Missile Capabilities: A Net Assessment.