Iran's ballistic missile program: A potential sticking point in nuclear negotiations

Jofi JosephJofi Joseph discusses Iran's ballistic missile program and how it will be handled in upcoming P5+1 negotiations in Vienna. He recommends limiting the range and payload of Iranian missiles as an expedient compromise, but cautions the P5+1 not to spoil a chance at agreement on enrichment because of disagreement on missiles.

By Jofi Joseph

Political directors from the P5+1 will reconvene in Vienna next week to resume talks with Iran on a comprehensive agreement to resolve international concerns over Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of sanctions imposed over the past decade in response to Iran’s illicit nuclear activities.  If the inaugural set of meetings in January allowed both sides the opportunity to lay out their opening positions and establish procedural modalities, the talks next week are likely to be substantive in nature and focus on individual elements of a final agreement.  However, it remains unclear whether and, if so, in what manner, one particular concern will be discussed: the future of Iran’s ballistic missile program.

This question has already attracted sharp rhetorical slings from both sides in the run-up to the launch of talks in January.  The P5+1, led by the United States, has insisted that Iran’s ballistic missile program will be on the table in any comprehensive agreement, citing the Joint Plan of Action’s preamble reference to the need for actions “addressing the UN Security Council resolutions” on Iran.  As we will discuss shortly, those resolutions do incorporate prohibitions on activity related to Iran’s ballistic missile program.  Nevertheless, Iranian officials have vociferously rejected any notion that limitations on Iran’s missile activities should be part of this negotiation, noting that Iran’s ballistic missiles are a legitimate component of its military program and is not in any way related to the nuclear file.   It remains unclear whether the delegations have reached a compromise that allows for ballistic missiles to be placed on the agenda for discussion, or whether it has been put to the side for the time being.

Iranian Shahab-3 Missile
September 22, 2007 - Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps forces display a Shahab 3 missile during a military parade. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian)

So why is the P5+1 demanding that a negotiation on Iran’s nuclear program also incorporate its ballistic missile activities?  It’s important to remember that, if a state wishes to acquire nuclear weapons, three independent elements are required:  1) the fissile material, either enriched uranium or plutonium; 2) the capability to “weaponize” that fissile material, e.g. incorporate it into a functioning nuclear warhead that can detonate upon command; and 3) the capability to deliver a nuclear warhead to enemy territory, preferably by missile.  The P5+1 is intently focused on the first element, and the interim agreement has frozen and partially rolled back Iran’s fissile material production capability.  The second element has been left to the IAEA to take the lead on determining possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program, a reference to suspected past and present weaponization activities.  The third element, a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to enemy territory, is what transforms possession of nuclear weapons into a strategic threat.  Yes, a state could smuggle a nuclear weapon onto enemy territory via a truck or ship as part of a one-off act of terrorism, but without a reliable ballistic missile delivery capability, it cannot use its nuclear arsenal as a strategic tool of national power.

For that reason, UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program, dating back to the initial resolution adopted in 2006, have referenced Iran’s ballistic missile program and called upon Member States to take steps to avoid supplying its program.  Resolution 1929, adopted in 2010, went even further and called upon Iran to forego any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.  It is on the basis of this resolution that the United States and others view Iran’s ongoing series of civilian space launches as violations of Resolution 1929.  Hence, it should be no surprise the P5+1 insists that any comprehensive agreement on Iran’s nuclear program incorporate restrictions on its ballistic missile program.  A core objective of any such agreement is to lengthen Iran’s breakout time for a nuclear weapon – a goal that would be undercut if Iran is allowed to perfect a delivery mechanism so that it is ready if and when Iran ever chose to break out.

On the other hand, Iran can legitimately question why it is being asked to undertake limits on its ballistic missile program.  Although UN Security Council resolutions have consistently raised Iran’s missile activities as a matter of concern, the P5+1 never raised the issue during talks on an interim agreement.  (The reason is simple:  it would have been too difficult and too time consuming to negotiate verifiable constraints on Iran’s missile program for a period of only six months.)  Nonetheless, Iran may be genuinely surprised the issue is now back on the table.  More importantly, as a sovereign state situated in a challenging regional environment, Iran has legitimate defense needs, which ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads can help address.  It is challenging to formulate any restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program that can help prevent its use as a delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons, but preserve its capability to deliver conventional warheads.  We may not like the fact that Iran targets Israel and potentially our NATO allies in Europe with ballistic missiles, but there is nothing in international law that prevents Iran from doing so, so long as those missiles are not armed with weapons of mass destruction.

Accordingly, any compromise over this issue will be difficult and could spoil the chances of securing a final agreement.  A potential resolution could involve agreed upon limitations on range and payload to ensure the range of any Iranian ballistic missiles is limited to its immediate region and not capable of achieving intermediate or even intercontinental ranges.  Under a more far-reaching agreement, Iran could agree to regular inspections of its missile forces to ensure payloads were only appropriately structured for conventional weapons.  The United States has extensive experience with verifying the missile capabilities of other states, such as South Korea, and could apply relevant lessons here. 

However, the P5+1 should keep the broader picture in mind.  The greatest imperative of this negotiation is to ensure Iran cannot break out quickly and produce sufficient fissile material for one or more nuclear weapons.  The interim agreement currently being implemented has already rolled back Iran’s capability in this regard, and a final agreement will likely limit Iran’s enrichment and plutonium production capability to such a degree that any overt breakout would be detected with months of advance warning.  Imposing limits on Iran’s ballistic missile program remains a noteworthy objective, but a failure to do so should not necessarily imperil the entire negotiation nor should the P5+1 be willing to trade off greater constraints on missiles in exchange for more Iranian flexibility on enrichment capability.  As the end game approaches in June and July, P5+1 negotiators will need to remember to pick their battles wisely.

Jofi Joseph worked on US policy toward Iran’s nuclear program and participated in P5+1 negotiations with Iran as a Director for Nonproliferation on the White House National Security Council staff from 2011 to 2013.