Media Guide: Iran's Ballistic Missile Testing

By Research Fellow Gabriela Billini

On January 29, 2017, the Islamic Republic of Iran conducted its first ballistic missile test since the beginning of the Trump administration. What followed was a throng of varied, often hyperbolic news reports, few of which contained basic information that would help their audience properly understand the news. In keeping with the goal of our new Media Guide series, this paper intends to explain and clarify the issues surrounding this news topic, for use by the media and news consumers. 


What are ballistic missiles?

A ballistic missile is one of two missile types that fall into the category of surface-to-surface missiles (SSM). They travel through air, and at times outer space, to reach their destination. They are both powered and guided, which distinguishes them from other types of explosive devices such as bombs and rockets. In other words, what makes them ‘ballistic’ is having an aerial trajectory. Some examples of ballistic missiles are intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs).

Iran possesses medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), which are capable of achieving an accuracy of between 50m and 100m circular error probable (with that radius, half of the rounds fired would be expected to land). These missiles would not be expected to target and destroy a specific building, but could destroy strategic locations such as oil fields, known military bases and operation centers, and even cities. The more that Iran develops its ballistic missiles, the better their accuracy becomes.

Iran is the first country to develop medium-range missiles without having first obtained a nuclear weapon. Because of Iran’s demonstrated skill in developing missile technology, many in the international community fear that Iran will develop an ICBM (which have a range of 5500 km) or strengthen its medium-range missiles to have the ability to reach countries in Western Europe.


How long has Iran had ballistic missiles?

The Iranian ballistic missile program dates back to Muhammad Reza Shah, second of the two monarchs in the Pahlavi Dynasty that was overthrown during the 1979 Revolution. At that time, Iran purchased many ballistic missiles from the United States, but was not particularly invested in developing the technology necessary to create them. Iran was a sizeable client of US military weapons and technology and eager to grow its arsenal.

After the Islamic Revolution, and particularly after the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, the Iranian government began investing in the development of ballistic missiles in order to help counter Iraqi attacks.  As a result, in 1985, Iran sent a delegation to China, North Korea, Syria and Libya in efforts to broker deals for missile technology. These ventures yielded a strong partnership with North Korea, who sold the Islamic Republic its first ballistic missile, the Scud B. It had a 300km range and a 750-1,000 kg range payload. Years later, this program would improve in accuracy and range.

Since this time, Iran has continued developing ballistic missile technology and growing its arsenal with the help of the same partners.


What other countries have ballistic missiles in the region, and why is Iran’s program significant?

In the immediate region, both Israel and Saudi Arabia have ballistic missile programs and are within the current range of Iranian ballistic missiles (which reach up to 2,000 km). The Saudi program is almost exclusively made up of Chinese missiles, and it now aims to develop the technology for more sophisticated systems. A total of 31 countries have ballistic missiles, including the United States and Russia.

While ballistic missiles are a standard tool to have in any military arsenal during wartime, Iran’s program draws particular attention because many countries in the region are concerned that Iran may want to attach a nuclear warhead to their missiles. Iran made a commitment on November 24, 2013 in the Joint Plan of Action (JPA) that “under no circumstances will Iran ever seek or develop any nuclear weapons”; however, ballistic missile testing suggests to some that they are potentially still interested in doing so.

Stoking particular concern is that two key missiles in Iran’s arsenal, the Shahab and Sajjil missile programs, are capable of being transformed into nuclear weapon carriers. Despite Iran’s commitments to the JPA in 2013 and the “Iran Nuclear Deal” or JCPOA in 2015, these weapons concern the West and Iran’s adversaries. Saudi Arabia expresses particular sensitivity because it does not yet have the appropriate systems to stop the missiles from entering its airspace (vs. Israel, who has the Iron Dome).

For its part, Iran cites domestic security as the primary reason it is developing its ballistic missile program, and states that it will not use ballistic missiles to attack another country. It has further expressly stated that it is not interested in developing, and will not develop a nuclear weapon.  For example, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a fatwa against nuclear weapons, stating that they are against Islam. President Rouhani has also said, “We are not after weapons of mass destruction. That’s our red line.” 

As a result of the JCPOA, the IAEA is now tasked with verifying and monitoring Iran’s nuclear commitments to the agreement.  Recently, the Trump administration has confirmed that Iran is complying with the nuclear deal. These verifications help reassure the international community, particularly the P5+1, that Iran is not developing nuclear arms, even while some continue to express dismay at Iran’s ballistic missile testing.


Are Iran’s ballistic missile tests in violation of any international agreements?

Iran’s ballistic missiles tests are not violating any international agreements or laws.

Before the implementation of the JCPOA and the resulting United Nations Resolution 2231 – described in more detail below - there were a series of sanctions regimes (Resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, and 1929) that challenged Iran and called on it to halt its uranium enrichment and ballistic missile programs. Resolutions 1737 onward (until 1929) imposed economic sanctions and prohibited Iran from testing ballistic missiles until it complied with the IAEA on its nuclear program.

The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015 specifically avoided any reference to, or determination about, Iran’s ballistic missile program. Iran’s ballistic missile program was intentionally left out of the agreement since the JCPOA was intended to focus on Iran’s nuclear program exclusively. In addition, the Iranian delegation has argued and continues to argue that its ballistic missile program existed outside of the nuclear issue and is a concern of domestic security only.

After the JCPOA, United Nations Resolution 2231 was adopted to legally reaffirm the JCPOA in the United Nations Security Council and to remove all prior UN sanctions. This UN resolution endorses JCPOA’s aim of barring Iran from developing a military-grade nuclear program.  Unlike the JCPOA, this resolution does discuss Iran’s ballistic missile program, but only to the extent that it “calls upon” Iran to steer clear from testing ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads.

The result of this Resolution is to void prior resolutions that sanctioned Iran for its nuclear ambitions and as a result removed the ban on Iran’s ballistic missile testing. While the new Resolution calls on Iran to steer clear of testing missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, it does not have a legally binding clause that forbids Iran from doing so. As a result, Iran’s ballistic missile testing – even testing of missiles capable of carrying a nuclear warhead - is not, in fact, illegal. 


Why does Iran continue to test ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads despite UN resolutions “calling on it” not to do so?

There are a number of theories as to why Iran continues to test ballistic missiles in the face of international condemnation. Determining the “true” reason for the testing is made even more challenging given the opposing factions in the Iranian government.

For example, the religious branch of the government tends to oppose the JCPOA, even while the politically elected branch seeks international re-integration, a diplomatic approach and cooperation with the West. When a ballistic missile is tested, it is directed by the Supreme Leader; not the president nor foreign minister. Therefore, the testing may simply represent a message from one part of the Iranian government on behalf of (or to) their hardliner base/constituency, or with the goal of eliciting a response from the new US administration.

An alternative view is that the Iranian government uses the tests to clarify its legal interpretation of the vaguely worded agreements it has signed onto. Testing in this way would preserve their commitments to the JCPOA but underline the country’s independence. For example, with the most recent missile test in January, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan stated "[t]he recent test was in line with our plans and we will not allow foreigners to interfere in our defense affairs."  Mirroring this sentiment in referencing Iran's ballistic missile testing, President Rouhani has also said, "[Iran] will do so and will not wait for [American] permission". 

Of course, as discussed above, the international community continues to view Iran’s missile program with suspicion, despite Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA and Iran being a signatory to the Non Proliferation Treaty of 1968 (which asks signatories to refrain from seeking to develop nuclear weapons). As long as countries are concerned about Iran’s intentions regarding its nuclear program, Iran’s ballistic missile testing will continue to be suspect.