Should We Worry About Iran’s Ballistic Missiles?

By: Farnaz Alimehri, Columnist

Photo Credit: International Business Times

The latest series of Iranian tests have drawn international scrutiny to Iran’s ballistic missile program. Reports of a new Iranian missile test began as early as January 29, 2017.[i] On Wednesday, February 1, 2017, Iran claimed to have test launched a medium-range ballistic missile.[ii] The missile appears to have been an Iranian recreation of the North Korean Musudan missile design, and during the test, the missile traveled 630 miles before it exploded.[iii] Yet, it remains unclear to what degree these tests should be a cause for concern.

The Iranian ballistic missile program was a main point of contention during the negotiation of the Iranian nuclear deal. When the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was implemented on January 16, 2016, many praised the P5+1 (United States, Russia, China, United Kingdom, France, and Germany) for their successful mitigation of the Iranian nuclear program.[iv] Not only did the deal limit Iranian enrichment to 3.67%, which was a key point of contention during President Mahmud Ahmadinejad’s presidency, but it also called for 24-hour surveillance of Iran’s nuclear facilities, and conversion of the Arak heavy water reactor.[v]

Despite these achievements, many opponents have criticized the deal for its inability to halt Iran’s procurement of dual-use technology and materials, which would mitigate Iran’s ballistic missiles program. These critics have been emboldened by Iran’s recent ballistic missile activities.

Although the JCPOA itself does not prohibit Iran’s ballistic missile capability, United Nations Resolution 2231 “calls upon” Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon for eight years.[vi] However, the missile involved in the test may fall beyond the scope of the resolution since Iran lacks a demonstrated capability to produce a nuclear warhead. Nor has Iran demonstrated the capability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead for the missile payload, an essential element for a useable nuclear delivery vehicle.[vii] Regardless of Iran’s demonstrated capability, the technology is dual-use in nature, and, should the Iranian government pursue a nuclear weapon’s program, it is possible for Iran to later equip these missiles with a nuclear payload. Having a ballistic missile capability significantly reduces Iran’s breakout time from years to months. While this is of serious concern if Iran is indeed interested in pursuing its nuclear program, it is important to consider that Iran has signed the JCPOA, been cooperative in its implementation, and the capability of its ballistic missile program is still nascent.

The United States Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control imposed sanctions on Iran directly following the news of the ballistic missile tests. Sanctions were placed on 25 people and entities that are involved in developing the program, as well as providing support to Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Quds Force.[viii] The Treasury Department maintains that these sanctions are not a violation of United States’ obligations for the JCPOA, which dictate that the United States shall lift sanctions on Iran after verifiable compliance of its nuclear-related activities. Instead, the sanctions are distinct and directly correlated to Iran’s ballistic missile program and its destabilizing activities in the region. These sanctions are concerning because Iran has indicated that any new sanctions are grounds for withdrawing from the nuclear agreement.[ix] If Iran withdraws from the nuclear deal, then it will likely resume enrichment and other nuclear activities without verification or heavy monitoring.

Although Iran’s ballistic missiles developments are concerning for many in the international community because of Iran’s bellicose rhetoric about other countries in the region and their support for supposed terrorist organizations, Iranian officials see the program as crucial to their own security. In the past, when questioned about Iran’s uncooperative behavior and disinclination to curb the ballistic missile program, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif recalled the Iranian experience during the Iran-Iraq war: “We are entitled to the rudimentary means of defense which we need to prevent another Saddam Hussein, around the corner, attacking us with chemical weapons, because the international community has failed miserably in protecting the Iranian people.”[x] Iran’s incapacity and incapability to match Iraq’s air superiority during the war left the country with a death toll of an estimated 1 million, and over 50,000 casualties of chemical weapons.[xi] Iran considers many of its national security developments through the lens of the Iran-Iraq war; the current ballistic missile program is directly influenced by this history.

Unlike the nuclear energy program, few Iranian officials have publicly contested the ballistic missile program. Consequently, it is unlikely that the international community will get Iran to mitigate its missile program since it represents a critical part of Iran’s national defense. However, Iran can be more transparent when it comes to its activities in the region. The Iranian Foreign Minister has already stated that the missiles will be used for purely defensive purposes. If this is truly the case, Iran can clarify its intentions and build upon this rhetoric by restraining its support for violent uprisings in the Middle East, and instead pushing for diplomatic resolutions to regional conflicts. If Iran can be seen as a more responsible actor in the region, then perhaps the world will worry less about their ballistic missiles.

[i] Kyle Mizokami, “Pentagon: Iran Tested a Ballistic Missile with North Korean Origins,” Popular Mechanics, 31 January 2017,

[ii] Bozorgmehr Sharafedin, “Iran Confirms Missile Test, Drawing Tough Response From Trump Aide,” Reuters, 1 February 2017,

[iii] Kyle Mizokami, “Pentagon: Iran Tested a Ballistic Missile with North Korean Origins,” Popular Mechanics, 31 January 2017,

[iv] “The JCPOA Timeline,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, accessed 10 February 2017,

[v] Gary Samore, “The Iran Nuclear Deal: A Definitive Guide,” President and Fellows of Harvard College, August 2015, 6118399_1/courses/MSFS-557-01.Fall2016/Samore%20-ed- %20The%20Iran%20Nuclear%20Deal%20A%20Definitive%20Guide.pdf.

[vi] Farnaz Alimehri, “Iranian Missile Might Not Be as Scary as the West Believes,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 21 January 2016,

[vii] “Warhead Miniturization,” Global Security, Accessed 10 February 2017,

[viii] “Treasury Sanctions Supporters of Iran’s Ballistic Missile Program and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps – Qods Force,” United States Department of the Treasury, 3 February 2017,

[ix] Adel al-Salmi, “Iran threatens to withdraw from nuclear deal if US sanctions are renewed,” Albawaba News, 16 November 2016,

[x] “Zarif’s Response to a Foreign Journalist About the Iranian Missile Tests,” Tehran Times, 18 April 2016,

[xi] Ian Black, “Iran and Iraq Remember War the Cost More Than a Million Lives,” The Guardian, 23 September 2010,

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