In a recent article in The National Interest, two former US ambassadors, William Luers and Thomas Pickering, as well as Greg Thielmann, have defended the recent US sanctions on Iran over its missile program, calling for a mix of “pressure and diplomacy” to curtail the development of Iran’s missile program.(1)
The authors draw attention to the parallel development of Saudi and Israeli missile programs, and acknowledge the important role of Iran’s missile program given its “outdated air force” and the “potential threats Tehran sees from Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United States.” They portray Iran’s missile program as “worrisome” and propose a US-led missile diplomacy that would have the objective of freezing “the current range of Iran’s missiles (around 2,000 km) to complement the nuclear nonproliferation objectives of the JCPOA. At the same time, the authors realize the regional dimension of the issue and argue in favor of a broader regional security discussion “including parallel regional missile constraints.”
Concerning the latter, given the authors’ own admission that both Saudi Arabia and Israel have developed “longer range missiles before Iran,” it is highly doubtful that either country will consent to somehow shrink the present range of their missiles as part of a “regional solution.” There is virtually no international pressure on Israel and Saudi Arabia over their respective missile programs and, technologically speaking, it is doubtful that a ‘reverse engineering’ aimed at reducing the range of their missiles is even possible.
Assuming, hypothetically, that Iran and Saudi Arabia can come to terms to a mutual cap on their missile programs, this would not be in Iran’s interest so long as Saudi Arabia enjoys an upper hand in air power, in light of the sophisticated, cutting-edge western jet fighters sold to Saudi Arabia and other member states of the Persian Gulf Cooperation Council (PGCC), worth tens of billions of dollars. Realistically speaking, then, only when Iran is freed from the present constraints on purchase of latest model fighter jets it is possible to fathom a regional missile agreement, otherwise it remains basically a pipe dream.
This aside, the authors do not bother with the legal aspect of the US sanctions on Iran’s missile program. To recall, in January, 2016, the US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on 11 individuals and companies involved in the Iranian missile program, in reaction to Iran’s missile test in December, 2015, which the US officials branded as a violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929. Resolution 1929, adopted in 2010, banned any activity by Iran “related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” But, the problem with the US’s move is that all the previous UN resolutions on Iran, including 1929, have been rendered moot and no longer relevant as a result of the nuclear agreement and the subsequent Resolution 2231 (July 2015). The “Annex on Implementation” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) clearly states: “In accordance with the UN Security Council resolution endorsing the JCPOA, the provisions imposed in UN Security Council resolutions…1929 (2010) will be terminated.”
Under the new UN resolution 2231, Iran is prevented for some eight years from conducting any test of missiles capable or designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Furthermore, Resolution 2231 has a carefully-drafted wording banning the Iranian ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” This suggests that the text has a fixed meaning, in light of the fact that “designed” is synonymous with a purposeful activity. In fact, what is lacking in the US’s claim against Iran is a “plain meaning” interpretation of resolution 223.
There is a full array of UN precedents and opino juris that supports Iran’s position that the resolution’s prohibition on missile tests is not absolute. Moreover, the mere allegation that Iran’s conventional missiles can be, technically speaking, converted to nuclear-capable missiles, is not sufficient, particularly when taking into consideration the special regime of inspections and verifications imposed on Iran by the nuclear agreement – that would make it exceedingly difficult if not impossible for Iran to pursue clandestine nuclear warheads. According to the US missile expert, Theodore Postol, in his communication with the author, the general assumption in the expert community is that the intermediate-range Iranian missiles can carry a conventional payload of roughly 700 Kg, whereas the lightest and most compact nuclear warhead weighs around 1000 kg, too heavy for those missiles.
Notwithstanding the above-said, it is unclear on what legal ground ambassadors Luers, Pickering and others support the US sanctions on Iran over its conventional missile program? In addition to the lack of clarity on this issue, these authors also somewhat contradict themselves by, on the one hand, admitting the deterrent and “worrisome” (for Iran’s rivals and regional adversaries) nature of Iran’s missile program and yet, on the other hand, belittling it as having “limited value.” But, in light of the growing accuracy of Iran’s missile program, that includes ground to sea missiles capable of targeting hostile ships in Iran’s vicinity, there is absolutely no way for Iran to agree to any cap on its missile program because of the above-said regional realities. The US should therefore cease its counterproductive efforts to limit Iran’s missile program, which serves the country’s vital national interests.