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Iranian Ballistic Missile Program

By Mitchell Bard

In violation of a United Nations ban on testing of missiles that could possibly deliver a nuclear warhead, Iran tested a new missile known as the Emad in early October 2015. The Emad is a precision-guided long range missile, and is the first guided weapon in Iran’s arsenal capable of striking Israel. It is estimated that the missile has a range of over 1,000 miles and an accuracy range of within 1,600 feet. An Israeli official said, “The Emad represents a major leap in terms of accuracy. It has an advanced guidance and control system in its nose cone” (Reuters, October 11, 2015).

The Security Council was told in a report that the Emad rocket could possibly deliver a nuclear warhead, and that the test was a “serious violation” of UN resolutions against Iran. The United States agreed this was a violation of UN sanctions and Security Council resolution 1929.

The Iranians tested another rocket, the medium range ballistic missile Ghadr-110, on November 21, 2015. The Ghadr-110 is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead and is a new and improved version of the Iranian Shabab-3 missile.

The Security Council reached the conclusion that Iran had violated Resolution 1929, on December 15, 2015. In response, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan defiantly said Iran would not accept any limitations on its missile program. Deghan told reporters, “Since the nuclear deal we have not stopped our (missile)tests, production and research even for a day, an hour or a second... We tested Emad to show the world that the Islamic Republic will only act based on its national interests and no country or power can impose its will on us” (Reuters, December 16, 2015).

As the United States contemplated imposing more stringent sanctions on businesses and individuals associated with the Iranian government in response to their missile tests, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his Defense Minister to oversee the accelerated development and production of ballistic missiles. “As the United States seems to plan to include the names of new individuals and firms in its previous list of cruel sanctions in line with its hostile policies... the program for the production of the Armed Forces’ needed missiles is required to continue more speedily and seriously” (Fars News, December 31, 2015). Iranian state television subsequently aired footage of a previously undisclosed underground missile depot filled with Emad precision-guided missiles on January 5, 2016.

Democratic lawmakers, both supporters and opponents of the nuclear deal, signed a letter sent to President Obama on January 6, 2016, urging his administration to “immediately announce new, U.S. sanctions against individuals and entities involved in Iran’s ballistic missile program to ensure Iran is held accountable for its actions.”

New security arrangements to monitor the arms embargo against Iran as well as restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program and all other programs still active after the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA) were established by the United Nations Security Council on January 21, 2016. These arrangements and procedures replaced the Security Council committee charged with monitoring Iranian violations of sanctions that were removed with the implementation of the deal. The resolution including these arrangements also provides for an automatic reimposition of sanctions on Iran should the Security Council find it to be in violation of the JCPOA.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers, diplomats, policymakers, and experts published a statement on U.S. policy toward Iran in the weeks following the implementation of the deal. This statement explains that although the deal has been implemented there is still much work to be done, and encourages the Obama administration to reject Iran as an ally in the fight against ISIS as well as continue to closely monitor Iran to be sure it is not cheating the deal. The group statement recommends being completely willing to snap back sanctions, and bolstering ties to regional allies as ways to keep Iran contained.

French diplomats asked the European Union on January 27, 2016, to consider new sanctions on Iran over their recent ballistic missile tests. At the time, it was unlikely that new sanctions will be imposed by the EU, as other member states view the move as counterproductive to efforts to revive political and economic ties with the Islamic Republic.

Iranian Army commander Major General Ataollah Salehi told reporters in Tehran on February 4, 2015, that their missile tests were not a breach of the JCPOA, and the Iranian missile program will continue to develop. Speaking about the new sanctions placed against the Islamic Republic in response to their ballistic missile tests, Salehi stated, “We are neither paying any attention to the resolutions against Iran, nor implementing them. We are doing our job and our missile program for the future will be stronger and more precise” (PressTV, February 4, 2016).

Iran test-fired two Qadr H missiles with the phrase “Israel must be wiped out,” emblazoned on the sides on March 8, 2016. The missile test coincided with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel to discuss upcoming aid packages. The head of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard’s (IRGC) aerospace division, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, made it clear that the missile test was intended to intimidate Israel, stating “The 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) range of our missiles is to confront the Zionist regime. Israel is surrounded by Islamic countries and it will not last long in a war. It will collapse even before being hit by these missiles” (Time Magazine, March 8, 2016). The United States has Iran under “close watch,” after the missile tests, according to Vice President Joe Biden. The United States pressured the United Nations to condemn the missile tests as a violation of resolution 2231 during the subsequent week. Russian officials sided with Iran, claiming that 2231 only “suggests” Iran stop test-firing missiles. Therefore, Russian Ambassador to the United Nations Vitaly Churkin asserted the Iranian missile test did not violate 2231, stating to reporters that, “A call is different from a ban so legally you cannot violate a call, you can comply with a call or you can ignore the call, but you cannot violate a call” (Free Beacon, March 15, 2016).

New Sanctions

In response to these ballistic missile tests, the United States imposed new sanctions on Iranian defense firms, units of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Iran’s Mahan Air, and two firms in the United Arab Emirates. These sanctions targeted entities that aided Mahan Air in smuggling various supplies into Syria, and played a supportive role in the country’s latest missile tests.

U.S., German, British, and French officials expressed their opinions that the missile test was “in defiance” of resolution 2231 in a letter to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on March 29, 2016. The letter stated that the missiles launched were “inherently capable” of delivering nuclear weapons, and encouraged the Security Council to respond appropriately to the Iranian aggression. Following the launch, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei offered support to the IRGC, bluntly stating, “Those who say the future is in negotiations, not in missiles, are either ignorant or traitors” (Reuters, March 30, 2016).

Iranian officials announced that they had tested a significantly more accurate ballistic missile with a 2,000-kilometer range on May 9, 2016. The missile tested in early May can be remote-guided to an accuracy of within 8 meters of its target, according to Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi.

Iran test-fired a North Korean BM-25 Musudan ballistic missile on July 11, 2016, which exploded shortly after launch.

Addressing the annual Iranian military parade in September 2016, Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces Major General Mohammad Hossein Baqeri contested that, “all military tests and war games will continue to be held according to the schedule and will not be suspended or delayed under any circumstances” (Tasnim, September 22, 2016).

The Iranian Revolutionary Guard displayed its sophisticated Russian-made S-300 missile system in public for the first time during a military parade in September 2017.

In May 2018, a press report disclosed the discovery of a secret site where researchers said it was likely Iran is developing the technology for long-range missiles. Such a project would not violate current restrictions on Iranian military activities, but could ultimately threaten Europe, Israel and the United States (New York Times, May 23, 2018).

In July 2018, it was revealed that in 1999, North Korea offered to stop selling missile technology to Iran and other enemy states if Israel paid Pyongyang $1 billion in cash. Israel offered food aid instead, but no agreement was reached (Wall Street Journal, July 8, 2018).

More Tests

Meanwhile, the Congressional Research Service (CRS) reported in August 2018 that “Iran continues to invest in developing ballistic missiles and in building an extensive network of facilities.” The report also said “Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests indicate that Iran is focused on increasing the accuracy of its missiles” (Congressional Research Service, August 1, 2018).

Shortly after the CRS report was released, Iran test-fired a ballistic missile for the first time in more than a year. The test coincided with a large-scale naval exercise by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard forces in the Strait of Hormuz (Fox News, August 10, 2018).

In December 2018, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo revealed that Iran had test-fired a medium-range ballistic missile capable of carrying multiple warheads that could reach parts of Europe. He warned of the “accumulating risk of escalation in the region if we fail to restore deterrence” and called on European allies to impose tough new sanctions on Iran (AP, December 3, 2018).

In 2018, Iran test-fired at least seven medium-range missiles and five additional short-range and cruise missiles. The tests appear to have violated the nuclear agreement, which included Resolution 2231 and its ban on “ballistic missile-related activities designed to use nuclear weapons and “launches using such ballistic missile technology” (WELT, December 9, 2018).

A New Cruise Missile

On February 2, 2019, Iran unveiled a new cruise missile. According to IRGC officials, the Hoveizeh has a range of approximately 840 miles, which would allow it to reach targets in the East Mediterranean if fired from northwest Iran, or almost the entire Arabian Sea if fired from Iran’s southern coasts. “Compared to ballistic missiles,” Farzin Nadimi noted, cruise missiles fly lower, are more difficult to counter, and can potentially be moved much closer to their targets before launch.”

In addition, Nadimi said the IRGC is producing new ballistic missile called Dezful with a range of more than 600 miles. Such a missile “would allow Iran to hit targets deep inside Saudi Arabia (including Riyadh and missile defense sites) as well as northern Israel” from Iran and more distant areas if the weapons were deployed in Iraq or Syria (Washington Institute, March 29, 2019).

On February 4, 2019, the EU issued a statement expressing grave concern with Iran’s ballistic missile activity. “Iran continues to undertake efforts to increase the range and precision of its missiles, together with increasing the number of tests and operational launches,” the statement said. “These activities deepen mistrust and contribute to regional instability” (Reuters, February 4, 2019).