The Iran Deal & the Missile Threat

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The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Deal, includes far more than just an agreement on the Iranian nuclear program. One of the most crucial provisions is the cessation of ballistic missile embargoes against Iran 8 years after the JCPOA goes into effect. The implications of this provision will prove to be dire regardless of whether or not Iran chooses to go nuclear.

Iran currently controls the largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East. The Iranian arsenal includes Short Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBMs) with a range of 620 miles (1000 Km) intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBMs) with ranges around 1600 miles (2500 Km), and various other systems with ranges in between. It is crucial to note that Iran is the first country to ever field a missile system with a 1243 mile (2000 Km) range without first having nuclear weapons capabilities, a telling sign as to the regime’s intentions. According to various intelligence estimates and the assessments of arms experts, Iran could have Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) capability with a range of 3400 miles (5500 Km) or more anywhere between 2015 and 2025.

The threat matrix presented by the Iranian missile arsenal has several facets. The threat most pertinent to the Iran deal is that many of Iran’s missiles are capable of serving as a vehicle for a nuclear warhead. Even without ICBM capability, Iranian missiles are within the reach of targets, such as Tel Aviv, Riyadh, Baghdad, Ankara, Cairo, Islamabad, and even Eastern European cities like Kiev and Bucharest. Many Iranian missiles are able to launch from mobile platforms, making them difficult to track, and therefore, more dangerous. The one set back Iranian missiles do have is a lack of proper guidance systems, which limits accuracy and requires them to be deployed en masse to be effective. Under the JCPOA provisions, Iran would be able to access the technology necessary to make an already threatening missile stockpile exponentially more dangerous via improved guidance systems.

One frightening scenario presented by a mobile Iranian missile force is the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack. Several security experts have theorized that instead of a traditional kinetic nuclear attack, Iran would instead opt for a nuclear detonation in the atmosphere above a target region, thereby creating an EMP that could permanently disable a target country’s electrical grid and computer networks. In the era of cyber warfare, EMP is the ultimate weapon. In lieu of a deadly nuclear blast, an EMP would wreak havoc on the target population potentially leaving millions to die from lack of water, exposure, starvation, or any of the litany of crucial resources dependent on electricity. A retaliatory strike or disaster relief process could be extremely difficult, given US reliance on an unsecure electrical grid. Launching a missile with even the most modest range from a variety of platforms could enable this type of scenario, should it carry the right nuclear payload. Though it may sound fantastical, there has been evidence showing that Iran has seriously considered the EMP option; such a strategy certainly would fit Iran’s modus operandi of utilizing unconventional tactics against their enemies.

Iran would have to make some serious technological advances before an EMP becomes a realistic possibility, particularly in the miniaturization of a nuclear warhead small enough to fit on one of their missiles. The more immediate threat Iran’s missile arsenal poses is much more conventional in nature, but just as serious: Iran’s investment in anti-ship and anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) weapons. The Iranian military, particularly the Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), has a history of causing significant problems in the Persian Gulf dating back to the 1980s when they mined crucial oil shipping lanes and attacked Kuwaiti oil tankers. These events eventually led to Operation Praying Mantis, a US retaliatory strike on Iranian naval vessels and Persian Gulf assets that was one of the largest surface warfare engagements post World War II.

In a paper for the Naval War College, Major Christopher Murphy (USAF) explains that anti-access/area denial, or A2/AD, as it is referred to in the military parlance, is a form of warfare that aims to deny movement or prevent an adversary from operating in a theater. The backbone of a strong A2/AD capability in the 21st century is a large and capable arsenal of SRBMs and cruise missiles, and with the lift on the missile embargoes, Iran would certainly look to improve its already significant capabilities in this area.

There are two primary threats posed by Iranian A2/AD. The first would be potential Iranian attempts to disrupt the US ability to operate in theater; the theater in this case being the Persian Gulf and Middle East in general. As Maj. Murphy explains, the US military is an almost exclusively expeditionary force. This means that the freedom to operate in secure staging areas abroad is crucial for success in any operation. Based on Iran’s past harassment of Gulf shipping lanes and their current incursions in Yemen and Iraq, investing in an ability to deny US operations would be a logical next step. We have seen the first steps toward this potential goal with Iran’s purchase of S300 air defense systems from Russia. In conjunction with Iran’s fielding of anti-ship missiles such as the Khalij Fars, it would appear Iran is making progress on their A2/AD capability.

With the conventional threat evident, one must not discount the asymmetric threat that Iran’s A2/AD presents to commercial shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Bab el Mandeb, off the coast of Yemen. Between the Persian Gulf’s Strait of Hormuz and the Bab el Mandeb, Iran has the ability to jeopardize 22% of the world’s total oil supply. With bolstered A2/AD capabilities via missile purchases, Iran could threaten shipping lines easily, thus disrupting the oil market and therefore, the global economy. Iran could essentially assert control over regional waters and threaten the world economy without ever stepping off shore; only in the 21st century could such an idea be possible.

Of course, it is not simply the weapons themselves that are of concern, but also those who are in control of them. The Iranian Republican Guard Corps (IRGC), the hardline military wing controlled by the Supreme Leader, is not only in charge of Iran’s entire ballistic missile program (including the space program), but also naval operations within the Persian Gulf and covert activities abroad via the Quds Force.

Unlike the Iranian negotiators who helped craft the JCPOA, the IRGC has little involvement with President Rouhani, yet it is they who will glean the most from the eventual lifting of the missile embargo, and they who control the arsenal. The political divide between the IRGC and President Rouhani is crucial, and policymakers must recognize that engaging with one actor does not necessarily mean the other will follow suit. Therefore, it is the IRGC and Supreme Leader that must be examined in regard to the missile threat, not Rouhani and his cabinet.

The lifting of the missile embargo against Iran has repercussions that resonate far beyond the deal’s 15 year sunset or issues such as uranium enrichment or plutonium reprocessing. Iran being allowed to increase its missile capability will only strengthen the Iran’s hand, potentially leading to further strife in the region due to increased Iranian incursions. When examining Iran in the Middle East, something as seemingly mundane as a missile could have profound implications on the region’s security.

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Russ Read

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