In its nuclear program, Iran has pursued two capabilities: the nuclear weapons themselves and the missiles to deliver the weapons. The debate about the new Iran deal has focused almost exclusively on the weapons. But the deal will enable Iran to build those missiles. The House Strategic Forces Subcommittee held a hearing earlier this week on the deal’s implications for missile defense and nonproliferation. The more Congress digs into the matter, the more disturbing it appears.
One problem is that the deal will free Iran of economic sanctions even if Iran violates existing restrictions on its missile program. Another problem is that the deal, a few years down the road, will cancel those restrictions altogether. In other words, Iran is effectively getting a pass on its missile program.
The missile issue has been something of an embarrassment for the Obama administration. In explaining why they refused even to ask Iran to end support for terrorism or to release American prisoners from Iranian prisons, administration officials explained that the deal had a specific, narrow focus on nuclear weapons. But at the last moment, Iran insisted on a provision to end restrictions on its missile program even though it was outside that focus. President Obama bowed to this demand. The deal will lift the UN-endorsed embargo against Iran’s missile program after eight years.
Obama has defended this concession by arguing that the missile-related restrictions will be enforced rigorously for that eight-year period. But Iran’s leaders have contradicted him. They say publicly that Iran will be improving and expanding its missile force all along. The new U.N. Security Council Resolution based on the nuclear deal ensures that Iran can develop missiles without substantial penalty.
Resolution 2231 has now superseded the resolutions that prohibited Iran from buying, testing, or developing missiles or missile technologies. Its language on missiles is watered down. First, it “calls on Iran” not to engage in domestic missile activity. This is a polite request that Iran can be expected to ignore. The resolution then says that Iran is prohibited from acquiring missiles from other states. This sounds tough, but it’s not. It lacks teeth because Iran will receive relief from economic sanctions regardless of whether it complies with this prohibition. Secretary of State John Kerry has clarified that the Iranians “are not in material breach of the nuclear agreement for violating the arms piece of it.” In other words, Iran can test, sell, improve, buy, and increase the quantity of its missiles and nonetheless receive scores of billions of dollars in sanctions relief. Indeed, it could use the very funds from sanctions relief to finance its missile work.
As early as 2009, Obama administration officials sounded alarms about Iran’s missile force. The near-term threat of hundreds of Iranian missiles was cited to justify rapid fielding of short- and medium-range missile defense systems. Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy told Congress, “In the near term, what this means is that the greatest missile threats from Iran will be to U.S. allies and partners, as well as to our deployed personnel, military and civilian, and their families in the Middle East and in Europe. And, needless to say, this concern is all the more urgent in light of Iran’s continued uranium enrichment program.”
Until late in the negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal, the Obama team acknowledged that missile restrictions should be preserved and tightened, not terminated. In February 2014, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman told senators, “So it is true that in these first six months we have not shut down all of their production of any ballistic missile that could have anything to do with delivery of a nuclear weapon, but that is, indeed, going to be part of something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.”
In congressional testimony days before the Iran deal was finalized, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staffs General Martin E. Dempsey said, “Under no circumstances should we relieve pressure on Iran relative to ballistic missile capabilities and arms trafficking.”
Supporters of the administration have said that, because the deal “handles” the nuclear problem, Iran’s missiles are no longer threatening. But the only practical purpose of the missiles is to deliver nuclear weapons.
Obama himself has acknowledged concern that Iran may violate the nuclear deal. Hence his talk about the deal’s “snapback” provisions for punishing violations. There is nothing in the long history of arms control that justifies faith in an automatic punishment provision. In any event, one of the few serious ways to mitigate the risks of Iran’s violation of the deal is to limit Iran’s missile program. Even if the deal succeeds in delaying Iran’s acquisition of nuclear weapons, the Iranians will use the period of delay to improve their ability to deliver those weapons long-distance.
It is reckless to lift the missile restrictions, which should be viewed as insurance that would benefit us if Iran were to breach the nuclear deal. Congress is wise to focus on this problem, which has received too little attention in the public debate.