Since the Joint Plan of Action (JPOA) was agreed almost 15 months ago, Iran has been under pressure on a number of fronts. In essence, since last year, much attention has been given to the “Iran Missile Program” in nuclear negotiations between Iran and the P5+1 group. In this regard, the West insists that Iran’s missile program “must be part of the agenda” in any negotiation of a final agreement.
However, the demand for negotiations on Iran’s missile program originated with Israel, both directly and through Senate Foreign Relations Committee members committed to AIPAC’s agenda. By contrast, Iranian officials have denied that any negotiation is taking place with the six powers over its missile plan and have stressed that the program is “not negotiable.” Indeed, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei has openly ridiculed calls to include Iran’s missile program in the nuclear talks as “stupid and idiotic” – a view to which U.S. negotiators quickly succumbed. In this respect, Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces Brigadier General Masoud Jazayeri said that the country “will never” accept to negotiate over its missile program and “defensive capabilities” with any world power, Fars news agency reported.
Nevertheless, some Western countries in the P5+1 group are demanding that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program also incorporate its ballistic missile activities. Why?
From the Western perspective, it’s important to remember that UN Security Council resolutions on Iran’s nuclear activity, dating back to the initial resolution adopted in 2006, have referenced Iran’s ballistic missile activity and called upon member states to take steps to avoid supplying its program. Resolution 1929, adopted in 2010, went even further and called upon Iran to forego any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. It is on the basis of this resolution that the United States and others view Iran’s ongoing series of civilian space launches as violations of Resolution 1929. So, in the view of Western countries, it should be no surprise that the six powers insist that any final agreement on Iran’s nuclear issue incorporate restrictions on its missile program.
Meanwhile, some members of the P5+1 argue that missile capabilities would embolden Tehran’s already aggressive foreign policy, intensifying confrontations with the international community. Iran already has a conventional weapons capability to hit U.S. and allied troops stationed in the Middle East and parts of Europe. If Tehran were allowed to extend this capability, the threat would increase dramatically. So, advanced missile weapons in the hands of the Iranian government would have severe repercussions for American security and the security of its allies.
But from the Iranian perspective, there are two aspects to consider: historical fact and legal considerations.
Having been invaded by the U.K. and the Soviet Union in World War II (despite Iran’s neutrality), and then suffering through eight years of war with Iraq, backed by its Arab neighbors and some in the West, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, it’s easy to see why Tehran might view missile capabilities as the ultimate shield. Indeed, Iran has long been distrustful of the intentions of both the great powers and its own neighbors, and this has profoundly affected the country’s defense policies, the way Iranians view the world, and their perceptions of history and international relations.
After more than three decades, Western arms embargoes have atrophied Iran’s advanced weapons capabilities, especially in air defense, conventional ships, and aircraft. Iran has tried to develop an internal defense industry, but it still has a long, long way to go before its domestic arms production resembles anything close to Western arms manufacturing. Meanwhile, Iranians look around them and see that others in their neighborhood – Russia, Israel, Pakistan, India and China – all have nuclear weapons. It is difficult for Iranians to understand why they shouldn’t be permitted deterrence of its own.
Regionally, Iran considers Israel, Saudi Arabia, ISIS, the Taliban, and Sunni extremism to be its main threats. Beyond this, the presence of U.S. forces in the region is a concern, as is the general level of tension in the region. Yet a quick review shows that Iran has imported far fewer major conventional weapons systems over the past decade than Turkey and even Azerbaijan.
Moreover, the Middle East – right up to Iran’s borders – is today riven by a series of overlapping conflicts along multiple fault lines, driven in good part by protracted government failures and exacerbated by outside meddling. Given the complexity of political-security issues in the region, especially after wars in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza and their effects on Iran’s Near Abroad, Tehran policymakers understandably are paying greater attention to self-defense.
The Persian Gulf, Levant and Central Asia region is the focus of Iran’s foreign-policy and defense strategy; it is considered part of Iran’s internal security. Therefore, if Iran desires advanced conventional weapons, it is for the purpose of providing for its own security, not for improving its offensive capabilities and ultimately destroying itself.
Legally, the topic of the missile program is not part of the interim accord reached in November 2013. The JPOA refers only to “addressing the UN Security Council resolutions, with a view toward bringing to a satisfactory conclusion the UN Security Council’s consideration of this matter” and the formation of a “Joint Commission,” which would “work with the IAEA to facilitate resolution of past and present issues of concern.” So, the JPOA did not halt Iran’s ballistic missile development. It referred only to possible military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program and to Iranian activities at Parchin.
Iran can legitimately question why it is being asked to place limits on its missile program. Although UN Security Council resolutions have consistently raised Iran’s missile activities as a matter of concern, the P5+1 never raised the issue during talks on an interim agreement. More importantly, past U.S. statements on the Security Council resolutions indicate that the administration had previously acknowledged that no agreement had been reached to negotiate on ballistic missiles and that it had not originally intended to press for discussions on the issue.
As a sovereign state situated in a challenging regional environment, Iran has legitimate defense needs, which ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads can help address. There is nothing in international law that prevents Iran from developing this capability, so long as those missiles are not armed with weapons of mass destruction. As Charles Glaser – one of the leading defensive realists – explains, “All else being equal, a state is more secure when it possesses the military capabilities required to protect its territory from attack.” Iran is acting in a defensive manner to protect against conventional invasion. It is worth noting that, in notable contrast to many other countries, Iran has not invaded anybody for more than 250 years.
Masoud Rezaei is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Center for Middle East Strategic Studies in Tehran. This article was previously published in Iranian Diplomacy.