As Hopes for Nuclear Deal Rise, Iran’s Missiles Still Pose Problems

As Hopes for Nuclear Deal Rise, Iran’s Missiles Still Pose Problems

Iran’s missile program does not make headlines as often as its nuclear efforts. But the missile program is tied to the nuclear program in two different ways: technically, because Iran has been keen to develop rockets that could carry a nuclear warhead; and legally, because United Nations sanctions against Iran target the missile program almost as much as the nuclear one. What would happen to Iran’s missiles in the event that a deal can be struck with Tehran regarding its nuclear program remains a largely unexplored issue.

Iran has one of the largest and most diverse active missile programs in the world, developed in cooperation with North Korea and experts from Russia, among other countries. In the past decade, Tehran has experimented with many different technologies, allowing the country to make great strides on the path toward a modern missile capacity. In the early 2000s, it tested the Shahab-III missile with a triconic or baby-bottle top, the ideal shape to carry a nuclear weapon. In the late-2000s, Iran gained mastery of solid propulsion, which makes missiles more reliable and less vulnerable, and of stage separation, a quantum leap that allows for longer-range missiles. If it overcomes technical difficulties, Tehran could develop an intercontinental ballistic missile based on space launch technology perhaps as early as 2015, according to U.S. intelligence, although most observers put the date later.

Iran’s ballistic missiles serve several purposes. First comes deterrence and war-fighting. Informed by its experience of the Iran-Iraq War of the mid-1980s, during which the Iranian population paid a high price, and due to its limited conventional means, Iran sought to develop an asymmetric capability to threaten enemy cities and military bases, notably in the Persian Gulf. Second, ballistic missiles are an indispensible component of an efficient nuclear weapons program, hence their inclusion in U.N. sanctions. Third, missile technology can give Iran access to space and the prestige of modernity. The Iranian investment in long-range rockets was recently confirmed by a report according to which Tehran is building a third facility for long-range rocket launchers. Finally there is influence: Iranian short-range missiles and nonballistic rockets are an asset in its assistance to Hezbollah and a means of threatening Israel.

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