Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Missing the Point on Iran’s Ballistic Missiles

The Islamic Republic’s diverse missile arsenal has enabled it to engage in belligerence and subversion abroad for over three decades. That’s why no munition has meant more to Tehran’s security planners than ballistic missiles.

Accordingly, Iran’s missile capabilities deserve more attention than the previous administration was willing to give.

Writing in War on the Rocks last month, the Atlantic Council’s Bharath Gopalaswamy and Amir Handjani frame the missile issue much as the previous administration did. They undersell Tehran’s missile program and too often take Iranian arguments about capabilities and intentions at face value. In so doing, they fall into a larger trap: divorcing pressure from the equation of coercive diplomacy with Iran.

The fact that Iranian officials allege that their missiles are defensive does not mean we should take them at their word.

Developments in future Iranian missile aptitudes also stand to enable new military and political strategies for Tehran. A 2016 Atlantic Council assessment hints at this possibility citing two missiles: a solid-fuel short-range ballistic missile called the Fateh-110, and a liquid-propelled medium-range ballistic missile known as the Emad. The Fateh-110’s domestic upgrades – the Fateh-313 and the Zulfiqar – which purportedly increase its range and accuracy were both tested after the JCPOA was agreed. The Emad, which improves Iran’s re-entry vehicle technology, was similarly tested after the deal.

Moreover, a credible Iranian deterrent does much more than passively defend the regime. It enables the Islamic Republic to actively partake in various theaters of conflict with little fear of reprisal against the Iranian homeland. While establishing deterrence is but one lesson of the Iran-Iraq War, the conflict also acquainted Tehran with the limits of its own conventional military capabilities. This has led to a decades-long investment in local proxy forces and Shiite militias throughout the Middle East.

By backing terrorist groups and other non-state actors with relatively cheap weapons, Tehran is able to offset its adversaries’ conventional military advantages. Asymmetrical counter-punching is an accepted idea among Iran’s ruling elite. The militia approach also permits the regime to shape regional conflicts early on and from the ground up, making its strategic interests the cause of local Shiites. Yemen and Syria are instructive cases.

The enduring lesson of the diplomacy that led to the JCPOA is that Washington must relearn what was once common-knowledge: that diplomacy and pressure work best when married together. Therefore, to be successful, statesmen must avail themselves of a “combined arms” approach when dealing with adversaries. Any strategy that relies on diplomacy with nothing behind it would leave Washington again with one arm tied behind its back.