Why Iranian Missiles are Non-Negotiable - An Iranian Perspective

This blog post has been updated. The update section is at the end.

There has been much talk of the West - primarily the US - pushing Iran into signing a "missile agreement" after the JCPOA. The EU has, on a number of occasions, tried to keep the US in the JCPOA by offering to help the US in pressuring Iran's missile program. An article by Fabian Hinz, which is similar to some previous proposals, spurred me to give my take on the matter.

Missiles on display at an exhibition celebrating the 40th Anniversary of Iran's Islamic Revolution

Compared to the ideological rhetoric of the likes of Mike Pompeo and John Bolton, Hinz's main proposals initially sound relatively reasonable. He does a decent job of taking into account Iran's own positions and perceptions. His proposals are:

• Codifying Iran’s self-imposed 2000km range limit;
• Restricting the Iranian space program to the use of fuel combinations with low military
utility;
• Capping the capability of Iranian Space Launched Vehicles (SLVs) at the current level of
the Simorgh
• Halting flight-testing of the Khorramshahr missile.

Fabian justifies the missile-related restrictions by reasoning that Iran's regional enemies extend only as far as Iran's current missile range, encompassing the Persian Gulf Arab states and Israel. Iran has no reason for expanding its military reach beyond the region at this moment. As for the space program, he posits that Iran can be offered European/Chinese/Russian launch services in exchange for maintaining only a limited launch capability. You can read the full article in detail here.

While it was, as I said, a comparatively reasonable article with some genuine merit, I couldn't help but think of more and more criticism the more I read through it.

The Space Program

Simorgh SLV launch in 2017

Hinz says that in exchange for Iran limiting its space program to launching essentially cubesats or at best small and simple satellites, Europe, Russia, and China could offer launch services to Iran. To put it rather bluntly, this is extremely optimistic. Iranian satellite launches where any of those nations have had any involvement have been consistently politicised.

In 2005, a meteorological survey satellite called Mesbah-1 was due to be launched by a Russian SLV. However, the Italian company that built the 65 kg cubesat outright refused to hand over the satellite. When it was finally given to Iran after the nuclear deal in 2015, it was so outdated that it was put in a museum instead of being launched.

Another satellite, Zohreh, was a Shah-era communications satellite project resurrected in the early 2000s. It was supposed to transmit telephone, fax, data and TV signals. It was delayed due to US pressure and eventually cancelled as the nuclear crisis reached its peak. It's worth noting that as an 1850 kg satellite meant to be launched into GEO orbit, Simorgh would not be able to launch a similar satellite at all.

And those are just civilian satellites. What if Iran wanted to launch a military observation satellite, many of which are too heavy to be launched by Simorgh? Iran's regional rival Israel possesses spy satellites, the UAE has commissioned Airbus and Thales to make 2 spy satellites for them, and Saudi Arabia has launched 2 high-resolution "earth observation" satellites on-board a Chinese rocket.

Turkey, a NATO member, faced considerable pressure against its Göktürk-1 and Göktürk-2 satellites. Israel even lobbied for Göktürk-1 not to be capable of taking imagery over Israel. After much back and forth and delays, Göktürk-1 was finally launched in 2016, over 7 years after the contract was signed with Thales. Iran cannot expect to be so lucky. After Europe impounded and refused to hand over so much as a cubesat, it would be foolhardy of Iranian leaders to trust Europeans to launch advanced satellites, especially spy satellites. Not only are the Europeans themselves susceptible to reneging on agreements, but both they and Russia and China are subject to pressure from the US and Israel. These are not hypotheticals, but relatively recent and documented history. And as Fabian himself observed in his article, Iranian leaders' decisions are informed by history. 

Ballistic Missiles

This is a deep and thick issue. For years Iran has been technologically capable of going past the 2000 km range milestone. This has now culminated in the Khorramshahr missile, which Hinz notes is capable of going past that range with a normal sized warhead, but has a nominal 2000 km range with an unusually heavy 1800 kg warhead. It has withheld from doing so, mostly because there has been no need for it. Europe does not put significant pressure on Iran's missile program as the US does. It also does not pose a military threat and refrains joining any overtly anti-Iran military coalition, like it did against Iraq.

However, Iran will not give up the option of hedging against such an eventuality. Even if Europe itself does not take a significantly more hawkish stance, the US' withdrawal from the INF means that the US itself may be able to soon be able to attack Iran from bases in Europe, with something so simple as a resurrection of the 2500 km BGM-109G, a ground based version of the Tomahawk missile. Of course, that was nuclear armed, but a conventional version cannot be ruled out. New weapons with even greater ranges also cannot be discounted. 

A BGM-109G Gryphon missile TEL, which is the ground launched version of the Tomahawk Cruise missile. The US could bring this design back in the wake of the unravelling of the INF Treaty

Even assuming Iran was willing to negotiate over its ballistic missiles, what could Iran expect in exchange? A mutual arms control agreement between Iran and Europe would likely be unattainable. There would be no point in Europe giving Iran cheap promises and assurances not to attack Iran, because if they were to join an American-led war, European militaries with their aircraft carriers would be able to attack Iran in a short span of time, while Iran would need to develop a long range missile to hit back. Even developing a standard warhead version of the Khorramshahr - which Hinz says testing for which should be halted - would need further development and testing to convert to an IRBM. Cold War era arms control agreements only worked because a mutual and equal scaling down of militaries was possible. The disparity between Iran and NATO's military power makes similar agreements unworkable.

Iranian leaders have little confidence that Europe would give any meaningful security assurances anyway, pointing to the British and French fighter jets of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, respectively, and the tens of billions of pounds and euros that such arms deals provide. They do not inspire confidence in Iran's leaders that Europe recognises Iran's security concerns. In fact, it looks to Iran like Europe is making a quick buck, with little consideration for the regional military balance, or the Saudi/UAE bombing of Yemen. 

And outside actors like the US, Israel and Saudi Arabia can be counted on to try their utmost to hijack any missile agreement that maintains Iran's reach over the region. These actors have consistently sought maximalist demands, such as Iran only having missiles with a range no more than 300 km (while all have exceed that range with their own systems). Additional sanctions and political and financial pressure on Europe are likely tools for these outside actors.

Setting a Precedent

"It would build trust and could serve as a basis for future negotiations on the regional dimensions of Iran’s missile program. With a more pragmatic US administration in place, more ambitious goals such as curtailing the development of 2000km solid-fuel missiles and cruise missiles might be attainable"
That is exactly what Iran wants to avoid, and has been very aware of it. On numerous occasions, no less than Ayatollah Khamenei has said that there will be no negotiations, no "JCPOA 2, 3, 4", and of course the unequivocal refusal to negotiate on missiles in any capacity whatsoever. And it makes total sense, seeing as the US reneged on the JCPOA within a mere 3 years. Iran cannot afford any more unilateral concessions, especially not on a subject so vital as the missile program. It took 36 years for Iran and the West to come to such a major diplomatic agreement, and they blew it. It will take many more years for Iran to commit to an agreement of similar magnitude. Far from gaining trust, any small residue of trust between Iran and the West has been destroyed.

Ali Khamenei has firmly rejected any further negotiations

Final Thoughts

The aftermath of the US' violation of the JCPOA, along with current and future strategic realities, are part of the reason why Iran refuses to negotiate about its missile program. And the unravelling of the  JCPOA is just another in a long line of hypocrisies, betrayals, and frustrations that have characterised the West's relationship with Iran since the revolution. Far from building trust with Iran which is a pre-requisite for any type of deal, European leaders have instead made demands and threats while reacting unsatisfactorily to the US exit from the JCPOA. 

The most mutually beneficial decision is to continue the current arrangement, with Europe withholding from directly threatening Iranian security in exchange for Iran refraining from developing missiles that can directly threaten the heart of Europe. Any serious move against Iran's missiles, even a relatively narrow one such as trying to limit range to 2000 km, will be seen as an attempt to erode Iran's deterrence. Far from limiting the range, such a move could easily motivate Iran to extend the range of Iran's missiles in order to gain leverage and establish a new status quo, in the same way that North Korea has slowly become more realistically recognised - though not accepted -  as a nuclear-armed state.

UPDATE

Just days after I posted this, a report from the Washington Post quoted State Department officials who said the US is working on a 1000 km GLCM based on the Tomahawk, and a 3000-4000 km "Pershing III" IRBM. Crucially, neither of these weapons will be nuclear armed, which opens them up for possible use against Iran as I have discussed earlier in this blog post. Now Iran's hedging and the Khorramshahr's development sound very sensible. A "Khorramshahr-ER" with an equivalent range to a hypothetical "Pershing III" would be required to deter use of American IRBMs based in Europe. I made a quick map with both missiles having nominal 3500 km ranges. A hypothetical "Pershing III" based in Romania, Poland or even Germany would be able to strike Tehran. A "Khorramshahr-ER" based in northwestern Iran should be able to retaliate against all those launch sites. 

"Pershing III" ranges in blue, "Khorramshahr-ER" range in green.

The issue remains with the tensions an Iranian IRBM would create - the ideal situation would be to have some sort of ambiguity, to both signal to Europe that Iran would retaliate against missile launches against it from European soil, but also to keep international pressure at a minimum. However, at some point Iran would have to test such a missile. Since Iran already has the Khorramshahr ready to go, testing for conversion to IRBM would be relatively quick. Iran can afford to wait to see how the situation develops and pick its moment to modify the Khorramshahr design to an IRBM. If Iran decides to make a Khorramshahr IRBM, it would be imperative to explicitly condemn the idea of US IRBM deployments to Europe from the start, as Russia does. Thus, if Iran ever decides to go ambiguous or public with its own IRBM, the US IRBMs would be pointed out as the culprit.

Comments