Implications of Iran’s ballistic missile tests

Implications of Iran’s ballistic missile tests

UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010) Paragraph 9 states, “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities”.

Reports confirm that the IRGC fired several ballistic missiles of the “Qadr-H” and “Qadr-F” types from underground bunkers in the mountainous region in northern Iran toward a designated location on Iran’s southern coast 870 miles away (Beirut, Lebanon is just over 900 miles away while Cairo, Egypt is approximately 1230 miles away). The Qadr missile class developed in Iran due to sanctions limiting their ability to buy military technologies from other countries is laser guided and has a range of 2000 km (1243 miles).

Qadr missiles are capable of evading radar and carry multiple reentry vehicle (MRV) payloads, meaning that each missile deploys multiple warheads against a single target. MRV technology is considered very advanced, but is less so than MIRV (multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle) technology, which allows multiple warheads to be deployed against multiple targets. For comparison, the Qadr is similar in capability to the Polaris A-3 (in service in the US through 1996), with only half the range.

Iran has stated that the missiles are for defensive purposes only, but the testing has brought on additional US sanctions against individuals specifically linked to the missile program. These tests raise two important questions: do they violate the UN Security Council Resolution? And will the reaction of Western powers effect the recent economic opening?

The answer to the first question is that, at the very least, these tests do violate the spirit of Paragraph 9 of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 (2010), which clearly intends to prevent any testing of this kind of missile by Iran. However, it is ambiguous whether the letter of the resolution has been violated, because without Iran having nuclear weapon capability and certainly without it having the capability of producing miniaturized nuclear warheads, the Qadr missile is not strictly speaking, “capable of delivering nuclear weapons”.

It is on this basis that Iran argues that the missile tests were not a violation of international law. This interpretation becomes more clear when compared to the section on ballistic missile testing from the UN Resolution confirming the JCPOA, which states, “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion, whichever is earlier.”

The answer to the second question is that the economic impact is likely to be minimal. Though the JCPOA ended UN sanctions on Iran, US sanctions imposed for reasons other than Iran’s nuclear program remained in place.

Further, US sanctions will add little damage considering the great relief from sanctions that Iran is currently experiencing. European countries are more invested in Iran’s economic opening due to greater economic ties historically, and the very recent ties created by the signing of several trade deals during Rouhani’s trip to Europe, therefore any reaction by Europe will be mitigated in an effort to avoid harming their own companies.

The prospect of UN sanctions would likely be prevented by a veto from Russia or China, both of which have strengthened economic and diplomatic ties with Iran since the sanctions were dropped.

These missile tests appear to be a part of calculus by Iran that pushing the boundaries of the JCPOA will help to define its practical limits. By testing the missiles, Iran has made it clear that the missile tests are not covered by the JCPOA. The minimal reaction on the basis of other UN resolutions then strengthens the argument that, practically speaking, it is within Iran’s rights to conduct such tests.

In addition, these tests also help to raise Iran’s status as an independent technological power, which in turn raises its status as a regional power at a time when it is engaged in several proxy conflicts with its primary regional rival, Saudi Arabia.

About Author

Kevin Graham

Kevin Graham is a political risk analyst and historian of the Middle East with a background in Arabic and Persian translation. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and History, with a minor in Persian, from the University of California Berkeley, as well as an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Chicago and an MSt in Oriental Studies from the University of Oxford.