What You Need To Know: Iran Ballistic Missile Tests
On March 8 and 9 in 2016, Iran conducted several ballistic missile tests. The range of the missiles fired was between 185 and 1250 miles.
Two of the missiles, according to the Iranian Fars News Agency, were marked in Hebrew with the words “Israel must be erased.” Several types of missiles were tested, but it was the Qadr H missiles, which struck targets that were 1,400 kilometers/870 miles into the Sea of Oman from Iran’s coastline, that were specifically meant to send a message to Israel.
Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the aerospace division of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) aerospace division, confirmed, “The 2,000-kilometer (1,240-mile) range of our missiles is to confront the Zionist regime.” The distance between Iran and Israel is just shy of 1800 kilometers.
These tests followed an earlier episode in October 2015, when Iran conducted a test of a precision-guided, surface-to-surface Emad missile. In response to those earlier tests, the U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions in January 2016 on eleven individuals and organizations linked to Iran’s ballistic missile program.
Iran’s March missile tests appeared to be timed to coincide with Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to the region, including a visit to Israel.
- On March 14, the Security Council scheduled a consultation session on Iran’s missile testing. The United States and France spoke out in the United Nations against the tests, recommending renewed sanctions against Iran.
- Russia, also a permanent member of the Security Council, opposed renewed sanctions on Iran.
- Iran argued that none of the missiles launched were designed to carry nuclear warheads. They were conventional weapons employed in the name of deterrence and thus not subject to UN prohibitions.
- On January 16, “Implementation Day” of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program, the United Nations lifted most of its sanctions on Iran, including U.N. Security Council resolution 1929. This resolution, adopted in 2010, prohibited Iran from launching missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, stating that the Council “decides that 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.”
- This resolution was replaced by U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which states that “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 October 2023 or until the IAEA verifies that Iran’s nuclear program is entirely peaceful.
- A “nuclear capable” missile is defined by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) as one with a payload capability in excess of 500 kg combined with a range in excess of 300 km. According to Anthony Cordesman at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), “this definition is based on an assumption that an emerging nuclear state will be unable to build nuclear warheads weighing less than 500 kg.”
- Critics of the JCPOA argue that the language of resolution 2231 is substantially weaker than that of 1929, constituting more of a recommendation than an imperative.
- The Obama administration has stressed that the JCPOA was never intended to deal with Iran’s ballistic missile program, just as it does not deal with Iran’s human rights abuses or its destabilizing behavior in the region. These issues must be dealt with separately.
- Iran’s first forays into ballistic missile testing took place under the rule of Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and in partnership with Israel, which provided technical support.
- After the Iranian revolution in 1979 and the start of the war with Iraq in 1980, Iran relied on Soviet-developed Scud-B technology that was acquired from countries such as Syria and North Korea.
- Iran has continued to develop an independent ballistic missile program, although it still relies on foreign assistance from countries such as North Korea for necessary components and equipment. Iran has also had success in adapting and improving purchased technology for better accuracy and range.
Iran’s Current Missile Capacity
- Today, Iran’s arsenal is the “largest and most diverse ballistic missile arsenal in the Middle East,” according to analyst Michael Elleman. Israel’s arsenal is smaller than Iran’s but also more advanced.
- While Iran currently has the capacity to strike anywhere in the Middle East, it does not yet have intercontinental missile (ICBM) capability and thus does not have the necessary missile range to hit targets in Europe – or the United States.
- Analysts maintain that Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities are hindered because the missiles have a poor record for accuracy. At present, many agree that Iran’s missiles have the capacity to harass or intimidate and do not yet constitute a substantial threat.
- There is no hard evidence indicating that Iran is currently attempting to develop intermediate- or intercontinental ballistic missile capabilities.
- Iran also is developing a fledgling space program, which could inform future ICBM development.
Help JCPA send a strong message to the United Nations that Iran’s ballistic missile tests are a violation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231! Click here to send a message to U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power.