Iran Says It's Limited How Far Its Missiles Can Fly, but Also That it Doesn't Matter

In the same breadth, a top official made threats and said the country could easily scrap the self-imposed restrictions.

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Iran has announced that the country’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei has limited the range of its ballistic missiles to a maximum of approximately 1,240 miles. The move seems intended to reinforce the Iranian government’s claim that the controversial weapons program is for defensive purposes only, but seems unlikely to mollify its top international critics, including the United States and Saudi Arabia, especially since the Iranian government has already suggested it could quickly reverse course and drop the restrictions.

Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), disclosed the range limits during a conference in Tehran entitled “A World Without Terror” on Oct. 31, 2017. The IRGC, which the United States formally labeled a terrorist group earlier in October as part of U.S. President Donald Trump’s new Iran policy, is a powerful quasi-military and economic entity that answers directly to Khamenei and leads the country’s ballistic missile efforts.

“There is the capability to increase this range, but it is sufficient for now as the Americans are present within … [this] radius around the country, and would get a response in the case of any invasion,” he added. “The Americans fear the consequences of a war with Iran, and are well aware that they would be the losers if such a war breaks out.”

Jafari almost certainly singled out the United States in his comments in response to the Trump Administration’s hard line stance toward Iran. On Oct. 13, 2017, the U.S. government unveiled a new policy agenda aimed at Iran, which, along with designated the IRGC as a terrorist group, specifically called out Iran’s ballistic missile efforts.

Sipa via AP

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Seyyed Ali Khamenei, center, and IRGC Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, to his left, in 2014.

“We will address the regime’s proliferation of missiles and weapons that threaten its neighbors, global trade, and freedom of navigation,” said in a speech detailing his administration’s plans. “I urge our allies to join us in taking strong actions to curb Iran's continued dangerous and destabilizing behavior, including thorough sanctions outside the Iran Deal that target the regime's ballistic missile program.”

Iran’s missiles have long been a major point of contention between the country and the United States. Opponents of the Iran Deal over the country’s nuclear program, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), have long criticized that arrangement for not including any provisions specifically aimed at curtailing those developments.

 Al Drago/Picture-Alliance/DPA/AP

President Trump describes his new Iran policy on Oct. 13, 2017.

During the campaign and after winning the election, Trump has repeatedly slammed the deal personally, calling it “one of the most incompetently drawn deals I've ever seen” in an interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity earlier in October 2017. “The Trump Administration will not repeat these mistakes,” a fact sheet the White House released to go along with his Iran policy speech stated bluntly.

The United States says that continued missile tests are inherently provocative and therefore violate the “spirit” of the deal, which was supposed to promote “regional and international peace and security.” In January 2017, Iran tested its latest design, called Khorramshahr, which has elements that appear similar to North Korea’s BM-25 Musudan and reportedly has a range that meets the official limitations, before officially revealing it to the public nine months later. 

Iran has already developed a host of other, shorter range ballistic missiles and large, hardened tunnel networks to protect them from attack. In June 2017, Iranian forces launched four smaller Zulfiqars into Syria, nominally in retaliation for ISIS attacks in Tehran, but also as a clear demonstration of the capability to other potential opponents.

Iran counters these complaints by insisting its missile development program is purely defensive in nature, helping guard against the aggression of its opponents, chiefly the United State, Israel, and Saudi Arabia. Jafari’s comments in October 2017 effectively reiterated and added additional weight to this position.

In line with the Trump administration’s new Iran policy, Congress did approve additional sanctions targeting the country’s ballistic missile development efforts earlier in October 2017. The Iranian government swiftly and unsurprisingly slammed the decision.

There are United Nations Security Council Resolutions that do specifically prohibit Iran from developing and testing long-range ballistic missiles, but specifically in the context of work on a delivery platform for a nuclear weapon. In 2005, however, Iran formally announced that Ayatollah Khamenei had forbidden the development or production of these weapons of mass destruction in a fatwa, an official Islamic decree.

As such, Iranian authorities say that it is impossible for anyone to claim that their missile developments are tangentially related to a nuclear weapons program, covert or otherwise. The United States and its allies have implicitly disagreed, arguing that long-range ballistic missiles, especially inter-continental ballistic missiles (ICBM), have little to no value absent a nuclear warhead.

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iran's Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile.

It is unclear whether or not Khamenei’s new missile range restrictions, which would limit Iran to what the international community defines as Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), came in the form of another fatwa or how long they have been in place. Jafari was right to point out that these limits don’t prevent the IRGC from holding all of Israel and Saudi Arabia, as well as American military bases throughout the region, at risk.

“It is a political decision,” Michael Elleman, the senior fellow for missile defense with the International Institute for Strategic Studies told Voice of America after the announcement. “I think with the supreme leader saying it, it takes on a little more significance.”

But however official, there is no indication that these self-imposed restrictions will make the United States or its regional allies any more inclined to be conciliatory. Even in announcing them, Jafari was quick to essentially point out that Iran could increase the range of its missiles if it decided to do so.

Experts already believe that Khorramshahr has a range that exceeds these limits. North Korea’s BM-25, which it successfully test fired for the first time in June 2016, has an estimated range of approximately 2,500 miles.

“It will be interesting to see how Iran reconciles this Khorramshahr missile with the supreme leader's dictate,” Elleman added. “Iran may say, ‘Well, we're fitting it with this big warhead so we're not exceeding this limitation,’ but the modification is very simple.”

On top of that, critics have argued that the fatwa on nuclear weapons has not prevented Iran from conducting advanced research on that topic short of active development, giving it the ability to rapidly produce such a device if and when the country’s government deems it to be necessary. The same criticism could easily apply to missile development work.

Just because Iran isn’t building missiles that can fly farther than 1,240 miles, there’s nothing to suggest it wouldn’t be developing the requisite knowledge base to rapidly do so in the future. There’s also the possibility that it might use proxies to continue that development or even production. There is already significant evidence that Iran has been sharing ballistic missile technology with the Syria regime of dictator Bashar Al Assad and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah.

And the United States has already accused the Iranian government of using its nascent space program and work on space launch vehicles as a cover for research and development into ICBMs. We don’t know for sure, but it seems unlikely that Khamenei’s missile dictum would apply to that nominally civil work.

This all begs the question of why Iran would necessarily decide to make this pronouncement at all. Earlier in October 2017, President Hassan Rouhani had already categorically dismissed the threat of additional sanctions and other U.S.-led efforts to pressure it into giving up its missiles and renegotiating the terms of the JCPOA.

“We will build, produce and stockpile any weapons of any kind that we need in order to defend ourselves and the territorial integrity of our beloved nation,” Rouhani said in a speech to the Majlis, Iran’s parliament, on Oct. 29, 2017, hard line remarks that legislators greeted with chants of “Death to America.” “We have built, are building and will continue to build missiles, and this violates no international agreements.”

Ebrahim Noroozi/AP

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, second from right, speaks ahead of the start of the 2017 Sacred Defense Week military parade.

This new announcement does add extra weight to the claims of a defense-focused missile project. As we’ve already noted, the United States and its allies already routinely allege Iran is saying one thing when it comes to advanced weapons programs, but actually is doing another in secret.

It could help Iran position itself as the most restrained, rational actor, especially with regards to Suadi Arabia, which is in the middle of a massive international military shopping spree. These multi-billion dollar deals include the purchase of a huge missile defense shield centered on the U.S.-made Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system and its long-range AN/TPY-2 radar, which the Kingdom wants specifically to guard against Iran’s growing long-range arsenal.  

At the same time, Saudi officials have announced their own plans to begin a controversial nuclear power generation effort, which some fear could be a prelude to regional nuclear arms race. At a conference organized by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) on Oct. 30, 2017, Hashim bin Abdullah Yamani, head of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (KACARE), discussed plans to both enrich and process fissile material inside the country.

Joseph Trevithick

A model of the THAAD interceptor, in the foreground, which the Saudis expect to buy 360 of for their ballistic missile shield.

“Regarding the production of uranium in the kingdom, this is a program which is our first step towards self-sufficiency in producing nuclear fuel,” Yamani explained. “We utilize the uranium ore that has been proven to be economically efficient.”

On Oct. 31, 2017, Iranian authorities themselves broke ground on two new reactors at the Bushehr nuclear power plant complex, which they say are to help expand the country’s nuclear energy capacity. The U.S. government could easily see as a new provocation, further undermining any efforts to reduce tensions over the country’s missile programs.

Russia, which has long assisted with Iran’s nuclear power projects, is providing assistance for this new work. Iran hopes the first new reactor will go critical in seven years, with the second coming online two years after that.

This timeline just so happens to coincide with the possible sunset of various nuclear sanctions against Iran built into the Iran Deal. In 2023, whoever is President of the United States is obliged to ask Congress if it is appropriate the end US sanctions on various Iranian nuclear enterprises. In 2026, additional restrictions on Iran's ability to enrich and process fissile material could end.

With the Trump administration adamant about “fixing” the Iran Deal and Iranian authorities insisting this proposal is a non-starter, it seems unlikely that these self-imposed limits, which Iran says it can back out of at any time, will have a major impact on the geopolitical landscape.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com