Iran missile program and the JCPOA

Spearhead Analysis – 23.01.2019

By Hira A. Shafi
Senior Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The Trump administration -in contrast to the Obama approach- has increased pressure on Tehran and assumes Iran to have destabilizing influence in the region. In May 2018, Trump announced his decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal- spearheaded by the Obama Administration. The return of US sanctions, came in two phases in August and November 2018. The first round of sanctions targeted Iran’s aviation as well as trading of gold and currency. The second round was directed at its oil export and banking industry. Countries and non-American companies face stiff penalties by the US if they continue to do business with Iran.

Earlier in January 2019- Secretary of State Mike Pompeo embarked on an eight-day trip across the Middle East, to discuss various regional issues- including Iran. This trip appears to be an important prelude for the upcoming conference focusing on the Middle East – scheduled for February 2019 in Warsaw. Reportedly, the conference will address a wide range of issues including terrorism and extremism, missile development and proliferation, maritime trade and security, and threats posed by proxy groups across the region. One integral aspect of the conference would be ‘containing Iranian influence in the region’. The EU for now- appears divided on the US approach towards Iran -few EU states have exhibited some support against alleged Iranian threats- on issues beyond the nuclear program, while other states have given a muted response. The EU foreign-policy chief Federica Mogherini has exhibited her position by turning down her attendance of the Warsaw conference. While earlier in the month of January 2019, the EU also moved to impose some sanctions on Iranian entities- on allegations of killing of two Iranians dissidents living in the Netherlands.  The Iranian government on its part- has denied any involvement in the killings and said that the accusations were intended to damage EU-Iran relations.

The issues between the US and Iran are multifarious, but one core issue remains Iranian missile program. In December 2018- Brian Hook of the US state department called on to EU partners to impose sanctions against Iran’s missile program. US claims Iran’s medium range ballistic missile is in violation of UN resolution. Whereas, Iran claims its missile capabilities are for the sake of deterrence.

Iranian Missile Program:

There are three major components of the Iran missile program issue- which require different    reappraisal and solutions, namely: the development, ranges and alleged proliferation.

Missile Development:

As per resolution 2231 adopted by the UNSC in 2015- 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. Iran states that none of its missiles are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, instead are for purposes of conventional deterrence. On the other hand, the US administration states that Iran should halt all nuclear and non-nuclear missile activity.

From the legal standpoint, as per the JCPOA and Resolution 2231, Iran is not allowed to possess ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, but there is no prohibition for Iran to test or establish ballistic missiles programs designed to be capable of delivering non-nuclear weapons.

According to Article 51 of the UN Charter – Self-defense is recognized as an “inherent right” of states. Iran, claims to be building its missile capabilities as a deterrence against regional rivals which are exponentially modernizing their military capabilities and other threats against non-state actors and terrorism. It is also important to explore whether – Iran’s current missile capabilities have emanated as an overt state led act of aggression against another state? This has not been the case so far and thus pre-emptive measures against a state’s inherent right to self-defense – is a questionable position.

Secondly, the actual use or threat of use of force is condemnable from the legal perspective. There is a need to address the enunciated Iranian threats of use of force- and at the same time, examine the politico-economic coercions imposed on Iran. The threats of regime changes, and the unilateral withdrawal of US from the JCPOA and snapback of economic sanctions carry major legal loopholes- they threaten a state’s political independence and use non-militray coercion- which is inconsistent with the UN charter.  Lastly, the current US postures diminish the sanctity of the UNSC decisions, especially since Iran’s nuclear activities are observed by the IAEA. According to the JCPOA, the Director General of the IAEA is responsible for the necessary verification and monitoring of Iran’s nuclear-related commitments. Furthermore, the Director General also is required to prepare and render regular reports, or emergency reports in case the Director General has reasonable grounds to believe there is an issue of concern directly affecting fulfillment of JCPOA commitments to both the IAEA Board of Governors and the UNSC. Any violation of the JCPOA will be reported to the UNSC, who would then take the necessary steps to ensure compliance, even though Iran’s commitment to the JCPOA is confirmed by Director General of the IAEA so far.

The IAEA and EU partners – have so far confirmed that Iran does not stand in violation of the JCPOA. Owing to enhanced political pressures, EU members have tried to talk about broadening the scope of the JCPOA to encapsulate conventional missile capabilities- a suggestion which Iran blatantly denies as a violation of its inherent right to self-defense.

Missile Ranges:

According to a congressional review , Iran’s short- and medium-range ballistic missile tests indicate that Iran is focused on increasing the accuracy of its missiles. The majority of Iran’s heavy artillery rockets and ballistic missiles are tactical or short-range (less than 500 kilometers). Iran views its Short-Range Ballistic Missile (SRBM) capability as necessary for battlefield and tactical military purposes. Iran often test-fires these missiles as part of its military exercises. Iran’s SRBMs could strike U.S. and allied bases in the Gulf region if moved from their operating bases, as well as targets throughout Iraq, but they could not reach Israel.

The review further reveals that- Iran is also developing Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs)  and producing MRBM capabilities with ranges estimated up to about 2,000 kilometers (sufficient to strike targets throughout the Middle East. Once forecasted to have an intercontinental range ballistic missile -Iran has not yet demonstrated this capacity. Furthermore, Iran’s space launch program continues to experience significant delays, and may be slowing. Some have long believed Iran’s space launch program could mask the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) with ranges in excess of 5,500 km that could threaten targets throughout Europe, and even the United States (at least 10,000 km).

The issue of further advancement of missile technology and capping ranges may only be possible through a regional solution in shape of a unanimous arms control regime- supported by bigger powers. It is noteworthy that none of the major regional powers in the Middle East are party to international agreements on missile technology control such as the International Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation and the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).


Iran also faces allegations of proliferation, it is accused of violating the 2015 UN arms embargo on Yemen (UN Security Council Resolution 2216). Reportedly, a UN panel in January 2018 found that Iran failed to prevent the direct or indirect supply of missiles and related equipment to Yemeni Houthi rebels. Here too, a direct state support/link- lacks enough evidence and the issue may only be addressed through a regional solution; especially since the Middle East arena is experiencing multiple overt state conflicts, proxy wars, terrorism and strained interstate.


Since the onset of the JCPOA- Iran has held reservations against the US global politico-economic clout which has inhibited Iran from maximizing on the intended economic gains in exchange of renouncing the nuclear program. Ever since the reversal policies of the Trump administration- the Middle East arena is once again divided between ‘traditional allies and rivals. Under the current circumstances, it is unlikely for Iran to give up its right to self-defense by advancing its conventional capabilities. The European powers appear to be walking on a tightrope- where on one hand there is a push to keep the nuclear threat neutralized and safeguard European economic interests and on the other hand- there is some succumbing to pressures. A regional solution is needed in shape of an arms control agreement- supported by bigger powers.