New Iran Nuclear Deal? Same Old Missile Problems.

The Biden administration is nearing a deal with Iran that it hopes could put the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program “back in a box.” The problem? The agreement—which aims to restore the 2015 accord called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—would also relax restrictions on ballistic missiles, a weapon the U.S. intelligence community assessed only months after the JCPOA was implemented as Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.” 

For more than a decade, the U.S. intelligence community has continuously affirmed that Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal is the biggest in the Middle East. Iran uses these missiles to intimidate and punish its adversaries while deterring a military reprisal. In a December 2021 interview, U.S. CENTCOM Commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie identified Iran’s missiles  as “a more immediate threat than its nuclear program.” Iranian officials have worked assiduously to make that the case, enhancing the range, accuracy, and mobility of their missiles, while also proliferating whole systems and components parts to their proxies to use in attacks on U.S. partners. Any deal predicated on the JCPOA—or its accompanying U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231—that removes restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile program, provides sanctions relief to its supporters, and ignores recent and groundbreaking Iranian ballistic missile developments would be a strategic mistake. 

According to Annex B of UNSCR 2231, international prohibitions against Iranian ballistic missile tests and related activities will lapse in October 2023. In 2015 when the JCPOA was reached, this was sold as an eight-year moratorium. Unless amended, in 2022 however, the ban will be in place for only little longer than one year. While Iran has never respected this injunction—launching a combination of at least 27 surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) and space-launch vehicles (SLVs) while the U.S. was a party to the deal—the prohibition is the result of several last minute Iranian negotiating victories from 2015.  

UNSCR 2231 amends an older and more stringent resolution containing a permanent ban on Iranian ballistic missile tests. The new injunction against missile testing lapsing in 2023 is but one of several phased prohibitions popularly termed “sunsets.” Iran, likely assisted by its Russian and Chinese lawyers in the P5+1 negotiating mechanism, successfully replicated and pushed for the sunset-driven model to be applied other areas as well, be it lapsing restrictions on its nuclear program found in the JCPOA or the now terminated prohibition against conventional arms transfers from UNSCR 2231.

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