By Behnam Ben Taleblu and Bradley Bowman
February 18, 2019
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz identified missile proliferation as one of several key issues to address at the Warsaw conference on Middle East peace this week. Iranian officials vow they will never negotiate over their missile program, while continuing to grow the quantity and quality of their arsenal. Over the past four decades, Iran has become an important missile power in the region, reverse-engineering, developing, testing, and proliferating missiles and rockets that threaten the interests of the U.S. and our regional partners and allies. The conference in Warsaw affords Washington another opportunity to work with international partners to check and roll back the Iranian missile threat before it worsens.
Numerous American intelligence estimates have assessed that Iran’s ballistic missile inventory is the Middle East’s largest. Iran’s interest in a robust missile force dates back to the Iran-Iraq War, when the regime learned the harsh lessons of deterrence and began procuring missiles from Libya and North Korea. The latter relationship proved to be the most fruitful. Since the 1990s, Tehran has procured at least two types of ballistic missiles from Pyongyang that expand the range of its arsenal and could provide it with a delivery system for nuclear warheads. Iran’s medium-range systems even give it the capability to strike NATO member states in southeastern Europe.
Iran conducts flight tests of its missiles both as an act of defiance against the United States and Israel as well as to enhance the readiness and reliability of its missile force. The operational use of its missiles has provided a similar benefit. Since June 2017, Iran has launched as many as 19 short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) from its own territory into the backyards of its Arab neighbors.
Simultaneously, Tehran is striving to make its SRBMs more accurate. In February 2019, it unveiled a new single-stage solid propellant SRBM called the Dezful. Solid propellants offer Iran a more road-mobile missile force that requires less preparation prior to their launch time. The Dezful is the latest domestic upgrade to the Fateh-110 class of missiles, which Iran has used in recent military operations and is Iran’s most accurate missile to date.
In addition, Iran continues to proliferate missiles throughout the region. Iran has proliferated a finless liquid-fueled SRBM called the Qiam-1 (also known as the Burkan-2H) to Yemen, where the Houthis have fired it on several occasions at Saudi Arabia, even striking the country’s capital, Riyadh. In the Levant, Iran has continued to work to improve the lethality of Lebanese Hezbollah’s rocket and missile arsenal. This includes building missile factories on Syrian soil as well as delivering components for missile guidance systems to make Hezbollah’s missiles more accurate. Moreover, in Iraq, Iran has transferred SRBMs and rockets to its Shiite militias operating in the west of the country. Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has also promised to continue developing the missile capabilities of its regional proxies. Therefore, the proliferation threat is very likely to grow in the coming years.
Iran’s ballistic missile program is a threat to the U.S., our European allies, and our Middle Eastern partners. In Warsaw, the international community should come together to increase the costs Tehran must pay for its provocations. The U.S. should lead by example, sanctioning the sectors of the Iranian economy supporting Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Similarly, Europe should join the U.S. in sanctioning Iranian entities responsible for ballistic missile development. Simultaneously, the U.S. and our partners and allies in the region should expand and expedite efforts to strengthen regional missile defense.
As U.S. and other diplomats meet in Warsaw, they would be wise to set aside disagreements regarding the Iran nuclear deal and focus on ways to more effectively address Iran’s ballistic missile program.