In the current debate over the Iranian bomb, the White House is staying quiet about its concerns over the regime’s progress on missile development. It’s the dog that isn’t barking.
Since last Fall, Washington and European capitals have been embroiled in a protracted bout of nuclear diplomacy with Iran. In Washington, as elsewhere, hopes still run high that this effort will help curb the threat posed by Tehran’s atomic ambitions.
To do so, however, any diplomatic deal will need not only to limit Iran’s capability to make nuclear weapons, but also its ability to deliver them. On that score, Tehran is most definitely not cooperating with the West.
On April 16, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan publicly ruled out the possibility that his government would ever put its ballistic-missile arsenal on the global negotiating table. “Iran’s missiles are not up for discussion under any circumstances,” Mr. Dehghan told the country’s official Fars news agency. “Iran’s missiles are only our concern … . We don’t accept any intervention from anybody on this issue.”
Mr. Dehghan’s comments were a broadside aimed squarely at the U.S. State Department, which had tentatively raised the issue of delivery systems in its recent diplomatic discussions with Tehran.
Washington’s concerns are certainly well-placed. In recent years, in tandem with its nuclear advances, the Islamic republic has carried out significant, sustained work on its ballistic-missile arsenal. According to U.S. intelligence assessments, Iran is already the most formidable missile power in the Middle East, and ballistic missiles would be its delivery system of choice if it were to field a nuclear weapon.
The mainstay of Iran’s arsenal is the Shahab-3, a medium-range missile unveiled publicly more than a decade ago. When inducted into service, the Shahab-3 was a liquid-fuel missile with an estimated range of about 750 miles. However, in recent years, the Iranian regime has expanded the range, accuracy and payload of the Shahab and its variants.
Today, the Shahab class of missiles is estimated to be nuclear-capable and have a range of between 900 and 1,200 miles — putting all of Israel, the north of India and parts of Eastern Europe within striking distance of the Islamic republic.
These capabilities are just part of the larger picture. In 2005, Iran became the first space-faring nation in the Muslim world when it successfully launched a surveillance satellite into orbit from the missile base in Plesetsk, Russia. Since then, the Iranian regime has racked up a number of additional successful launches, demonstrating that it has a sustained — and successful — space program.
While these efforts appear to be civilian in nature, the potential military applications can’t be ignored. The same rocket booster used to place a payload into low-earth orbit can be married to a two-stage ballistic missile to create one of intercontinental range. Iran, in other words, is building the capability to transition rapidly from being a regional missile power to being a global one with the capability to hold at risk Western Europe — and beyond.
Moreover, it could do so very, very soon. Last year, a study of global missile threats by the National Air and Space Intelligence Center assessed that Iran “could develop and test an ICBM capable of reaching the United States by 2015.”
All this means that ballistic missiles need to be part of any serious discussion about limiting Iran’s strategic capabilities. That’s precisely the conversation Iranian officials are hoping to avoid, because they understand full well that their country’s global status is inexorably linked not only to its nuclear capabilities, but also to maintaining the means to deliver them.
The Obama administration, flush with optimism about the prospect of a nuclear deal, appears inclined to let them. “If we are successful in assuring ourselves and the world community that Iran cannot obtain a nuclear weapon … then them not having a nuclear weapon makes delivery systems almost — not entirely, but almost — irrelevant,” Wendy Sherman, the State Department’s chief Iran negotiator, recently told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
That’s a potentially catastrophic error. Given the maturity of Iran’s ballistic-missile effort, the United States and its fellow members in the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — U.S., Russia, China, United Kingdom and France — plus Germany) need to insist — and insist now — that limitations on delivery systems be an essential part of any deal that helps Tehran come in from the cold.
Otherwise, in the not-too-distant future, they are liable to find that in the process of trying to prevent Iran from going nuclear, they permitted it to become a global missile power.
Ilan Berman is vice president of the American Foreign Policy Council.