Hyping More Fears about Iran

Official Washington’s neocon/liberal-hawk establishment is working itself into another lather over Iran, this time by hyping fears about a ballistic missile program as another backdoor way to sabotage the Iran-nuclear agreement, as ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar explains.

By Paul R. Pillar

There are several important things to understand about ballistic missiles and Iran, beyond the fact that this topic has become one of the latest on which those who want Iran to be an ostracized and feared pariah forever, and who still want to kill the agreement to restrict Iran’s nuclear program, have seized.

Ballistic missiles are any projectiles that follow, after an initial powered and guided phase, a ballistic trajectory. Devices with this name include an enormously wide variety of sizes, ranges and capabilities. They run from short-range battlefield weapons to missiles with intercontinental range.

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

Iranian women attending a speech by Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. (Iranian government photo)

Ballistic missiles are in the armed forces of many states. They have become important and accepted parts of the defense posture of many states. Most of those states do not have what are commonly called weapons of mass destruction, and the missiles in their arsenals are not intended or designed to be used with such weapons. Instead they are part of a standard conventional defense strategy. If there is a genie involved with ballistic missiles, it has long been way, way out of the bottle.

Scary rhetoric about Iran has repeatedly referred to the supposed prospect of an Iranian intercontinental ballistic missile, evidently to try to get Americans to believe that Iranian missile programs pose a threat to the United States. Such rhetoric bears little or no resemblance to what the Iranians have been doing in the way of development and testing of ballistic missiles.

As missile expert Greg Thielmann, who studies the Iranian program closely, has concluded, an Iranian ICBM “is nowhere in sight.” Iranian work on missiles has focused on shorter-range systems that are more relevant to Iran’s defense needs within its own neighborhood.

Those needs, and how Iranian leaders perceive them, are shaped by a painful history of neighbors using ballistic missiles against Iran and by the prospect that missile-armed neighbors might use such weapons again. The Iran-Iraq war, begun by Saddam Hussein’s aggression against Iran in 1980, included several rounds of the “war of the cities” in which civilian populations were subject to bombardment from the air.

Iraq used manned aircraft as well as ballistic missiles to attack Iranian cities, but during the later phases of the war the destruction of cities came mainly from Iraq’s missiles. It is impossible to come up with an accurate figure of losses sustained by these missile strikes amid what was a very bloody war overall, but probably in even just the first round of the war of the cities in 1984, civilian casualties numbered in the tens of thousands.

In the Persian Gulf region it was Saudi Arabia that made the single biggest move in the proliferation of ballistic missiles: its then-secret purchase in the 1980s from China of intermediate-range CSS-2 missiles. Today, Iranian leaders look across the Gulf at their regional rivals in Saudi Arabia and see a substantial missile force incorporating technology from China and Pakistan. It would be a non-starter for any Iranian leader, regardless of his politics or ideology, to disavow continued efforts to try to improve and develop Iran’s own force.

Additional confusion from the sort of rhetoric one hears today concerns exactly how missiles do and do not relate to the recently concluded nuclear agreement. That agreement, one of the signal achievements on behalf of nuclear nonproliferation, was achieved only by the parties agreeing to focus on the nuclear issue itself rather than wading into other grievances that the parties have against each other.

Those include not only Western grievances against Iran but also Iranian grievances against the West and the United States, some of which have to do with U.S. military activities in Iran’s immediate neighborhood. Missiles, like a lot of other issues that each side may have otherwise been anxious to raise, were not the target of the nuclear agreement.

Despite frequent references today to Iranian missile tests as a “violation,” they do not constitute any violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (i.e., the nuclear agreement) or of the two-year-old preliminary agreement. In fact they do not involve a violation of anything that Iran has agreed to. Iran has never been under any obligation to help sanction itself.

And it is only as sanctions that the issue of missiles legitimately comes up at all in connection with the nuclear agreement. An embargo on export to Iran of missile-related materiel and a variety of other types of conventional armaments was part of a host of nuclear-related sanctions specified in a series of resolutions of the United Nations Security Council enacted prior to the beginning of the negotiations that led to the JCPOA.

So was a call in a resolution in 2010 for Iran itself not to engage in missile development activity. All of these sanctions, like the other nuclear-related sanctions, were intended to induce Tehran to negotiate restrictions on its nuclear program. In that respect they were no different from sanctions involving banking access or pistachio exports.

The missile-related sanctions had the added purpose of freezing or retarding any possible development of Iranian missiles that could be used to deliver nuclear weapons, as long as there was not yet an agreement precluding Iran from producing the fissile material that would be needed for such a weapon.

Now there is such an agreement. The reason for the nuclear-related sanctions no longer exists. If the principle of ending nuclear-related sanctions in return for Iran accepting the tight restrictions and intrusive monitoring provided for in the JCPOA were to be completely observed, then all of those sanctions, including the ones involving missiles, would end once Iran completes, which it might as early as the next couple of months, the measures it is obliged to complete before the accord is implemented.

But somewhere along the line the subject of missiles and conventional armaments acquired a life of its own, with political pressure especially on the U.S. side not to give up those sanctions any time soon no matter what Iran does to dismantle key parts of its nuclear program. Thus there ensued some of the toughest negotiations before the JCPOA could be completed.

In what has to be considered a major concession by Iran, it finally was agreed to let the embargo related to missiles run for another eight years, and the one covering other conventional arms five years. These are still all nuclear-related sanctions, even if their removal is being delayed despite Iranian compliance with the nuclear agreement.

International efforts, and not just those aimed at Iran, to restrict development of ballistic missiles always have been motivated by concerns about missiles that could be used to deliver weapons of mass destruction and especially nuclear weapons. That concern has been the focus and rationale of the Missile Technology Control Regime, the principal international effort to check the proliferation of advanced ballistic missiles.

Iranian ballistic missiles pose no threat to U.S. interests as long as Iran does not have the fissile material to build nuclear weapons that could be put atop any of those missiles. Preventing such a nuclear capability is, of course, what the JCPOA is all about. It thus would be a stupidly counterproductive approach to let issues about missiles endanger the implementation and longevity of the JCPOA.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is now a visiting professor at Georgetown University for security studies. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.)

3 comments for “Hyping More Fears about Iran

  1. J'hon Doe II
    January 4, 2016 at 10:25

    President Obama catches Netanyahu bribing republican congressmen to change their Iran votes

    By Bill Palmer
    January 1, 2016

    United States President Obama has long had a strained relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite the two nations being historically close allies. Obama’s reasoning has been straightforward: Netanyahu is a corrupt warmonger has intentionally made his region unstable for his own political gain. Republicans have fired back by accusing Obama of simply being anti-Israel. But wiretaps now show that at least some republicans in congress had an entirely different reason for siding with Netanyahu: he was bribing them to change their votes on key issues.

    In an explosive revelation, wiretaps uncovered by the Wall Street Journal reveal that Benjamin Netanyahu reached out to republican congressmen who had been considering voting in favor of the Iran peace deal, asking what they wanted in return for voting against the deal. In the end, not a single republican voted for the deal, meaning that Netanyahu’s bribes succeeded in swaying the ones who had been on the fence. That means that not only is Netanyahu actively working to undermine the sanctity of the United States government, the republican congressmen involved may have committed treason under the Espionage Act.

    While it’s not uncommon for members of congress to offer each other political favors in exchange for votes on various bills, it’s an entirely different legal matter when those offers come from a foreign head of state. Not only were they caught accepting favors from Netanyahu in exchange for votes on the Iran deal, they also received confidential details of the Iran negotiations directly from Netanyahu himself. Republicans have long criticized the Obama administration for its wiretapping of Netanyahu, but now we know why: they didn’t want the details of their own wrongdoing to be discovered in the process. The Wall Street Journal has more on the story


  2. J'hon Doe II
    January 4, 2016 at 09:14

    Saudi Arabia stews in policy hell
    JANUARY 3, 2016

    Last week’s mass executions in Saudi Arabia suggest panic at the highest level of the monarchy. The action is without precedent, even by the grim standards of Saudi repression. In 1980 Riyadh killed 63 jihadists who had attacked the Grand Mosque of Mecca, but that was fresh after the event. Most of the 47 prisoners shot and beheaded on Jan. 2 had sat in Saudi jails for a decade. The decision to kill the prominent Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr, the most prominent spokesman for restive Saudi Shia Muslims in Eastern Province, betrays fear of subversion with Iranian sponsorship.

    Why kill them all now? It is very hard to evaluate the scale of internal threats to the Saudi monarchy, but the broader context for its concern is clear: Saudi Arabia finds itself isolated, abandoned by its longstanding American ally, at odds with China, and pressured by Russia’s sudden preeminence in the region. The Saudi-backed Army of Conquest in Syria seems to be crumbling under Russian attack. The Saudi intervention in Yemen against Iran-backed Houthi rebels has gone poorly. And its Turkish ally-of-convenience is consumed by a low-level civil war. Nothing has gone right for Riyadh.

    Worst of all, the collapse of Saudi oil revenues threatens to exhaust the kingdom’s $700 billion in financial reserves within five years, according to an October estimate by the International Monetary Fund (as I discussed here). The House of Saud relies on subsidies to buy the loyalty of the vast majority of its subjects, and its reduced spending power is the biggest threat to its rule. Last week Riyadh cut subsidies for water, electricity and gasoline. The timing of the executions may be more than coincidence: the royal family’s capacity to buy popular support is eroding just as its regional security policy has fallen apart.

    For decades, Riyadh has presented itself as an ally of the West and a force for stability in the region, while providing financial support for Wahhabi fundamentalism around the world.


  3. Drew Hunkins
    January 3, 2016 at 18:47

    The Zionist Power Configuration (ZPC) in America is primarily behind the Iran fear-mongering in the United States.

    For further reading see Dr. James Petras and Mearsheimer and Walt.

Comments are closed.