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Iran’s ballistic missiles threaten nuclear deal

By Ed Blanche

As the crucial negotiators between Iran and US-led powers over Tehran’s reported quest for nuclear weapons move into what looks like their final phase, a critical, but rarely mentioned, element in the lengthy process that could herald a new era in the geopolitics of the Middle East has been the Islamic Republic’s ambitious drive to develop the ballistic missiles that would be needed to deliver such weapons.

Throughout the negotiations, a process that began in secret several years ago and achieved an interim agreement in November 2013, Iran’s missile programme, particularly its apparent drive to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), has been a major concern for the Americans and their European allies.

This is largely due to pressure on the US administration from Israel, which sees Iran’s nuclear and missile programmes as an existential threat, through pro-Israel supporters in the US Congress. Iran has the largest ballistic missile arsenal in the region. Israel has more capable weapons, but fewer than the Iranians.

The Iranians have persistently declined to discuss it in any detail, arguing that it has no nuclear dimension and that it will not allow its defence industry as a whole will not come in for scrutiny.

Tehran, whose missiles are its only long-range strategic military weapons, has been refusing to discuss its missile programme, and this thorny issue could still imperil the negotiations with the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain, and France plus Germany, known as P5+1 – as the marathon talks move towards a July 1 deadline and possibly an historic agreement.

The US State Department’s nuclear negotiator, Wendy Sherman, demanded in April 2014 that ballistic missiles, particularly its intermediate range ballistic missiles (IBRMs), be discussed as part of a comprehensive agreement. But Gen. Hossein Dehghan, the Iranian defence minister and a senior commander in Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), bluntly refused.

He declared in April: “Iran’s missiles are not up for discussion under any circumstances. Iran’s missiles are our concern … We do not accept any intervention from anybody on this issue.” Other hardline commanders in the IRGC, the most powerful military force in Iran and bitterly opposed to any move it deems would impede Tehran’s nuclear project, have repeatedly reinforced that position since then.

Tehran still holds that position. But with the clock now running on what could be a game-changing rapprochement between the West and Iran, a seismic geopolitical shift that could produce a strategic realignment in a region gripped by unparalleled turmoil, the Iranians may yet relent as collapsing oil prices force them to reach some sort of deal on their contentious nuclear programme.

Israel and Saudi Arabia, longtime foes of Iran who see themselves as primary targets for Iranian missiles, want sweeping restrictions across the board on Tehran’s ballistic programme, not just ICBMs which are the Americans’ primary focus, and do not trust Tehran to abide by any deal it may make with the P5+1 powers. Security analysts fear they could try to sabotage the negotiations.

Robust programme

“Considering these underlying factors, it would be unrealistic to expect Iran to unilaterally stop its missile programme, or dismantle its arsenal, but the Iranians might still be encouraged or even compelled to undertake transparency measures and adhere to certain capping mechanism,” observed Farzin Nadimi of the conservative Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a December 2014 paper.

“The international emphasis … should be on establishing a viable monitoring regime for Iranian missile efforts. Considering that the Iranians could well develop maximum-range IRBMs , and ICBMs, by the coming decade, such a step would be more effective than simply curbing Iranian access to internationally available components and materials, which can only delay the programme.

“With oil prices falling, now is a good time to argue that rather than incur the huge risks associated with developing ICBMs, Iran could benefit by investing instead in the infrastructure and social and environmental areas in which it is obviously lagging,” Nadimi wrote.

Citing Iran’s “robust military programme”, he observed: “Iran will need many years to develop more threatening missiles, but its leadership seems dedicated to pursuing these capabilities – not a hopeful portent for regional stability. Addressing this issue now is therefore essential.”

Iran’s missile programme is controlled by the IRGC, whose aerospace division dominates the programme and commands the Islamic Republic’s growing missile forces, which are viewed with deep concern by the US, Israel and the Gulf Arab monarchies. Saudi Arabia and its Gulf Cooperation Council partners are all within reach of even medium-range Iranian missiles.

Tehran’s ballistic missiles, primarily the Sejjil-2 and Shehab-3 IRBMs that are the most formidable in its growing missile arsenal, are the main worry, especially for Israel.

The most advanced, the Sejjil-2, has a range of about 2,000km (1,375 miles). It uses solid fuel, which means it requires less time to launch than systems using liquid fuel like the Shehab-3 and thus less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes by aircraft or other – read Israeli – ballistic missiles.

The Sejjil is the most likely system to be armed with a nuclear warhead, if the Iranians ever succeed in developing one. Michael Elleman, senior fellow for missile defence at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, says Tehran is expected to use the “Sejjil technologies to produce a three-stage missile capable of flying 3,700km, or 2,200 miles.”

Right now, Western and Israeli analysts estimate that Iran has 400-plus Shehab-3 weapons operational and deployed under IRGC control. Western analysts say the current production level for the Shehab-3 is around 70 a year.

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