Blog Post - Iran Matters

Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Program: Changing Course in the Trump Era?

  • Farhad Rezaei
| May 08, 2017

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson recently announced that the administration is conducting a review of its Iran policy, a process which would reverse most of President Obama’s policies. While there is no indication that the administration would abrogate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the review would probably increase scrutiny of Iran’s alleged support for terror, human rights abuses, and its ballistic missiles program. Arguably the most challenging item to tackle is Iran’s missiles program, especially its intermediate- and long-range missiles that can reportedly carry nuclear warheads. Understanding the complexity of the issue and its full implications for the United States requires an analysis of the international legality of the program and its interpretation in Tehran.

Facing fierce resistance from the Iranians over inclusion of the ballistic missiles program in the JCPOA, the P5+ 1 agreed to leave the topic in the hands of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). In a further compromise, Iranian officials sought to soften the language of UNSC Resolution 1929 (2010), which stipulated that "Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Passed on July 20, 2015, the new UNSC Resolution 2231 endorsed the nuclear deal and was more permissive: “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Essentially, the new resolution created a legal loophole because it complicated efforts to define what a nuclear-capable missile is. Absent a clear consensus, the Security Council relies on an appointed Panel of Experts to study the relevant ballistic missiles tests. Based on the report of the Panel, the Security Council declares whether the missile is nuclear-capable. Range is a primary consideration and, per the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal group that assesses nuclear-capable missile technology, a missile with a range of 300km and a payload of 500kg is considered ‘nuclear-capable.’

Missile tests are essential for a large and advanced program such as Iran’s, which boasts thousands of short- and medium-range missiles, some 300 intermediate-range missiles, and even a space program. Eager to explore the boundaries of Resolution 2231, the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force launched several ballistic missiles that could potentially carry a nuclear payload. Among them were the mid-range Qhadr-H and Qhadr-F with an estimated range of 2000km, the Emad with a range of 1700km, the Zolfiqar with a range of 750km, the Qiam-1 with an estimated range of 800 to 1000km, and the Khorramshahr with an estimated range of 2500 to 4000km. Deputy Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces, Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi, explained, “We test-fired missiles with a range of 2,000 kilometers and a margin of error of eight meters, which can easily reach Israel.”

In March 2016, a spokesman for the Obama administration stated that the launches may have violated Resolution 2231. As a result and under pressure from Congress, the White House imposed new sanctions on the Revolutionary Guards, but Brigadier General Ali Hajizade, the commander of the Aerospace Force, declared that sanctions would not deter Iran from testing ballistic missiles. While President Rouhani’s government was not keen on a confrontation with the international community, the Foreign Ministry was forced to side with the Revolutionary Guards. Nonetheless, the government did complain to the Supreme Leader when the Guards tested another missile, decorated in Hebrew with the slogan “Israel should be wiped off the map.”

Days after Donald Trump took office, on January 29, 2017, the Aerospace Force tested a new missile, Khorramshahr, in the Semnan launch site, about 140 miles east of Tehran. The intelligence community suggested that the Khorramshahr missile was a variant of the highly debated intermediate-range North Korean Musudan missile, with an estimated range of 4000km. The range of the Iranian missile, however, was not clear; the weapon exploded upon reentry after a 980-kilometer flight. Still, Washington reacted immediately. On February 3, 2017, the Treasury Department placed new sanctions on 25 individuals and entities involved in developing the missiles. Shortly after, Michael T. Flynn, then-national security adviser, stated that Iran “was put on notice,” a threat which left little doubt that the United States would react more severely should the Iran test another missile in violation of Resolution 2231.

Tehran’s response at the time indicated a certain tension between the hardline Abadgaran – the Principlists and party of former President Ahmadinejad – and the so-called normalizers, the moderates under Rouhani. On the conservative bloc, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan claimed such launches will continue with “enhanced speed and precision.” The Kayhan Newspaper, considered to be the mouthpiece of the Supreme Leader, described the test as a “historic turn.” Members of the Abadgaran faction in the Majlis proposed to impose sanctions on 15 American companies which collaborated with Israel for alleged violations of human rights. The measure would have been largely symbolic, because none of the companies had business with Iran. The moderates, however, urged caution. The government-run Iran Daily wrote: “This measure by Iran provides an excuse for Trump to take actions against Iran, increasing his intention to disrupt the status quo resulting from the Iran nuclear deal.”

Indeed, the Ministry of Information and Security (MOIS) has regarded Trump as dangerous and unpredictable. Secretary of Defense James Mattis is known to Iranians as well. As former head of CENTCOM, he urged trans-border actions against Iran, only to be overruled by President Obama before resigning. If anything, the White House decision to launch a Tomahawk strike in Syria and the dropping of the monstrous GBU-43/ Massive Ordnance Air Bust (MOAB) on an ISIS stronghold in Afghanistan reinforced Tehran’s anxieties. In a rather uncharacteristically low-key response, Ayatollah Khamenei noted that “the Americans’ action is a strategic mistake, as they are repeating the mistakes of their predecessors.”

More to the point, after being “put on notice,” the Guards’ Aerospace Force carried out only one test on February 8th, 2017: the short-range surface-to-air Mersad, well within the limits of Resolution 2231. Despite Rouhani’s subsequent proclamation that Iran does not require permission from the United States, no further tests were carried out. Given that Guards have been known to try to influence elections in favor of Principlist candidates, this self-restraint is important as the presidential election scheduled for May 19 seems to favor Rouhani.

It is good news for the Rouhani administration that the Guards did not authorize another missile test that potentially violates Resolution 2231. Washington’s policy of deterrence is validated if the Guards maintain their decision to abstain from ballistic missile tests – and it seems likely that they will. Although the missile industry in Iran would not collapse, inability to test advanced models would undermine Iran’s drive to produce longer-range missiles. If, on the other hand, the Guards Corps somehow reverses its policy, Washington’s credibility would be at stake; the administration would then have to push for more serious sanctions, or, in the worst-case scenario, mount kinetic action.


Dr. Farhad Rezaei is a research fellow at the Center for Iranian Studies (IRAM) in Ankara where he researches Iran’s foreign policy. He is the author of Iran’s Nuclear Program: A Study in Proliferation and Rollback (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). His writings have appeared in the National Interest, Middle East Policy, British Journal of Middle Eastern Studies, Journal of International Affairs, and Asian Affairs among others. His forthcoming book is Iran, Israel, and the United States: The Politics of Counterproliferation. He tweets at @Farhadrezaeii

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Rezaei, Farhad.Iran’s Ballistic Missiles Program: Changing Course in the Trump Era?.” Iran Matters, May 8, 2017,

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