Missing From the Iran Deal Announcement: Ballistic Missiles

By Patrick Goodenough | April 3, 2015 | 4:33 AM EDT

A military exhibition displays a Shahab-3 missile under a picture of Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, in 2008. The range of the missile threatens Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear program announced in Switzerland on Thursday has no direct reference to reining in Tehran’s ballistic missile activities, despite international concerns that the Iranians in past years carried out work relating to developing a nuclear payload for a missile.

From the outset of the marathon nuclear talks, Iran refused to discuss its missile program, with supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei ridiculing Western attempts to include it on the agenda as “stupid and idiotic.”

Thursday’s joint statement by Iran and the P5+1 world powers, represented by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and European Union (E.U.) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini respectively, was silent on the subject.

By contrast a State Department fact sheet on the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” (JCPOA) – whose final text, based on the framework announced Thursday, is meant to be nailed down by the end of June – does refer to the missile issue.

The fact sheet of “key parameters” says that the JCPOA will be endorsed in a new U.N. Security Council resolution which will also incorporate “[i]mportant restrictions on conventional arms and ballistic missiles.”

Whether Iran reads the framework understanding the same way remains to be seen, but Zarif has already described the fact sheet as a U.S. government attempt to “spin” the agreement.

President Obama on Thursday called the framework agreement reached in Switzerland “a good deal,” while acknowledging that many details would have to be settled by the end of June.

The question of developing delivery systems capable of carrying nuclear warheads has been a key aspect of international concerns about Iran’s suspect nuclear program, and five of the six UNSC resolutions on the Iranian nuclear issue passed between 2006 and 2010 cite the ballistic missile threat.

One of them, resolution 1929 of 2010, states that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities.”

Secretary of State John Kerry walks with chief U.S. nuclear negotiator Undersecretary of State Wendy Sherman during a break in the nuclear talks with Iran in Lausanne, Switzerland on March 20, 2015. (AP Photo/Laurent Gillieron/Keystone)

Under the JCPOA framework, all of those earlier Iran resolutions will drop away, once Iran has completed actions to address specified areas of concern – including resolving outstanding questions on the “possible military dimensions” of Iran’s nuclear activity.

Secretary of State John Kerry conceded that the missile issue was among those yet to be resolved.

“We still have many technical details to work out on both sides and still some other issues that we acknowledge still have to be resolved; for example, the duration of the U.N. arms and ballistic missile restrictions on Iran …” he told reporters in the Swiss city of Lausanne.

“U.N. sanctions, others with respect to ballistic missile embargo, etcetera, those remain for negotiation.”

As far as U.S. sanctions go, the State Department fact sheet says that those measures relating to Iran’s ballistic missile activities, as well as terrorism and human rights abuses, will not be lifted under the deal.

‘Has to be addressed’

Missiles were also not referred to directly in the interim agreement reached between Iran and the P5+1 in November 2013 – which the JCPOA is meant to replace – but chief U.S. nuclear negotiator, undersecretary of state Wendy Sherman, assured lawmakers they would be covered under a final agreement.

“It is true that in these first six months we’ve not shut down all of their production of any ballistic missile that could have anything to do with delivery of a nuclear weapon,” she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in February 2014. “But that is indeed going to be part of something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.”

When the talks resumed that month, however, Iran bristled as fresh U.S. attempts to put missiles on the table.

Accusing U.S. officials of “bringing up human rights issues and Iran’s missile and defense capabilities,” Khamenei said this was further evidence of American animosity, adding that Iran “will never succumb to the bullying and blackmailing of the hegemonic order.”

Iran’s determination to exclude its missile activities from the nuclear talks won the support of at least one of Washington’s P5+1 partners, Russia.

“The missile program of Iranians was never part of the discussions, never,” Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov complained last April, accusing the U.S. of threatening to derail the talks by trying to bring it up again.

In a November 2011 report, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said there was “credible” evidence that Iran had carried out “activities relevant to the development of a nuclear device” such as work on detonator designs, including detonator devices that could be used in a nuclear weapon and could fit in a ballistic missile warhead.

Specifically, it said the Iranians were believed to have worked on a project aimed at fitting a “spherical payload” into the payload chamber of a Shahab-3 missile. (The fusion device in a nuclear warhead is typically spherical in shape.)

The Shahab-3 missile, developed with North Korean assistance according to the CIA, and first test-fired by Iran in 1998, has a range of around 800 miles, potentially threatening Israel as well as U.S. forces in the Gulf.

U.S. intelligence reports in recent years have also cited Iranian efforts to develop intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capability.

In his controversial speech before Congress early last month Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu warned of the potential missile threat, should Iran manage to develop nuclear weapons in the future.

“If Iran’s intercontinental ballistic missile program is not part of the deal – and so far, Iran refuses to even put it on the negotiating table – well, Iran could have the means to deliver that nuclear arsenal to the far-reach corners of the earth,” he said, “including to every part of the United States.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow