Sun 24 Sep 2023

While trying to save the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or the Iran nuclear deal, some European leaders have stepped up pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile programme, simultaneously demanding talks and threatening sanctions. Iran—which sees ballistic missiles as crucial to the country’s defence—has responded by saying that its missile programme is non-negotiable.

Although Iran’s continuing development and export of missiles was one of the United States President Donald J. Trump administration’s main arguments for withdrawing from the JCPOA—missiles are neither part of the agreement, nor are they subject to any multilateral international treaty. Nevertheless, missiles were mentioned in UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA in July 2015 and which calls on Iran ‘not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons’ until 2023. While there is no consensus on how to interpret this ambiguous formulation—with Iran arguing that its conventional missiles are not designed to carry nuclear weapons—Iran’s reported missile transfers violate the 2015 UN arms embargo on Yemen (UN Security Council Resolution 2216).

European powers deserve credit for their efforts to maintain the JCPOA, but their current coercive approach to Iran’s missiles is counterproductive. This topical backgrounder highlights the need to dissect international concerns about Iran’s missiles by distinguishing between potential range extension, development of the existing short- and medium-range missiles, and missile transfers to regional allies. It also proposes ways for the European Union to alleviate the concern that Iran may develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM) and to address the drivers of Iran’s regional missile policy.


Increased Western focus on Iran’s missiles

When justifying US withdrawal from the JCPOA on 8 May 2018, President Trump referred to the deal’s failure ‘to address the regime’s development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear warheads’. In the same remarks, he explained that the USA would continue ‘working with our allies … to eliminate the threat of Iran’s ballistic missile program’. The administration has also called for Iran to ‘end its proliferation of ballistic missiles’ in the region and requested that the UN Security Council punish the country for its ‘provocative and destabilising missile launches’.

Europeans have set themselves apart from the Trump administration’s policy on the JCPOA and are struggling to protect their businesses from the extraterritorial sanctions being imposed as a result of US withdrawal. At the same time, France, Germany and the United Kingdom—the so-called E3—have adopted a tougher approach on Iran’s missiles.

This approach has been spearheaded by France, whose foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, warned on 30 August 2018 that Iran ‘cannot avoid’ talks on its missile programme. Le Drian has also argued that that the range of Iran’s missiles ‘goes beyond Iran’s need to defend its borders’. In spring 2018, the E3 urged the EU to impose sanctions on Iran because of its ballistic missile tests and role in backing the Syrian Government. They have referred to the ‘proliferation of Iranian missile capabilities throughout the region’ as ‘an additional and serious source of concern’. Like the USA, the E3 have viewed Iran’s satellite launches as a springboard for ICBM development and have responded accordingly.


Iran’s perspective

Iranian officials have responded to the West’s hard line on Iran’s missiles by stating that its ‘military capabilities are not up for negotiation’ and vowed to further boost missile development.

This is hardly surprising. Since the 1980s, when Iraq attacked Iranian cities, missiles have played a key role in Iran’s national security approach. Missiles serve as a counter to the overwhelming military capabilities of regional rivals (notably Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). The rivals’ long-range strike capabilities main