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Iran Missiles and Nuclear Weapons: The Interactions Between Iran’s Missile Programs and the JCPOA

Dr. Anthony Cordesman

Center for Strategic and International Studies

December 9, 2015

It is far from clear why Iran is now sending such strong signals about new developments in its missile program at this point in time. It seemed during much of the negotiations over the nuclear deal and the JCPOA that Iran might be deliberately avoiding tests and activities that might call attention to any obvious fact: there is no meaningful difference between a missile that can deliver conventional munitions and one that can deliver nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. As long as the missile booster can launch a heavy enough payload to get the desired range, any missile can carry a nuclear warhead.

It is possible, that hardliners in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and other parts of Iran’s power structure are “acting out” in opposition to the JCPOA and/or asserting Iran’s capabilities to show it will not halt Iran’s steady development of its asymmetric warfare capabilities. It is also possible that Iran’s leaders have a broad interest in showing their neighbors and the world that Iran is still becoming a steadily more important military power – both in terms of its ability to pose a threat and to deter.

More generally, it is equally important to remember that that the United States, Britain, France, and most of Iran’s Arab neighbors have a massive qualitative and quantitative advantage over Iran in conventional air power. Most of Iran’s combat aircraft and surface-to-air missiles date back to the time of the Shah or are relatively low quality export versions of Russian and Chinese weapons. Missiles are a key “equalizer” for Iran in shaping the regional military balance.

It is also important to remember that the original UN prohibition on Iran’s missile developments in 2010 was so broad that it included virtually any meaningful medium to long-range ballistic missile or space activity – to the point where missile redeployments or routine modernization and maintenance might be seen as violations, and these limits will be eased once the JCPOA goes into force.

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