When President Donald Trump announced last month that he had refused to certify the national security value of the Iran nuclear deal, giving Congress an opportunity to fatally undermine the agreement, he focused on a supposed shortcoming that has long concerned the deal’s critics: a “near total silence on Iran’s missile programs,” as he put it. The fact that Iran has continued its ballistic-missile program, the critics’ argument goes, demonstrates the failure of the nuclear deal (also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA) to improve regional and global security.

These critics are right that Iran’s ballistic missiles are a threat to the United States, its allies, and its interests in the Middle East. They are wrong, however, that the continuation of the ballistic-missile program represents a failure of the JCPOA. Abandoning or undermining the JCPOA will, if anything, make it more difficult for Washington and its allies to address the threat. The Trump administration’s more aggressive posture toward Tehran is likely to reinforce Iranian leaders’ sense that the United States is an unreliable negotiating counterpart and that ballistic missiles are necessary for their country’s self-defense. Instead of confronting Iran directly, the United States should pursue a different strategy—one predicated on sticking to the JCPOA and engaging with Iran and other regional players on the broader set of security challenges in the Middle East. Only when Tehran is convinced that its security could be guaranteed regardless of its ballistic missiles will it consider fundamental changes to its missile program.

A ballistic missile at an undisclosed test site in Iran, September 2009.
Fars News / Reuters


Iran’s ballistic missile program has a long history. During the 1970s under the Shah, the Iranian military rapidly became one of the best-equipped armed forces in the world, even developing its own short-range ballistic missiles. But after the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the military was cannibalized from within by ideological purges and damaged as a result of curtailed procurement and training programs. During the Iran–Iraq War in the 1980s, the Iranians fared badly early on before the situation stabilized into a bloody stalemate in which the Iraqis and Iranians both fired ballistic missiles at each other’s cities. At the time Iraq’s missile program was more advanced than Iran’s, but the Iranians soon set out to change that.

Throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, the Iranians developed a variety of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. North Korea initially helped Iran acquire several of these missile systems, but Iran has since demonstrated a willingness to develop its own independent capabilities. Today, Iran possesses a variety of short- and medium-range missiles, some of which are capable of delivering a payload approximately 1,200 miles away. These could potentially deliver a nuclear warhead, although Iran’s active nuclear weapons program ended in 2003–04, according to assessments by the U.S. intelligence community. Iran can also launch satellites into orbit, but it has not yet demonstrated the ability to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). (North Korea, by comparison, is believed to possess ICBM capabilities.)

Iranian officials have made no secret about their intention of continuing to develop missile systems. In September, for instance, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif stated that “Iran needs to develop its own defenses,” and that “our missiles are for defense.” Zarif also justified Iran’s missile program by pointing to U.S. arms sales to other countries in the region. According to data published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, from 2000 to 2016, Iran imported approximately $3.4 billion in arms, while its major rival, Saudi Arabia, imported approximately $17.9 billion in arms during the same period. Even the tiny UAE imported $17.3 billion.

It is unsurprising, then, that during negotiations over the JCPOA, the Iranians were insistent that their missile program was off the table. Despite this demand, the U.S. team still pursued, as part of the JCPOA, an agreement with Iran over its missile program for a substantial part of the 18 months of talks leading up to the deal, dropping the subject only when it became apparent that the talks were getting nowhere and there was no international support for the U.S. position. Still, as part of the deal, the United States insisted on retaining UN Security Council sanctions on Iran’s missile program for eight years into the JCPOA implementation period, and will maintain its own sanctions indefinitely.


Iranian rhetoric about self-defense aside, many U.S. analysts would argue that there is a difference between purely defensive weapons and ballistic missiles, which are intrinsically offensive in use. Further, ballistic missiles, unlike many of the weapons the United States sells to Saudi Arabia and the UAE, are well suited to deliver nuclear warheads, raising the stakes around Iran’s nuclear program, especially if Tehran were to acquire an ICBM. That said, absent nuclear warheads, Iran’s missiles present a less potent threat. Outside observes deemed Iran’s summer 2017 missile launches against ISIS to be a failure because of their inaccuracy and defects. The Iranians will no doubt continue to improve their missiles’ accuracy and performance, but today the missile program is perhaps less of a threat than Iran’s regional meddling or the reversion of its nuclear program back to the pre-JCPOA status quo. 

But it is irrelevant whether Iran has valid reasons to acquire ballistic missiles or if those missiles are presently less capable than Iran might like. The fact is that Tehran believes it has an interest in pursuing greater ballistic missile capabilities. Absent a U.S. military campaign to eliminate that program, the success of any U.S. strategy to deprive Iran of ballistic missiles is predicated on Washington’s ability to convince Tehran that it would be less secure with missiles than without them.

The United States could hypothetically do so if it could make Iran believe that, with the nuclear deal in place, its missile program were the only thing leaving it exposed to U.S. hostility. But as Trump outlined on October 13, the United States has a number of concerns with respect to Iran—including its sponsorship of terrorism, harassment of U.S. ships, imprisonment of Americans on false charges, and cyber attacks—and it’s unclear whether the absence of an Iranian missile program would alleviate them. In fact, Washington has a nearly infinite list of demands for Iran, and, from Tehran’s perspective, Trump’s refusal to certify the JCPOA suggests that even if an agreement on missiles were to be reached, any one of these other issues could be sufficient cause for Washington to renege on its commitments in the future. 

The United States could conceivably use economic sanctions to target the missile program as it had previously targeted Iran’s nuclear program, hoping to undermine support for both the missile program and the regime. But unlike the nuclear program, which Iranian leaders always maintained was for peaceful, civilian purposes, Iran’s missiles are at the center of the country’s security strategy. Turning the Iranian population—much less the military—against the missile program would require persuading them that abandoning the program would make their country more secure. But for Iranians who have seen the JCPOA begin to wither in 2017, this argument is unlikely to be convincing. 

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with aides during JCPOA talks in Lausanne, Switzerland, March 2015.
Brendan Smialowski / Reuters


In order to nudge Iran toward negotiating on its ballistic missiles, U.S. strategy should be two-fold: first, Washington should pursue measures, such as targeted economic sanctions, to slow and stymie the advance of Iran’s missile program; and second, it should seek to negotiate a deal with Iran that would facilitate arms control.  

Although economic sanctions may not convince Iran to abandon its ballistic missile program, they can be useful in delaying its advance. Measures that limit Tehran’s ability to buy missile components could make it harder, though not impossible, for Iran to make further progress. Such sanctions would have direct security benefits—less capable missiles are potentially less threatening ones—and also signal to Iran that pursuing advanced missiles will be costly and complicated.

This is where the second prong comes in: the United States must convince Iran that its security would be enhanced through regional arms control. If it is true that its missile program is intended for deterrence, then Iran may be open to an arrangement that would restrain a burgeoning arms race in the Middle East. An arrangement could start by negotiating limits for range and warhead weight, both of which would scale back the potential destructiveness of Iran’s missiles and address U.S. concerns about a future Iranian nuclear warhead program. And in fact, Iranian statements to the effect that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has already capped the range of Iranian missile at roughly 1,200 miles could indicate some receptivity to at least discussing this concept. A potential deal could also include caps on the number of missiles possessed by states in the region, with compliance verified by transparency visits and monitoring missions similar to those used in U.S.–Russian arms control arrangements. 

Achieving an arms control deal in the Middle East would not be easy. This is not because of regional distrust—arms control is inherently an exercise among those who do not trust one another—but instead because of regional military asymmetry and the perception among Washington and its allies in the region that Iran is an uncontrollable threat to peace and security. The Trump administration’s refusal to disavow regime change in Iran is an obvious additional hindrance to such negotiations. But if the Trump administration and others in the region—especially U.S. partners among the Gulf Arab states—make the effort, it is possible that the JCPOA could still be the first step toward more effective, long-term management of the Iranian missile threat.

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  • RICHARD NEPHEW is a Senior Research Scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University and former Deputy Coordinator for Sanctions Policy at the U.S. Department of State.
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