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 LONG TIME COMING
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 1980
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