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Will sanctions prompt Iran to boost missile program?

Washington’s imposition of new missile sanctions on Iran a mere day after the implementation of the nuclear deal appears to have caused a backlash.

TEHRAN, Iran — Only one day after the Jan. 16 announcement of the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the US Treasury unveiled new missile-related sanctions on Iran. The reason? Iran’s testing of its medium-range Emad ballistic missile in October.

Following the new sanctions, Maj. Gen. Mohsen Rezaei, one of Iran’s highest-ranking military officials, penned a letter to President Hassan Rouhani in which he wrote, “Just as Iran’s success in developing 20,000 centrifuges was a slap in the face of the United States and forced the Americans to come to the negotiating table and recognize our right to enrich uranium, I am hoping that with your support, the range of Iran's missiles will exceed 5,000 kilometers [3,106 miles].”

Prior to Rezaei’s letter, senior Iranian officials had never declared any wish to develop missiles with such a long range, always emphasizing that they consider the current range of Iran’s missiles, which is 2,000 kilometers (1,242 miles), to be sufficient for national security. Thus, what is the possible use of the missiles Rezaei brought up?

Rezaei answered this question in his letter, writing, “Without a doubt, when our defense capabilities include 5,000-kilometer range missiles, a range capable of reaching a variety of targets including the island of Diego Garcia, the site of the United States Air Force base, which was used during the Tabas attack [Operation Eagle Claw], then the United States will repent and see the futility of such actions.”

But can Iran develop ballistic missiles with such a range? Does it possess the necessary technology? How will such a missile system fit within Iran’s military and defense doctrine? And under what circumstances would Iran attempt to develop and fire these types of ballistic missiles?

As far as the technology is concerned, Iran’s missiles are divided into various categories. In general, Iran’s short-range ballistic missiles such as the HormuzPersian Gulf and Fateh 110 are of high quality and technologically advanced. They have high maneuverability, and their accuracy and destructive capabilities have been improved.

Iran’s medium-range solid and liquid fuel ballistic missiles, with ranges of between 800-2,200 kilometers, do not have such characteristics. The biggest weaknesses of these missiles are related to their maneuverability, destructive power and accuracy. Since Iran suffers from a lack of access to permanent reconnaissance satellites, guiding long-range missiles will be very difficult. The Emad missile is the first attempt by Iranian defense experts to improve the maneuverability of medium-range ballistic missiles. However, the majority of Iran’s warheads weigh between 600-900 kilograms. Thus, at best, the explosive power of a ballistic missile such as the Emad is only a little more than that of a bunker buster.

Nonetheless, considering Iran’s space experiments in the past few years, including its launch of several satellites, building a missile with a range that exceeds 5,000 kilometers is achievable. Iran’s placing launch vehicles into Earth’s orbit shows that it has the potential to develop missile ranges of above 4,000 kilometers. However, the destructive power and maneuverability of these missiles continue to remain problematic.

Although Rouhani has yet to react to Rezaei's letter, a look at his actions in relation to military and defense matters during the past two years, and also the military developments in the region, provides some insight.

Although many hardliners criticize the administration’s performance in military and defense matters as weak, the reality is different. Unlike former President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who pursued psychological warfare through the launch of controversial missile programs, Rouhani is very wisely seeking to improve the quality of domestically manufactured military hardware.

For instance, Rouhani has unveiled the production of a line of short-range Fateh 313 missiles, which clearly sent the message that the administration is focused on expanding the quality of ballistic missiles. The launch of the Emad missile, which has a higher maneuverability compared to other missiles in its class, is another example of Rouhani’s intentions. Indeed, Minister of Defense Brig. Gen. Hossein Dehghan has clearly stated that his ministry seeks to increase the destructive capability of Iran’s ballistic missiles. Moreover, the Ministry of Defense is seriously pursuing an expansion of the quality of the armed forces. For instance, ever since UN Security Council sanctions were lifted as a result of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iranian military officials have been focusing on buying modern fighter jets from Russia, new tanks, modern tactical weapons as well as advanced anti-aircraft systems. In this vein, Rouhani is clearly aware of two issues: the need to fill the huge technological gap that exists between different branches of Iran’s armed forces by increasing the quality of their equipment, and avoiding a policy of creating controversy by testing controversial and less accurate and less advanced ballistic missiles. Indeed, a review of the budget allocations for the Iranian armed forces during the past two years, and also the budget for the upcoming Iranian year (March 2016-March 2017), confirms the latter.

The massive purchases of advanced military equipment by Iran’s rivals in the Persian Gulf, eastern Mediterranean and Egypt have resulted in serious worry and distrust among Iranian political and military officials. For them, the question is why the West, considering that the military capabilities of countries such Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel are far greater than that of Iran, constantly presents the Islamic Republic as a source of threat and worry. The fact is that Washington’s policy of arming countries such as Pakistan, Israel, Turkey and Egypt with long-range ballistic missiles, advanced fifth-generation fighters, and various other advanced heavy military equipment will only prompt Iran to expand its defense capabilities.

Since taking office, Rouhani has made it clear that his administration is pursuing a defensive policy. He has shown in practice that Iran is neither seeking weapons of mass destruction nor trying to pursue a regional arms race. The administration has also shown that Iran is not trying to create tension, but is only seeking to increase its military capabilities in accordance with accepted equations and policies. However, Rouhani has also communicated that if Iran’s interests and sphere of strategic influence is threatened, it has the ability to expand its military influence in all directions and undertake strategic defense actions. If there is any doubt about the latter, it should be put to rest by Rouhani’s order to step up missile development after the new US sanctions.

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