Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani told a defense exposition this month that his country would “not seek the permission of anyone” to build missiles, affirming “a need for vigilance” against perceived foreign aggression. Yet the Islamic Republic’s diverse missile arsenal has enabled it to engage in belligerence and subversion abroad for over three decades. That’s why no munition has meant more to Tehran’s security planners than ballistic missiles. Accordingly, Iran’s missile capabilities deserve more attention than the previous administration was willing to give.

Recent reports underscore the divergent approaches taken by the Trump and Obama administrations towards Iran and its missiles. As Politico reported Monday, the Obama White House was willing to undercut long-standing U.S. counter-proliferation efforts and investigations by its own Justice Department in the interest of reaching a nuclear deal with Tehran. By contrast, as Foreign Policy revealed a week prior, the Trump White House desires to intensify economic pressure on the regime over its non-nuclear threats like ballistic missiles. The new administration’s approach appears to indicate a cognizance of both the key role missiles play in bolstering the Iranian threat as well as the importance of pressure in dealing with that threat.

Writing in War on the Rocks last month, the Atlantic Council’s Bharath Gopalaswamy and Amir Handjani frame the missile issue much as the previous administration did. They undersell Tehran’s missile program and too often take Iranian arguments about capabilities and intentions at face value. In so doing, they fall into a larger trap: divorcing pressure from the equation of coercive diplomacy with Iran.

The authors assess Tehran’s ballistic missile program through three prisms: the 2015 nuclear deal, Iranian security strategy, and coercive diplomacy. First, in describing the diplomacy that led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal, the authors note the challenge of reaching a consensus over missiles while keeping a unified front among the P5+1 negotiators. The issue of Iran’s missiles, they assert, is separate from the nuclear agreement. Second, they posit that Tehran’s missiles are mostly weapons of deterrence, tracing the program’s origins to the bloody 1980 to 1988 Iran-Iraq War. They also note that Tehran spends considerably less on its military than its regional rivals. Lastly, the authors maintain that “truly multilateral negotiations… as opposed to verbal escalation, sanctions and isolation” are the best path forward to deal with Iran’s missiles.

Read the full article at War on the Rocks.