Iran reportedly tried to test yet another ballistic missile last week – the latest in a series of tests dating back to October. Despite the launch’s failure, it succeeded in a larger goal: continuing Tehran’s experimentation with delivery vehicles that could be topped with a nuclear warhead. The test was a brazen act of defiance conducted just days before the first anniversary of last summer’s nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Tehran’s latest test featured a modified North Korean liquid-fueled ballistic missile, the BM-25 Musudan. Capable of carrying an unconventional payload, the BM-25 can travel upwards of 1,500 miles and can be road-mobile when fired from a Transporter Erector Launcher.
Iran’s silence surrounding the failed test contrasts with the braggadocio surrounding previous missile launches, like that of its precision-guided Emad last October and the updated Ghadr F and H in March of this year. Still, that does not mean the test was for naught. Missile tests do more than just bolster deterrence – they allow Iran to assess the operability of its missile arsenal and any mechanical or technological shortcomings.
Given Iran’s missile history, even a failed test provides Tehran with critical information on how well a platform preforms, whether any domestically produced systems require reconfiguring, and what components still must be procured from abroad. A recent German intelligence report underscored the final point, noting Iran’s illicit procurement of ballistic missile technology throughout 2015 – the year the JCPOA was announced.
While the JCPOA makes no mention of missiles, the UNSC resolution that endorsed it contains one clause temporarily restricting Iranian activities related to nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The ban comes with an expiry date despite a U.S. intelligence assessment that ballistic missiles would be Iran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons.”
Still, some analysts have downplayed Iran’s recent missile tests, writing them off as attempts by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which oversees Tehran’s missile command, to undermine the nuclear deal and any attempts by President Hassan Rouhani at rapprochement with the West. Such assessments, however, suffer from two flaws.
First, a month after the deal, Rouhani attended the unveiling of the Fateh-313 short-range ballistic missile, giving his implicit seal of approval to further ballistic-missile tests. Second, in the talks that led to the JCPOA, it was Iran’s own negotiating team – one led by Rouhani allies but in regular contact with the supreme leader – that insisted that ballistic missiles remain off the table.
To counter Iran’s ballistic missile threat, the U.S. should combine existing international restrictions on procurement with sector-specific sanctions on industries that fuel Tehran’s missile power. Iran has already promised to test advanced solid-fueled ballistic missiles next year, and its missile launches – whether successful or not – underscore that it is determined to ramp up the quality of what is already the Middle East’s largest ballistic-missile arsenal. Last week’s test is yet another reminder that one year on, the nuclear deal has left Iran with not only an intact enrichment program, but an increasingly powerful and more precise vehicle for delivering nuclear weapons.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a non-resident Iran research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies