Iran’s not so defensive missile program
IRGC officials and Majles speaker Mohammad Bagher Ghalibaf during an IRGC Air Force exhibition in Tehran. Fars News/M. Sadegh Nikgostar

Last month, within a span of one week, Iran carried out missile strikes on three sovereign nations—Iraq, Pakistan, and Syria—citing reasons of defending against “terrorism” and safeguarding its “security” interests. Unsurprisingly, these attacks come less than three months after the UN restrictions on Iran’s missile program expired on October 18, 2023 (that were part of the UNSCR 2231 that endorsed the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or Nuclear Deal). Beyond the immediate political consequences, these attacks raise fundamental and challenging questions about the country’s missile program, which has grown highly controversial over the last decade due to its contentious use and indiscriminate proliferation, majorly to Hezbollah (Lebanon), the Houthis (Yemen), Iran-controlled militias in Iraq and militant Palestinian groups, including Hamas.

In the past year, Iran targeted the Kurdish region in Iraq, claiming it aimed to eliminate a Mossad headquarters. Earlier, in 2020, Iran struck the Ukrainian civilian airliner Flight 752 with its ballistic missiles, killing 176 people, including 82 Iranians. The same week, Iran launched ballistic missiles onto the US base Ain al-Assad in western Iraq as a retaliation for the killing of IRGC commander Qassem Soleimani. Therefore, while Iran’s use of missiles to achieve strategic objectives is not unprecedented, the current episode highlights the grave concerns regarding the missile program within the region. Three discernible implications emerge from these concerning trends:

Firstly, the current events will likely lead to a security dilemma in the region where Iran’s neighbors would need to arm themselves to check against its rising influence. The delicate balance that currently keeps conflicts under control will likely be disturbed as regional powers, particularly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, would be promoted to develop their arsenals. Saudi Arabia has already taken steps in this direction. Riyadh also happens to be the second-largest importer of arms in the world (and the topmost importer in the region). Likewise, the UAE has been investing in defense purchases, being the region’s fourth-largest arms importer. The perseverance of Abu Dhabi in procuring the F-35 combat aircraft is also a case in point. All this effectually suggests an impending arms race in the region, making the already complex regional rivalries even more tumultuous and challenging to manage. In this regard, the Iran-Saudi reproachment that took place in March last year will also be put to the test. Meanwhile, Israel would need to reconsider its strategy if attacks continue and expand into mainland Israeli territory, which, in all likelihood, includes exploring the viability of direct strikes at Iran.

Secondly, the attacks would change how Iran’s missile program is perceived internationally and within the region. The indiscriminate attacks have further delegitimized Iran’s claim that its missile program is solely defensive. The international community is bound to second-guess Iran’s show of good faith in dealing with its nuclear program, particularly in the context of the Nuclear Deal. The JCPOA, which has been in limbo for years, would face even slimmer chances of revival. It is noteworthy that the Trump administration, while withdrawing from the JCPOA, criticized the exclusion of Iran’s missile program from the original deal. This not only confirms the suspicions of JCPOA critics but also underscores the foresight of the Trump administration. While debates on Iran’s nuclear program provide insights into its future behavior, the threats from the ballistic missile program are immediate, tangible, and currently impacting everyone in the region. For such reasons, any future deal with Iran, including the potential revival of the JCPOA, would now need to consider Iran’s irresponsible and indiscriminate use of missiles.

Thirdly, the attack brings attention to more significant concerns of missile proliferation, particularly to the Iranian proxies in the region. One sees proliferation occurring both in terms of the physical transfer of weapons (and parts) and the sharing of technological expertise. Currently, Iranian proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, and Yemen are utilizing the missiles and drone technology either procured or manufactured by Iranian support, causing civilian causalities throughout the region. Whether it’s Hamas and Hezbollah targeting Israel or the Houthis in the Red Sea attacking the shipping routes having worldwide ramifications, the missiles are prompting this escalation, which is striking, even by the standards of the Middle East.

Hitherto, the ongoing attempts to restrict the activities of proxy groups and their missile arsenals have proven ineffective. The retaliatory attacks by Pakistan in Iran’s south-eastern Sistan-Baluchistan province and the US conducting similar strikes against Iran-controlled proxy groups in Iraq have not imposed any meaningful costs. Similarly, the efforts to prevent attacks at sea from the Houthis had inadequate success. Even despite Israel’s multiple strikes on missile manufacturing units in Syrian borders, there has been no significant impact on the proliferation or dissuading these groups from using such weapons. What this means effectively is that, as of now, efforts to halt or deter proliferation remain limited. Meanwhile, the proxy groups and Iran can impose significant costs on their targets without meaningful consequences that could deter their activities.

Ultimately, the recent attacks by Iran have profoundly eroded trust and legitimacy, if any existed, in Iran’s missile program. Despite Iran’s claims of these pre-emptive actions being defensive and its “legitimate and legal right,” they cannot conceal the fact that they violated international law and heightened regional insecurity. All this has solidified the concerns of critics of Iran’s missile program, who had hypothesized about its devastating potential. In practice, however, the implications of the program are more immediate and far-reaching than critics could have articulated.

About the Author
Prabhat Jawla serves as a Non-Resident Researcher at the Middle East Institute, New Delhi (MEI@ND), concurrently undertaking doctoral studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, India.
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