Precision Fire: A Strategic Assessment of Iran’s Conventional Missile Program

On Friday, September 23, 12:00 – 2:00 p.m., the Atlantic Council hosted a discussion of a new issue brief by Middle East Peace and Security Initiative senior fellow and director Bilal Y. Saab, and International Institute for Strategic Studies consulting senior fellow Michael Elleman, entitled Precision Fire: A Strategic Assessment of Iran’s Conventional Missile Program. The report revealed a possible shift in Iranian conventional missile policy, with a greater focus on developing more precise missiles that could enable Iran to project offensive capabilities in the Gulf and hit high value targets. The panel discussed the implications of this shift in a post-JCPOA climate, analyzing the ambiguity this may create for US policy towards Iran, the impact on defense cooperation among Arab Gulf states, and the questions this raises for the US-Gulf partnerships.

Joining Elleman and Saab in this discussion were Kelsey Davenport, director for nonproliferation policy at the Arms Control Association, and Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, president of Gryphon Partners and former US ambassador to Iraq and to Afghanistan. Vice Admiral John W. “Fozzie” Miller, former commander of the US Naval Forces Central Command, US Fifth Fleet, and Combined Maritime Forces, moderated the panel.

Ambassador Khalilzad remarked on the importance of Iran’s conventional missile program to its strategic vision. “The missiles are part of a program to be able to do asymmetric damage to its adversaries,” Khalilzad stated, “with the purposes of deterrence” and with the potential of pursuing conflict on its own terms, in the future. Commenting on the findings of the report, Khalilzad highlighted that increased missile range and precision “would give Iran more options compared to the capabilities they have now, which complicates responses and puts more pressure on the [Gulf states, as] defenders.” Khalizad emphasized that the Gulf states would be required to adapt to the challenges posed by more accurate Iranian missiles. In explaining this, Khalilzad articulated the need for greater defense cooperation among Gulf states, including the possibility of missile defense integration. Khalilzad noted, however, that the prospect of such an outcome is unlikely, due to the “issue of trust.”

Davenport brought to the audience’s attention that the JCPOA deal does not impose restrictions on Iran’s conventional missile program. It is within this context that restrictions on Iran’s missile program have become more ambiguous, including the softening of language on testing in UN Resolution 2231, adopted in January 2016. Despite this, Davenport emphasized that “continuing support for the nuclear deal is paramount,” especially given that conventional weapons are not as destructive as when they are armed with nuclear warheads. Davenport highlighted the importance of strengthening and supporting the sanctions movement, as it can help stem the flow of materials being transferred to Iran that enable its missile development. When asked about the potential of Iran developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), Davenport questioned whether Iran has real intentions to do so. Davenport commented that Iran “hasn’t considered itself bound” by previous sanctions and UN resolutions, thus if Iran’s intentions were to develop an ICBM we would likely see greater evidence for it. Davenport noted, however, that we should not be complacent with Iran’s activities, “so that if they do choose that path, we have impediments in place.”

Elleman accentuated the trend that Iran is developing more precise and longer-range ballistic missiles, making progress on the levels of precision seen with its Fatah-110, and scud missiles. The implications of this would be that Iran could hit targets within the region more successfully. Despite this, increased missile accuracy and the ability to acquire targets is “an architectural project” that requires a certain degree of testing that we are not seeing today. The important thing for the US to do now, Elleman stated, is to “keep a watchful eye” on developments. On the topic of Iran’s ability to develop an ICBM, Elleman clarified that Iran does not currently use technology consistent with building one. “The only reason to have an ICBM is if you have nuclear weapons,” stated Elleman, so these two things would need to be “tracked together.” In response to Iran’s conventional missile program, Elleman reaffirmed the need for GCC states to work towards integrated air and missile defense. He noted that progress on this can only be made if the Gulf states define in detail what they want to defend, and to what degree they intend to do so.

Saab highlighted the importance of assessing intentions, when analyzing why Iran is developing more precise missile capabilities. Saab described Iran’s tradition of using missiles to augment its defense deterrence, but, he stated, we need to explore scenarios in which Iran intends to use these missiles “for more than deterrence.” In explaining this, Saab emphasized Iran’s interest in elevating its status within the region, and in testing the cohesion of the GCC, the strength of the partnership between the United States and the Gulf states, and the threshold of US regional engagement. Saab made the case that this trend in Iran’s missile capabilities would allow it to test these interests, without necessarily causing escalation. More precise and accurate missiles would allow Iran to target high-value Gulf assets that may not necessarily lead to an “automatic” US response, and thus would enable Iran to assert itself without strong repercussions. Saab finished by emphasizing the need for the US and the Gulf states to carefully analyze their policy options in case of such Iranian intentions. The panel closed with a question and answer session with the audience.

Image: John W. “Fozzie” Miller, Kelsey Davenport, Zalmay Khalilzad, Michael Elleman, and Bilal Saab discuss the implications of Iran’s evolving conventional missile program.