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As Iran’s missile program expands, so do challenges of confrontation

Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif speaking from a lectern
Iranian Foreign Minister Zarif at the Munich Security Conference. Photo: Tobias Hase/picture alliance via Getty Images

At the Munich Security Conference last week, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif stressed the Islamic Republic’s right to “sophisticated means of defense,” alluding to the ballistic missiles whose flight tests and transfers the Trump administration has sought to curb.

Why it matters: Multiple U.S. intelligence community assessments have judged Iran’s ballistic missile arsenal to be large and diverse. Some have even assessed that ballistic missiles would be Tehran’s “preferred method of delivering nuclear weapons, if it builds them.”

Background: The Islamic Republic’s interest in ballistic missiles is a direct result of its experience during the Iran-Iraq War, when Scud missile strikes by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq prompted the Ayatollahs to acquire similar weapons in order to repel Iraqi aggression.

Between the lines: Missiles (of all sorts) feature prominently in Iran’s security and defense doctrine, but they also enable the regime to continue its foreign meddling with little fear of direct retaliation.

What’s next: Iran’s work on its missile program continues unabated. In addition to twice testing satellite and space launch vehicles — which the National Air and Space Intelligence Center says “could shorten a pathway to an ICBM because space launch vehicles (SLV) use inherently similar technologies” — in 2019 alone, Iran recently revealed a subterranean missile factory.

The bottom line: The current diversity of Iran’s missile program — encompassing several classes of liquid- and solid-fueled short- and medium-range ballistic missiles — allows it to deliver both conventional and unconventional payloads with greatly varying ranges and levels of precision. As Zarif’s bombast suggests, Iran’s attachment to this force — for strategicpolitical and ideological reasons — raises the bar for the U.S. in confronting the Iranian missile challenge.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.