Beyond Missile Defense: Alternative Means to Address Iran's Ballistic Missile Threat

By Pomper, Miles A.; Harvey, Cole J. | Arms Control Today, October 2010 | Go to article overview

Beyond Missile Defense: Alternative Means to Address Iran's Ballistic Missile Threat


Pomper, Miles A., Harvey, Cole J., Arms Control Today


Since the 1980s, Iran has been actively developing a ballistic missile capability, beginning with imports of Scud missiles and leading up to its current development of the solid-fueled Sajjil-2. The Sajjil-2, which was first flight-tested in 2008, is expected to have a range of approximately 2,200 kilometers, putting targets in southeastern Europe, in Russia, and across the Arabian Peninsula within reach of Iranian missiles. An earlier liquid-fueled missile, the Ghadr-1, can reach Turkey, Israel, and southern Russia with its 1,600-kilometer range.1

The increasing sophistication and range of Iranian ballistic missiles have caused alarm in Washington, which has developed elaborate missile defense plans to counter the threat. Yet, the technical feasibility of ballistic missile defense is debatable, and its contribution to missile nonproliferation is questionable. Fortunately, it is not the only tool available to states concerned about Iran's missile program.

Supplements or alternatives to missile defense include layered mechanisms designed to hamper the supply of missilerelated components. National export control laws are the first line of defense, which can be augmented and coordinated through multilateral export forums such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). UN Security Council sanctions can expand the reach of export controls by banning the supply of certain components under international law and lending international legitimacy to the effort. When sanctions and export controls fail, legal interdictions can be used to curtail illicit shipments of contraband materials to Iran and other states of concern.

Limiting the supply of crucial missile components is an important aspect of constraining the Iranian missile program, but it is not the sole aspect. Regional defense agreements and security guarantees can mitigate the threat perceived by neighboring states and deter the use of Iran's existing missiles. Ultimately, a zone free of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the Middle East could facilitate removal of the missiles themselves from the region. The 2002 Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, by providing for limited confidence-building and transparency measures, can be a useful first step in limiting ballistic missile proliferation in the Middle East. In the long term, with sufficient confidence building and verification, states could agree to eliminate medium-range ballistic missiles as the United States and Soviet Union agreed to do with intermediaterange ballistic missiles in 1987.

Curtailing Supply

Despite Iran's growing manufacturing and technical competence, its missile program still relies on imports of essential components. Because Tehran cannot manufacture its missiles entirely indigenously, international export controls, sanctions, and interdictions can slow the development and production of Iranian missiles and limit their range and effectiveness.

Iran does not have the technical capacity to build up its ballistic missile forces based solely on domestic production. As the 2009 report to Congress by the director of national intelligence (DNI) stated, "Iran still remains dependent on foreign suppliers for some key missile components."2

For example, there is no evidence that Iran possesses the technology necessary to manufacture the large-diameter, flow-formed pressure tanks and large, composite pressure vessels necessary to construct larger, long-range missiles.3 It also appears that Iran continues to import whole engines, or at least critical engine components, for its liquid-fueled missiles.4 Likewise, there is no evidence to suggest that Iran has the capability to develop or produce the individual components of ballistic missile guidance systems.5

In order to expand the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile arsenal and the range and accuracy of the missiles themselves, Iran will need to import components.

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Beyond Missile Defense: Alternative Means to Address Iran's Ballistic Missile Threat
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