Written by Dennis M. Nilsen exclusively for SouthFront
The United States and its (ever dwindling number of) allies have since the erection of the Islamic Republic in 1979 continually faulted the Iranian state for a series of behaviors which they argue prevent peace either to the region of the Middle East and Persian Gulf or – at any given moment when liberal statesmen and theorists become particularly vexed – to the world order of states itself. The much maligned and much misunderstood ballistic missile program of the Islamic Republic currently holds pride of place as the key ingredient causing this Western indignation. Begun during the War of Holy Defense that commenced with the invasion of the newly declared Republic by Saddam Hussein in 1980, successive Iranian presidents have continued to devote a consistent percentage of the state’s annual budget to what they view as a key to the nation’s conventional deterrence.
It is accepted as a principle of the international order that sovereign states have the right to defend themselves from aggression, and a corollary to this principle is the right to create and deploy an arrangement of armed forces for this purpose. Deterrence, then, is the proper purpose for which these forces are created, although not a few states have waged aggressive war with the forces meant for defense. The Iranian Republic has continually stated that the missile systems deployed and under development are solely for the purpose of a conventional defense. Why then does the United States et al. continually harp on this facet of Iranian defense as a threat to peace here, there and everywhere? Is this assertion reasonable or not?
Ever since the signing of the JCPOA, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has continuously assured the co-signers of his country’s abiding by its limits but at the same time has argued (correctly) that the ballistic missile program falls outside its bounds. The US argues that the missiles under development are capable of carrying a nuclear payload, but Zarif has responded that it is not his country’s intention ever to build a nuclear weapon because they do not have a need and do not wish to further escalate an arms race in the region. Lastly, there exists the religious sanction on such a project which Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued, and which the rulers of the Islamic Republic are duty-bound to obey. Whether or not these are remonstrances made in good faith by Zarif is not the business of the US to judge, but the minister of state must be taken at his word. In fact, Iran has, according to the IAEA, upheld its part of the JCPOA while the US has not.
Accepting, then, that the Iranians will not place nuclear warheads on their missiles because they do not intend, through both religious and diplomatic strictures, to create them, is there any reason for the United States to oppose the program? What kind of missiles do the Iranians have? Which countries do they consider as potential enemies and against whom they would logically tailor their missiles?
The longest range of which the Iranians are possessed comes through the Sejjil (سجیل), which can hit targets at a 2,000-km range. The Sejjil and others like it serve primarily as a strategic deterrent with threat of force in numbers, although they can be used as tactical weapons, as seen in the 2017 Deir ez-Zor missile strike against ISIS. The shorter range ballistic missiles serve as tactical weapons designed for local advantage in theater- or battlefield-level operations.
This strategic missile deterrent is Iran’s answer to the threat of aerial bombardment which several of the country’s cities suffered during the Holy Defense. As Javad Zarif has pointed out many times, no country in the West has been subject to aerial attack with no critical means of defense as Iran was during that war. The proper defense against such weapons is an anti-missile system, but since this lays years in the future due to technological and funding limitations, the only means available for Iran to counter such a threat is through an offensive ballistic missile program built for strategic deterrence. With a large arsenal of accurate missiles able to hit targets within the borders of its geographically proximate potential enemies, Iran can assure itself if not of complete protection against a missile attack, at least of a promising counter-measure in the form of a high level of assured destruction of in-place military and infrastructure targets of the enemy. This arsenal will stand in the place of an interceptor until the Iranians themselves can produce one, as it is highly unlikely they can purchase the technology abroad from the Russians. The Russians have sold them the S-400 missile system but their interceptor technology is a state secret.
Large as the Iranians mean to make this arsenal, can it ever pose a threat to the territorial United States? Certainly not. To claim that Iran poses a threat to American soil is as outrageous as to say that Germany posed a threat to the US in the 1940s because of reports of the fabled “Amerika Bomber”. Iran has no reason to attack to the US, but it does have a reason to construct a deterrent against its Siamese twin the Zionist State which, unlike Iran, is a nuclear power and does possess an advanced multi-layered missile shield. Presently, this is the only way Iran can deter Israel from an attack on its nuclear facilities as well as be able to inflict significant damage on it should war erupt. The IRGC have promised that should this happen Israel will face a determined response from the Aerospace Forces.