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Why Iran Wants So Many Ballistic Missiles

Unlike Iran’s nuclear program, the country’s arsenal of ballistic missiles has received only scant scholarly attention. At best, some highly technical analyses have been offered. At worst, the missiles have been considered only as part of the nuclear project, designed to carry nuclear warheads.


The signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) in July 2015 has made this task more urgent. With the nuclear program rolled back, Iran’s missiles have become a new target of international attention. The ballistic program is run by the Revolutionary Guards, which has been subject to numerous sanctions because of its alleged terror activities.


The focus is especially intense in Washington, where the Obama administration’s drive to conclude the nuclear accord was divisive. For instance, some critics urged imposing a new round of sanctions on Iran to curb its missile program. Others suggested using American anti–ballistic missile defense capabilities in the region to target Iranian ballistic trials. According to this rational, denying the Revolutionary Guards the ability to test missiles would disrupt its research and development opportunities.


Both courses of action have potentially far-reaching consequences. Slapping more sanctions may prompt Tehran to abrogate the JCPOA. Intercepting the missiles of a sovereign country violates international law and may lead to a huge conflagration in the Middle East and beyond. Given the high-level stakes of these policies, an analysis of Iran’s rationale for developing its ballistic arsenal is in order.


Intentional-relations theory indicates that the decisions that drive the proliferation of nuclear weapons are quite similar to those that prompt the quest for a ballistic-missile program. Both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles are instruments of power that may be used as deterrent or compellent threats. They both serve to enhance the security of a state through raw power. As John Mearsheimer, a leading realist theorist, put it, states always strive to maximize their power over their rivals, with hegemony as their ultimate objective.


A large body of research indicates that states make rational choices when deciding to proliferate or acquire a ballistic arsenal. In the case of Iran, however, discussions of the regime’s motives are underpinned by rational choice theory of varying degrees of rigor. At best, some analysts seek to apply the restrictive mathematical basis of formal rational-choice models; at worst, it is a projection of the authors’ views of what rational behavior should be.


Absent conclusive evidence to prove or disprove either side, the discourse has turned into a profession of faith. As one observer put it, when it comes to Iran, rationality or lack of it is in the “eye of the beholder.”


Developing indigenous missile and anti-missile systems has been a key components of Iran's deterrence strategy. The regional tension between Iran and its powerful neighbors goes a long way toward explaining why Iran feels the need for greater defense capabilities. Iran was forced to consider nuclear and ballistic options because of its long and bloody war with Iraq, which had a profound role in shaping Iran’s strategic thinking.


Click here to learn more about Iran and ballistic missiles.