Iran Test Fires Nuclear-Capable Ballistic Missile in Apparent Violation of U.N. Resolutions

October 15, 2015

Publication Type: 

  • Policy Briefs

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Author: 

Simon Chin and Valerie Lincy

Iran’s Defense Ministry announced the successful test of a new ballistic missile on October 11.  The test is an apparent violation of U. N. Security Council resolutions and raises troubling questions about Iran’s strategic intentions even after it accepted an international agreement restricting its nuclear program in July. 

The missile, called the “Emad” (Pillar), is an upgraded version of Iran’s liquid-fueled Shahab-3 and could serve as a means of delivering nuclear weapons.  According to Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehqan, the Emad is the country’s “first long-range missile … capable of hitting and destroying the targets with high-precision.”[1] 

The Emad, according to defense analysts, represents a significant advance in accuracy over Iran’s Shahab-3 missile.  In a report last December, Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies assessed that the Emad has a 1,700 kilometer range with a 750 kilogram payload and 500 meter accuracy (circular error probable).[2]  This is a marked improvement over the Shahab-3’s CEP of approximately 2,000 meters.  According to Dr. Cordesman, the Emad is equipped with a maneuvering reentry vehicle system and satellite navigation for improved accuracy.  Uzi Rubin, the former head of Israel’s Missile Defense Organization, wrote in an e-mail that “the Emad signifies a quantum leap in Iran’s strategic capability.  It can now launch precision attacks on military and value targets anywhere in the Middle East.”  Mr. Rubin also noted that the Emad’s reported 500-meter CEP “could be improved.”

A State Department spokesman called the test “deeply concerning” and said that it “does appear to be a violation of U.N. Security Council resolution 1929, and we'll obviously raise this at the [Security Council] as we have done with previous launches."[3]  Resolution 1929, which remains in force until the nuclear agreement’s “Implementation Day” (expected in early 2016), bans “any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches.”[4]

The Emad’s reported technical specifications meet the Missile Technology Control Regime’s definition of a “nuclear capable” missile (a 300 kilometer range with a 500 kilogram payload).[5]  Iranian official statements after the test, however, have emphasized that the missile test does not violate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which will supersede the existing Iran-related resolutions on Implementation Day.  Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Marziyeh Afkham said on October 13 that “Iran’s missile test is no violation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action at all and there is no reference in the JCPOA to Iran’s defensive power, including missiles.”[6]

Indeed, the missile test does not appear to violate the JCPOA or the new U.N. resolution 2231.  Using weaker language than U.N. resolution 1929, the new U.N. resolution seeks to restrict only “activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons” (emphasis added).  Ms. Afkham, the Foreign Ministry spokesperson, told Fars News Agency that Iran’s ballistic missiles have not been designed to carry nuclear warheads.[7]  Iran is interpreting the resolution as referring to missiles explicitly designed for nuclear delivery rather than dual purpose missiles.  Of course, as Mr. Rubin noted writing for Defense News on October 5, “many ballistic missiles that have been mainly built for conventional missions, such as the ex-Soviet Scud, are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.”[8]  Furthermore, the section in U.N. resolution 2231 referring to Iran’s ballistic missile activity uses non-mandatory language—the Security Council is merely exhorting Iran (“Iran is called upon”) to refrain from such activity. 

In his official statement celebrating the successful test of the Emad, Iranian Defense Minister Dehqan singled out the contributions of the Aerospace Industries Organization (AIO), the entity that oversees Iran’s missile development and production.  AIO has been sanctioned by the European Union and the United States and will remain under E.U. and U.S. sanctions even after the JCPOA is implemented.  While AIO is not on the U.N. sanctions list, U.N. sanctions will remain in place on two of AIO’s principal subsidiaries, the Shahid Hemat Industrial Group (SHIG) – responsible for Iran’s liquid-fueled missiles – and the Shahid Bagheri Industrial Group (SBIG), for up to eight years.  Yet even as these firms remain blacklisted, governments must be vigilant for ongoing illicit procurement by them via front companies, many of which do not appear on any sanctions list.

Finally, this test stands out because of its timing.  It comes following a pause of nearly two years since Iran’s last known medium-range ballistic missile test and days before the Iranian parliament passed a motion endorsing the nuclear agreement on October 13.  White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest called the timing “no coincidence.”[9]

 

Footnotes: 

[1] "Iran Successfully Test-fires New Home-Made Long-Range Missile," Fars News Agency October 11, 2015, http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13940719000427

[2] Anthony H. Cordesman, Iran's Rocket and Missile Forces and Strategic Options, Center for Strategic and International StudiesDecember 2014, http://csis.org/files/publication/141218_Cordesman_IranRocketMissileForces_Web.pdf

[3] State Department Spokesman Mark Toner's Comments on Iranian Ballistic Missile Test, October 13, 2015, http://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/department-state/state-department-spokesman-mark-toners-comments-iranian-ballistic-missile-test

[4] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1929, /library/multilateral-organizations/united-nations/un-security-council/resolution-1929-2010

[5] "Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs), Missile Technology Control Regime, http://mtcr.info/english/FAQ-E.html

[6] "FM Spokeswoman: N. Agreement Not to Affect Iran's Defensive Capabilities," Fars News Agency, October 13, 2015, http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13940721000994

[7] "FM Spokeswoman: N. Agreement Not to Affect Iran's Defensive Capabilities," Fars News Agency, October 13, 2015, http://en.farsnews.com/newstext.aspx?nn=13940721000994

[8] Uzi Rubin, "The Nuclear Agreement Boosts Iran's Missile Threat," Defense News, October 5, 2015, http://www.defensenews.com/story/defense/commentary/2015/10/05/nuclear-agreement-boosts-irans-missile-threat/73388484/

[9] White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest's Comments on Iranian Ballistic Missile Test, October 13, 2015, http://www.iranwatch.org/library/governments/united-states/executive-branch/white-house/white-house-press-secretary-josh-earnests-comments-iranian-ballistic-missile-test