Iran’s New Missile Production Line May Provide Ammunition for Trump to Trash the JCPOA

Iran’s New Missile Production Line May Provide Ammunition for Trump to Trash the JCPOA
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On July 22, amid heightened tensions between Tehran and Washington, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards announced that it had established a new missile production line of surface-to-air missiles dubbed “Sayyad 3.” The announcement came a few days after the United States hit Tehran with new sanctions over its ballistic missile program. On July 18, only one day after the Trump administration certified to Congress that Iran is technically in compliance with the nuclear agreement, the administration imposed new sanctions on 18 Iranian individuals and entities over non-nuclear behavior, such as ballistic missiles development.

The sanctions include seven entities and five individuals that according to the US Treasury Department, engaged in “activities in support of Iran’s military or Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” The list includes “an Iran-based transnational criminal organization and three associated persons.” In addition to aiding Iran’s military procurement, the “networks” helped the Revolutionary Guard to develop unmanned aerial vehicles and “fast attack boats.”

When Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan announced the new line of production, few, if any, media outlets mentioned that this particular missile is not in violation of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which calls upon Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.” Essentially, the new resolution complicated the effort to define what missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear payload. According to the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal group that works on nuclear-capable missile technology, missiles with a range of 300 kilometers and a payload of five hundred kilograms can deliver a nuclear payload.

The new Sayyad 3 missile can reach an altitude of 27 km and travel up to a distance of 120 km, target different types of aircraft and cruise missiles, and reportedly has been designed based on the world's latest technology, although still falls short of reaching the ballistic missile level. According to Dehghan, the Sayyad 3 can “engage different types of threats, such as radar evasive fighter planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, cruise missiles, helicopters, as well as various types of modern aircraft of high maneuvering capabilities and speed… within the sphere of its operation.”

The Sayyad 3 is fitted with combined maneuvering capability, infrared capability, cutting-edge surveillance technology and electronic warfare defenses, however, by the MTCR standard, the missile is not nuclear capable and does not meet the range requirement of 300 km, well within the limits of Resolution 2231.

In other words, in spite of the rhetorical defiance, the Revolutionary Guards have been exceedingly careful not to push the envelope because of the stream of sanctions by Congress for non-nuclear offenses. During the Obama presidency, the Revolutionary Guards Aerospace Division, which is responsible for the ballistic program, had test fired missiles which apparently violated Resolution 2231 that was passed in conjunction with the JCPOA. After Donald Trump took office, on January 29, 2017, Michael T. Flynn, Trump's short-lived National Security Adviser, stated that Iran “was put on notice,” a threat which left little doubt that the United States would react more severely should Iran test another ballistic missile. Since then, Iran tested only one short range missile but within the limits of Resolution 2231.

Nevertheless, the Guards’ move- the announcement of the new production line- could be construed as defying the United States. Yet, the objective of the Sayyad 3 missile may be more psychological than kinetic; the regime probably believes that the missiles can deter and possibly intimidate its regional adversaries. Despite recent gains, Iran’s more advanced missiles remain unreliable to destroy specific military targets due to their inaccuracy. According to Israeli intelligence, of seven ground-to-ground mid-range Zulfiqar missiles fired by Iran at the ISIS-held Syrian city of Deir Azzour in response to the Tehran terror attacks, only two were reported to have reached their target, considered to be a definite failure.

Still, understanding why Iran feels the need for greater defense capabilities is important. In addition to the regional tensions between Iran and its powerful rivals, which ironically were architected by Iran itself, the recent arms deal between Washington and Saudi Arabia has received full attention from the Iranian officials. Dehghan pointed out that the recent $110 billion military deal between the United States and Saudi Arabia was intended as a threat to Iran. As he stated, “We recently witnessed an immense purchase that some countries in the region paid as a ransom to America and they intend to bring weapons into the region, and this purchase was done with the goal of threatening Islamic Iran.”

The multi-billion military aid package which included the Lockheed Martin-produced Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system, as well as other sophisticated military weapons that Washington promised to provide Riyadh, is not something that the Iranians can simply overlook. This massive arms sale was a clear indication that the Trump administration is seeking to put increased pressure on Iran.

Furthermore, the Iranians are extremely concerned about Trump possibly refusing to recertify the JCPOA when recertification comes up in 90 days. As on July 17, Trump was unquestionably reluctant when he certified the agreement; it is plausible to consider Trump refusing to recertify the pact and members of his administration could perhaps attempt to block the next certification even though the State Department, the Pentagon, and McMaster would object to this move.

In light of such a development, it might be a rational step on Iran’s part to invest in the development of a defensive missile production line like Sayyad 3 rather than larger range ballistic missiles, especially since investment in the latter is not cost-effective and may provoke more negative reactions from the White House. It is necessary for the Iranians to realize that, as they should try not to provide Trump with any new ammunition.

Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of IRAM.