January 11, 2016 | Policy Brief

Sanctions Delay Lets Tehran Expand Missile Power

January 11, 2016 | Policy Brief

Sanctions Delay Lets Tehran Expand Missile Power

As the international nuclear deal with Iran nears its implementation phase, Tehran is preparing for sanctions relief. However, the Islamic Republic has already been reaping dividends from relief of another sort. 

In late December, the Obama administration deferred issuing Treasury Department penalties for Iranian ballistic missile launches – launches that breached UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions – after Tehran denounced the proposed penalties as violations of the nuclear accord.

The postponement breaches the administration’s pledge that the continued violation of non-nuclear sanctions would remain subject to sanctions notwithstanding the deal agreed upon in July. In fact, given that both leading Democrats and Republicans have raised the ballistic-missile transgressions in Congress, the only explanation for the delay appears to be an adoption of Iran’s narrative that the penalties would constitute a violation of the accord.

Since the nuclear agreement was signed last summer, Tehran has escalated its work on ballistic missiles. In August, it unveiled an upgraded short-range ballistic missile, and months later, twice tested medium-range ballistic missiles capable of carrying unconventional payloads.

A UN panel of experts reported last month that the first launch, featuring the precision-guided Emad missile, was a violation of UNSC resolution 1929. That resolution is slated to remain in force until abrogated on the deal’s imminent “Implementation Day” by the UNSC resolution 2231. Critics of the deal fear that the latter resolution is watered down, with Tehran merely “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles … capable of delivering nuclear weapons” for eight years. Nonetheless, given that the language was included in a binding, unanimously passed UNSC resolution, Washington should treat the prohibition on ballistic-missile activity as binding as well.

Meanwhile, entities active in the production of missiles like the Emad are slated to be delisted by the European Union in eight years or potentially sooner. These include entities linked to Iran’s Ministry of Defense and its sprawling subsidiaries.

Moreover, while the leaders of Iran’s missile program often tout their “self-sufficiency,” their program still remains susceptible to external pressure, like targeting foreign front companies and supply chains. Treasury’s decision to add entities and individuals in the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong to the now-delayed sanctions package is most likely aimed at plugging that loophole.

Even with those new measures, however, the effect of delaying the ballistic-missiles sanctions is already apparent. Last week, IRGC-linked outlets revealed a missile depot 500 meters underground housing Emad missiles. And more plans are in the works: Iranian officials recently declared their desire to strengthen the accuracy, power, and range of the country’s ballistic missile arsenal. 

If the U.S. is serious about continuing to target Iran’s other “non-nuclear” threats – chiefly terrorism and ballistic missiles – then gutting the financial foundation of its nuclear-capable missiles is the best path forward. Delaying the ballistic-missile sanctions sets a dangerous precedent, signaling to Iranian leaders that the U.S. will not punish them for violating obligations predating the nuclear accord. Washington must stand firm against Iran’s repeated ballistic missile transgressions, or Tehran will have no incentive to change course.

Behnam Ben Taleblu is a Nonresident Iran Research Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. 


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