Iran’s recent test firing of a new guided ballistic missile tested Washington’s response to the development of its next phase of missiles ahead of the implementation of the nuclear deal.
The launch last week also sent a message to adversaries locked in a regional cold war with Tehran.
Over the past seven months Iran has unveiled a number of new missiles that it says are equipped with precision guidance systems, and one that can reach as far as Israel — a significant step up from its existing ballistic missiles — and that could potentially be developed to carry nuclear warheads.
US officials condemned the test of the Emad missile, and said that it violated an existing UN Security Council resolution, though stopped short of calling it a violation of the agreement over Iran's nuclear programme.
“The United States is deeply concerned” about the launch of a missile “inherently capable of delivering a nuclear weapon”, the US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, said. “This was a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929.”
That resolution, passed in 2010, bans Iran from testing any ballistic missiles, but US officials have said the test did not violate the resolution that will replace it — resolution 2231 — when the nuclear deal is implemented. 2231 stipulates that Iran will be “called upon” to not develop missile technology designed specifically to launch nuclear weapons for at least eight years.
Ms Power’s statement suggest US officials will interpret any Iranian missiles which can potentially carry a nuclear warhead as a violation of the deal, whereas Iranian officials will probably insist that only those missiles specifically equipped to carry an atomic bomb are banned under the deal to lift sanctions in exchange for limits on Tehran’s nuclear programme. But so far there has been no action in the Security Council to probe the alleged violation.
Iran has invested heavily in its ballistic missile programme, one of the only areas where it can challenge regional rivals in conventional military terms, and thus forms the core of its deterrent capability. It appears set to increase and upgrade its missile programme even before sanctions on it are lifted, which could be a central point of contention with the US over the life of the accord.
Analysts said the latest test of the medium-range Emad was in part a test of how the US would react to technological developments that pose serious concern to its regional partners.
“This would seem to suggest that they’re going to be proceeding with both conventional and nuclear capable missile programmes, but the real takeaway is that this was a test of western resolve,” said Thomas Karako, director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank.
“We’ve seen that western resolve in the face of this technical violation is not that great” he said, adding that “this is one of the first test cases for how we’re going to handle the second and the third and iterative violations of more substantive things”.
The US president, Barack Obama, said on Friday that “Iran has often violated some of the prohibitions surrounding missile testing” and that “we are going to have to continue to put pressure on them through the international community”.
The Emad was launched hours before Iran’s parliament voted in support of the nuclear agreement, and was also likely intended as a message by Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps to hardliners in parliament and elsewhere that the restrictions the nuclear deal puts in place will not force Iran to forfeit upgrading its military capabilities.
The tests are also a signal to Iran’s rival Saudi Arabia. “They are trying to flex muscles and send messages that we are a powerful nation and have all these capabilities,” said Riad Kahwaji, CEO of the Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis security consultancy in Dubai. “Iran is involved in many conflicts in the region that the GCC is countering”, such as in Syria and Yemen, “and GCC states have taken a more bold approach to dealing with Iran — it’s no longer just condemnation, now it is direct confrontation.”
Gulf countries spent almost 28 times more on their combined militaries than Iran between 2007 and 2014, and bought more than $100 billion worth of advanced weapons from the US and Europe in 2012 alone. But Iran's revealing of new precision technologies is part of its deterrence strategy.
In March, Iran tested its first cruise missile, the Soumar, and in late August tested the Fateh-313, a new ballistic missile with an alleged range of 500 km.
In the past, Iran’s missile arsenal has been largely imprecise and unguided, posing a “terror” threat to nearby Gulf countries more than a strategic threat.
But over the past decade, it has steadily developed more precise technology, and the latest missiles, including the low-flying cruise missiles, would pose a much greater threat to military and oil installations.
The Emad is equipped with a re-entry vehicle that carries the warhead and separates from the rocket at the apex of its trajectory in space, and then can notionally be guided towards a target.
“It is the first maneuvering, steerable re-entry vehicle that we’ve ever seen from the Iranians,” said Jeremy Binnie, Middle East editor for IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly. From pictures of the Emad, both nose fins and internal thrusters are visible but a key question remains over which aspect is primarily responsible for steering the re-entry vehicle. The thrusters may only be used to help the two components of the missile separate or for stability, but if they are used for steering, this would allow it to maneuver while still in space and potentially throw off the targeting calculations of any defensive interceptor missiles, according to Mr Binnie. The fins alone may only be able to steer the missile in a limited way and would pose less of a problem for defences.
While the Emad would primarily pose a threat to Israel, the technological development is likely to be adapted to shorter range ballistic missiles such as the Qiam, Mr Binnie said.
Analysts cautioned that fuller intelligence assessments would be necessary before accepting the Iranian military officials’ claims about the new missiles. But in recent annual reports on foreign missile developments, the US has credited the Iranians with developing more accurate guidance systems.
If missile technology sanctions are lifted after eight years, other anti-proliferation agreements will prevent countries from selling long-range missile systems to Iran. But Iran will be able to upgrade many components that will make capabilities like radar-evading cruise missiles even more potent. “Iran is very far advanced in its own indigenous missile programme so it doesn’t really need the whole missile system per se, what it needs is technologies to plug into its existing systems to improve them,” Mr Binnie said.
Iran’s new capabilities — and the minuscule response times — are increasing the importance of a linked missile defence umbrella in the GCC, the analysts said. The US is working with GCC countries on an early-warning system for the region that would allow the best placed radars to warn intended targets, even in neighbouring countries. The UAE will also be the first country outside of the US with the THAAD missile defence system that can intercept ballistic missiles in space and adds a crucial layer of defence. Saudi Arabia and Qatar are also interested in purchasing the system.
The US State Department on Tuesday approved the sale of new combat ships equipped with missile defence systems to Saudi Arabia, and Mr Khawaji said Gulf countries are in talks with the US on purchasing Aegis ship-based systems.