Why does Iran have ballistic missiles?

According to US secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, the ballistic missiles tested last weekend by Iran  had the capability to incorporate several nuclear warheads and its range of action reached other Middle Eastern countries as well as Southern European countries. According to Pompeo, this action may represent a violation of UNSC resolution 2231, which forbids “any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”. Now, is this correct in legal terms? And which may be Iran’s ballistic missiles program aims or goals? All these issues will be addressed in the following commentary in order to unravel the multiple logics behind Iran’s ballistic missiles program.

Does Iran’s ballistic missiles test violate JCPOA?

Beyond the generated concern, the tests do not violate at all the UNSC resolution nor the JCPOA. If we carefully read the resolution we may observe that Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”, but not oblige to don’t test them. It is true that in comparison with previous resolutions, there has been a downgrading of Iran’s legal obligations to a simple appellation. So, based on this semantic change Iran justifies the development and test of its ballistic missiles. Beyond all the alarmism created by these tests, one should ask which interests may Iran have in attacking the US or Europe knowing that both have nuclear weapons and that they may retaliate. So, in this case we should better ask ourselves which are the reasons that force Iran to pursue its ballistic missiles program.

The logic behind Iran’s ballistic missiles program

Ballistic missiles are an essential part of Iran’s defense strategy and posture. Iran once possessed a large and modern American-built military. When relations with the US came to an end in 1979 after the Islamic Revolution, the US imposed an arms trade embargo that prevented Iran from upgrading its air force. Lacking the resources and technology, Iran turned to a Soviet-style military strategy to project force far away from its borders through missiles. This need became glaringly relevant during the Iran-Iraq War (1980 – 1988). One of Iran’s key lessons was that, absent a large air force capable of projecting power beyond Iran’s borders, a missile strategy would be the key for this projection. As a consequence, Iran sees this kind of weapons as a crucial part of its conventional defense system.

So, for Iran ballistic missiles act as a deterrent against regional adversaries and American allies, be it Israel or a Saudi-led Gulf coalition. It provides Iran’s only capability today to project force beyond its borders, and it also provides an effective way to supply proxies, such as Hezbollah and Hamas, who have enjoyed the largesse of Iranian rockets, training, and funding for years.


Taking into consideration these factors and the importance of ballistic missiles in Iran’s defense strategy, we may conclude that it will be very difficult and highly improbable to convince Iranians to stop the tests or destroy the missiles. Now, it is as well highly improbable that Iran uses them in an offensive way due to the possible retaliations. If the missiles are just used for positioning and project power, the international community will not do anything beyond publish statements and warnings.  At the same time, the JCPOA must be understood as the beginning of a path towards disarmament in the Middle East. Now that Iran has agreed to come back to the normative structure of the non-proliferation regime, doors are open in order to discuss in a comprehensive way the possibility of further disarmament in the region.


Manuel Herrera, Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies (Nueva Delhi, India)

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Responsibility for the information and views set out in this publication lies entirely with the author.