Limit Iran's missiles? Sure, but first come up with a plan

Critics of the Iran nuclear deal have consistently argued that one of its major flaws is that it didn’t address Tehran’s ballistic missile program. Imposing limits on those weapons of terror, opponents of the deal say, is a primary U.S. objective and should have been part of our negotiating strategy with the Iranians from the beginning.

I certainly agree with the first part, but I’m not buying the second. It’s not because I believe, as many others seem to, that talking missiles with Tehran would have overwhelmed the nuclear conversation and reduced the chances of reaching a deal. Instead, it’s because we were not ready at the time, nor are we now, to have that conversation with Tehran.

If we’re going to open that can of worms—which in fact, we should—we had better be fully prepared. Negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran was incredibly difficult, but reaching a compromise on Iran’s ballistic missile program will be twice as hard for at least three reasons.

First, unlike its nuclear program, which was mostly about national pride and partly about economics and blackmail, Iran’s missiles are a huge and integral part of the regime’s national security, and even psyche. To limit the missiles would require a complete overhaul by Tehran of its national defense strategy. Missiles are the sine qua non of Iranian deterrence. Had Iran not possessed missiles during its eight year war with Iraq, Saddam Hussein would have kept pounding Tehran until it capitulated. Firing back at Baghdad stopped the Iraqi attacks and established a solid deterrent. The strategic value of missiles in the minds of Iran’s leaders has risen considerably since the Iran-Iraq war.

Second, it’s easier to limit a weapons system or military capability that doesn’t exist than one that both exists and plays a significant role in national defense strategy. That’s arms control 101. There’s a reason why it’s infinitely harder to convince the North Koreans, for example, to disarm after they’ve lived with the bomb for years and integrated it into their security policies.

Third, we can apply all sorts of nasty labels to Iran’s missiles, but none of that changes the fact that missiles are considered a legitimate, conventional weapon. Sure, missiles can be employed offensively, but Iranian military doctrine has generally, but not always, treated missiles as a deterrent rather than as a surprise-attack weapon. One recent and notable exception is the Revolutionary Guard’s launching of several missiles into eastern Syria against ISIS in June 2017. The Iranians argued that the firing, the first directed at another country in three decades, was in retaliation for the twin terrorist attacks by Sunni extremists that rocked Tehran on Jun. 7.

How we persuade the Iranians to compromise will depend on our ability to apply intense pressure—like we did in the nuclear talks—and, equally as important, our willingness to provide a positive incentive. Sanctions and the threat of military action alone won’t work. Iran would rather go to war if all we bring to the table are sticks. There has to be a carrot.

But here’s the biggest problem we face: we’re not in a position to offer carrots that would be acceptable to us or to our regional partners.

If the Iranians signal to us through the Swiss or the Omanis that they’re willing to have a conversation about their missiles, their list of demands will most likely include one of the following: limitations on the offensive capabilities and specifically the striker aircraft of Israel and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf, downsizing of U.S. military bases in the region, and the establishment of comprehensive regional security talks.

The first, understandably, is a non-starter for our regional partners. The second is a non-starter for us, although there is merit in reconfiguring our force posture in the region. The third is a worthy goal and a reasonable request, but I’m not sure that U.S. diplomacy in the era of President Donald Trump can handle something so ambitious and so challenging. The last time we pursued this goal was in the early-to-mid 1990s following the Madrid peace talks. The arms control and regional security (ACRS) negotiations ultimately failed because it was extremely difficult for countries in the region to agree on anything of real substance. We also probably made a mistake by excluding the Iranians from ACRS.

But just because it’s hard doesn’t mean that Washington shouldn’t bother trying. Arms control, in the most pragmatic, Schellingian sense, is the smartest and most effective tool to de-escalate tensions and improve security in the region. But we need strong U.S. leadership to make this work. I’m not confident, to put it mildly, that the Trump team is interested in pulling off something so complex. 

Let’s confront Iran on its deadly missiles, but first let’s credibly plan for what would be a much tougher round of negotiations and a much more rigid Iranian mindset. There’s no point in talking and embarrassing ourselves if our ability to negotiate and offer something in return, beyond war, is nonexistent.

Photo by: Mohsen Shandiz/Corbis via Getty Images

Sanctions and the threat of military action alone won’t work.