Proactive Preparation: Now Is the Time to Counter Iran with Credible Ballistic Missile Defense
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Currently, Tehran lacks an ICBM program, but Iran successfully launched three satellites into space in February 2009, June 2011, and February 2012 using the Safir space launch vehicle.12 Multistage space launch vehicles can serve as test beds for developing long-range missiles; intermediate-range ballistic missiles and ICBMs share many similar technologies and pro cesses inherent in a space launch program. With ranges in excess of 5,500 kilometers (km) and 10,000 km, Iran could threaten targets throughout Europe and the United States, respectively. According to experts at the Congressional Research Service, “it seems clear that Iran has a dedicated space launch effort and it is not simply a cover for ICBM development.”13 That said— and although it would face additional technical hurdles in order to produce ICBMs— Iran has demonstrated “signifi cant progress in the exploitation of stage- separation technologies, which are critical to the development of longer- range ballistic missiles.”14
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The U.S. intelligence community’s annual threat assessment released in March 2013 states that while it is unclear whether Iran will decide to build a nuclear weapon, “Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to [do so] eventually.”5 Patrick Disney argues that “Iran should be considered to have a weapons capability today” because it has the ability to produce the necessary fissile material, the knowledge to weaponize this material, and the means to deliver a nuclear device.6 Whether this weapons capability will remain latent seems then to be entirely an issue of political will.
This seems to leave the question of intent open. However, there are many reasons to suspect that developing weapons is precisely what Iran intends to do. As just one of the latest examples, the International Atomic Energy Agency report of August 2013 cited “extensive and significant activities which have taken place at the location within the Parchin site” that prevented the agency from providing credible assurance that all nuclear material in Iran is being used for peaceful purposes.7 While there is no clear smoking gun, “there is reasonable evidence of a clandestine program.”8
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One does not have to believe in the inherent stabilizing power of nuclear weapons to think a nuclear Iran may be a manageable problem. For example, it is unclear “how exactly Iran will translate its nuclear capability into anything other than a central deterrent.”17 In this view, nuclear weapons would simply act to deter the United States from using its military power to topple the regime by complicating and increasing the cost of U.S. planning and intervention. It would not necessarily improve Iran’s ability to engage in coercive diplomacy, since presumably Iran would still be deterred by the threat of U.S. conventional and nuclear forces and would eschew regional or proxy adventurism.
But what if Iran does not act or react in traditional ways, or doubts the credibility of the United States and is therefore not deterred from a chosen course of action? While “the general theory of deterrence should apply eternally and universally,”18 most of what is known about deterrence stems from our experience in the Cold War. At its core, deterrence in practice is heavily dependent on perceptions of the parties involved. As Matthew Kroenig and Robert McNally note, “nearly all of the conditions that helped us avoid nuclear war during the latter half of the Cold War are absent from the Iran- Israel- U.S. nuclear balance.”[footonote=3237]19[/footnote] It is not unreasonable to imagine that in a crisis, things could easily spiral out of control.
Further, a fundamental issue remains: “A nuclear Iran will have successfully crossed and circumvented every single red line the international community was willing to put in its tracks over a period of de cades . . . why would nuclear Iran assume that the West would not continue capitulating in the face of Iranian intransigence?” Additionally, although the ramifications of the Syrian chemical weapons agreement will not be fully known for some time, in the short-term the U.S. vacillation regarding red lines is not likely to help U.S. credibility in the context of Iran. "
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While Pattani and others suggest that the United States can wait to make some of the above investments until “intelligence estimates shift or it otherwise becomes clear that Iran is developing nuclear weapons,” there are several real benefits to committing to a credible BMD architecture today.33 The first and most obvious is that investments now are necessary to have a credible ballistic missile defense architecture in place that would be able to counter threats from a nuclear-armed Iran. In addition to being able to destroy an Iranian missile that has been launched, missile defenses would aid in U.S. attempts to deter Iranian aggression in the first place. These defenses need not be infallible; they just need to make “the expected costs of aggression high and the expected probability of achieving the benefits low.”[footnote=3074]34[/footnote=3074]
Being prepared in the near term to counter Iranian threats in the future would also help complicate Tehran’s current nuclear weapons decisionmaking calculus. Missile defense calls into question Iran’s most likely delivery system for a nuclear weapon, and decreasing the likelihood of a successful attack calls into question the viability of the potential threat of a nuclear strike. Proactive action on BMD today introduces uncertainty into Iran’s planning as it considers the utility of building nuclear weapons or developing ICBMs. Patrick Disney argues, “The more the U.S. does to prepare for the day after Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, the greater Iran’s incentive becomes to acquire a nuclear deterrent of its own.”35 However, a purely defensive BMD capability overcomes this problem. If the most obvious use for a nuclear weapon is no longer certain to be available, the costs of acquisition become less tenable.
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Using existing technology and continuing to improve existing systems, the United States could field a robust and credible defensive shield in the near term that secures the U.S. homeland and also protects deployed U.S. troops and allies. If the United States commits to focused investment, Washington can redirect time and resources that have been spent on yet unproven technologies. Expansion and improvement of the currently deployed Ground- based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system should be coupled with an expansion and evolu- tion of the current Standard Missile 3 (SM- 3) interceptors of the Aegis missile defense systems deployed on destroyers and ashore. Deployment of additional X-band radars to focus on tracking and discrimination functions, while leaving search and warning to the low- resolution radar systems, is also necessary to increase the reliability of both the Aegis and GMD systems. Add to that a recommitment to an updated Eu ro pe an Phased Adaptive Approach (EPAA) to BMD, and Iran’s ability to threaten U.S. interests with ballistic missiles would be severely curtailed (thereby reducing the effi cacy of developing a nuclear weapon).