As Europe Dithers, Iran’s Arsenal Gets More Deadly
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This week Iran confirmed that it recently test-fired a missile, which the U.S. categorized as a medium-range ballistic missile “capable of carrying multiple warheads,” a transgression of a 2015 United Nations Security Council resolution. Unfortunately, this was hardly news: Iran has made a habit out of testing, using and even transferring ballistic missiles across the Middle East.
The U.S. has reacted strongly with sanctions both before and after it pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. And while European officials have condemned such behavior – even at the UN – they have yet to take any serious action to dissuade Iran from continued missile tests. Regardless of whether Europe’s efforts to keep the nuclear pact alive are successful, the EU should join with the U.S. and check Tehran’s ballistic missile threat.
In the early months of this year, before the U.S. withdrew from the nuclear deal, American diplomats shuttled across the Atlantic to find a way to improve that accord by including ballistic missiles as part of a larger political agreement. During that process, the EU was reportedly deliberating over penalties against entities that support Iran’s ballistic missile programs. In the end nothing came of it. Indeed, a closer look at Europe’s record reveals that the last batch of nuclear- and missile-related sanctions from the EU against Iran came a whopping six years ago.
What has changed since 2012, however, is Iran’s ballistic missile program. In addition to maintaining the region’s largest arsenal, the regime is improving select systems as well as focusing on greater accuracy. Iranian military officials say they see no technical roadblocks to building longer-range missiles. In addition, Tehran has been shipping short-range, surface-to-surface missiles to new actors in warzones, such as to the Houthis in Yemen and to Shiite militias in Iraq.
Iranian media outlets appear to have stopped reporting on all test launches, likely to avoid public scrutiny. In the immediate aftermath of the this month’s launch, Tehran’s response was vague, promising to continue missile testing while lambasting the U.S. And when Iranian officials did confirm the launch, they did so without mentioning the missile’s type.
To really make Iran reconsider its flight-testing calculus -- as well its technology procurement, production and export of missiles in the region -- Europe and the U.S. need a new framework. This requires picking-up where efforts to “fix” the nuclear pact left. This should include at least the following three components.
The first is a clear and resolute commitment to keep Iran from getting an intercontinental ballistic missile –- which could put all of Europe in range -- whether it is developed domestically or acquired from abroad. While Iran already has missiles that can strike the southeast rim of Europe, an ICBM would threaten the entire continent. To prevent this, Europe and the U.S. must synchronize messaging and pressure against Iran’s satellite-launch program, which is likely a cover for the regime’s long-range missile aspirations.
The second is establishing a multinational task force to share intelligence and thwart Iranian technology procurement and the financing of its proliferation efforts. Iran’s missiles deserve the same amount of high-level trans-Atlantic attention and diplomacy as the nuclear issue. Despite Iran’s robust defense industry and drive for self-sufficiency, the regime continues to go shopping abroad, deploying front-companies and taking advantage of jurisdictions of weak central authority to further its missile inventory and capabilities.
Finally, and perhaps most important, is a commitment to sanctions that can kick in automatically in response to a diverse array of missile activities by Iran. The penalties must be tied to all of Iran’s known missile force, regardless of range. The severity of each penalty will need to be based off whether it is in response to a test, military operation or transfer, as well as the known capabilities of the missile and what relevant Security Council resolutions it transgresses.
Iranian officials are very clear on the value of their growing arsenal. Europe, with strong backing from the U.S., needs to finally turn its words into deeds.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Behnam Ben Taleblu is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
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