Along with concessions on inspections, revelation of possible military dimensions of Iran’s nuclear program and allowing Iran to keep its nuclear infrastructure including Fordow, anti-proliferation experts are now properly focusing on one of the most critical failures of the P5+1 negotiators: their inability to include Iran’s missile development in the talks.

The Obama administration, for its part, has offered mixed messages about the importance of resolving international concerns over Iran’s ballistic missile program. In February 2014 congressional testimony, U.S. chief negotiator Wendy Sherman said the program “is indeed something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement.” At the same time, she argued, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon would ensure that the “delivery mechanism, as important as it is, is less important.” In July 2014, she stated in further testimony that U.S. concerns relate not to “ballistic missiles, per se. It is about when a missile is combined with a nuclear warhead.”
The later position seems to have prevailed, since the U.S. version of the April 2 framework agreement addresses ballistic missiles only indirectly, noting that a future U.N. Security Council resolution would clarify their status. The Iranian version of the agreement, as well as a joint statement between Tehran and the European Union released concurrently, fails to mention ballistic missiles at all.

This occurred despite the presence of five U.N. Security Council “sanctions resolutions between 2006 and 2010, and an array of unilateral U.S. sanctions, that target the [ICBM] program.” Even worse, “as the Associated Press reported last week, the administration may backtrack on this approach by offering Tehran relief on sanctions related to ballistic missiles, terrorism, human rights, and money laundering in order to produce a substantial sanctions relief package.” Kahn concludes that this would “effectively lead to the collapse of the sanctions architecture, emboldening Iran to continue its ballistic missile development and hence cheat on its nuclear commitments under a deal . . . [and] also send Tehran the message that it can expect to receive dramatic concessions from the United States without offering any meaningful compromises of its own.”

Likewise, David Cooper of the U.S. Naval War College raised the ICBM issue at a recent panel discussion (at the 34-minute mark) at the Hudson Institute. While noting that it is not unprecedented to separate bomb-making from the delivery system in negotiations, it nevertheless would be a huge mistake for four reasons. First, an ICBM is the clearest sign of a power’s intentions as to its nuclear program. Indeed, it is the most reliable indicator as to whether a nuclear program is peaceful or not. An ICBM program and a nuclear weapons program go “hand in glove,” Cooper says. Second, excluding missiles complicates verification, which is always highly problematic. This is why in all the Cold War deals, each side counted missiles, not bombs. Third, because a missile program often takes longer than a bomb-making program (e.g. North Korea), we are giving up another measure for determining Iran’s breakout potential. And fourth, letting Iran keep its ICBM program completely undercuts international sanctions and deterrence with other powers. It is noteworthy that when South Africa and Libya ended their nuclear weapons programs, they ended their missile programs as well.

Iran’s insistence on keeping its ICBM program belies its claim that its program is peaceful, and letting Iran keep it belies President Obama’s stated intention to stop and dismantle the Iranian nuclear weapons threat. The last time we tried to separate the two issues — letting North Korea keep its missile program while striking a deal (which it predictably violated) on enrichment — we wound up with a rogue regime that had both. Does any serious person doubt we are heading that way again? After all, Wendy Sherman has played an instrumental role in both deals. We should fully expect similar results.