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Iranian Missile Restrictions In Return For Space Programme, IISS Report Proposes

A Safir space launch vehicle carrying the Rasad satellite is readied for launch at the Semnan launch site in Iran. ©Vahid Reza Alaei

A new report from the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) argues that despite the U.S. withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA – also known as the Iran nuclear deal) an opportunity exists to constrain Iranian ballistic missile capabilities through arms control in return for allowing Iran to maintain a space launch capability that is closely monitored.

The report, titled “Reducing the Risk of Iran Developing an ICBM,” is authored by Michael Elleman, the Senior Fellow for Missile Defence at IISS, and asserts that it is not too late to reach an agreement on restricting the capabilities and numbers of Iran’s ballistic missiles. “With the nuclear accord consequently on life support, it is not too late to pursue diplomatic measures that address the growing challenge posed by Iran’s ballistic missiles,” Elleman said.

“The most promising would be to lock in, through negotiations, the 2,000 kilometre-range limit that Iran has previously stated is its maximum requirement. While this would not reduce the threat perceived by Iran’s regional neighbours, it would forestall development of systems that could target Western Europe or North America,” Elleman added.

“Tehran is not likely to commit to verification measures for such negotiated range limits, however, without receiving something in return. One bargain that could be considered would be to allow Iran to continue its satellite-launch programme, under certain conditions, while capping the maximum range of its ballistic missiles. Such a trade-off may also be relevant to the North Korean case,” he said.

Such an arrangement could work, Elleman argues, if eight conditions and limitations were placed on a Iranian satellite launch capability. These eight criteria would ensure that Iran did not surreptitiously use its permitted space launch capability as a means for developing ballistic missiles with ranges greater than 2,000 kilometres.

The eight criteria that Elleman outlines are as follows:

Space-traffic control: Iran would need to comply with international norms and agreements on space-traffic control, orbital debris mitigation, non-interference with the space activities of other nations, and the prohibition on placing nuclear weapons in space.

Launch notification: Iran should join the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, which calls on states to exercise maximum possible restraint in developing, testing, and deploying ballistic missiles.

Inspections: Going beyond the verification provided by radars and other sensors, Iran should allow for transparency measures to facilitate the inspection of space-related payloads to ensure compliance with agreed limits.

Limits on launchers and engines: Iran should not be allowed to maintain more than one assembled satellite launch vehicle at any given time.

Separation of programmes: The personnel, production and maintenance facilities, institutions, and bureaucracies involved in satellite launches, and those developing, manufacturing, and deploying ballistic missiles should operate independently.

Propellant limitations: No main engines using either solid or storable-liquid propellants should be used to launch satellites or space-related experiments, except for legacy systems explicitly grandfathered under the agreement.

Re-entry vehicles: The testing of re-entry vehicles should be proscribed. If Iran insists on recovering space-launched payloads, streamlined re-entry modules should be prohibited.

Import limitations: Iran could be permitted to have access to space-related technology and hardware from states that are established members of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

The report by Michael Elleman can be downloaded for free here.

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