Amidst Quds Day Propaganda, Iran Displays Ballistic Missiles, Boosts Regional Tensions

June 23 marked the last Friday of Ramadan, a date that is celebrated as Quds Day each year in the Islamic Republic of Iran. The Los Angeles Times was among the news outlets that detailed the festivities, which are organized and carefully stage-managed by the Iranian government to showcase hardline sentiments against the Jewish state of Israel and its Western backers, while striving to organize regional Muslim sentiment around the cause of Palestine.

The LA Times article indicated that two things were different about this year’s Quds Day activities In the first place, they included statements and demonstrations against Saudi Arabia at a time when tensions are escalating between Iran and its leading Arab rival. And at the same time, the state-led rallies and demonstrations of military might include the prominent display of ballistic missiles exactly like those used the previous Sunday in a strike on eastern Syria.

Although that strike, involving six medium-range ballistic missiles, struck the linger ISIL stronghold of Deir el-Zour, a senior official in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps told Iranian state media that the attack sent a message specifically to the United States and Saudi Arabia. Furthermore, Deir el-Zour has been identified as an anticipated area of direct confrontation between Iran-backed and US-backed forces, and perhaps between Iran and the US themselves, following the fall of ISIL.

The display of ballistic missiles on Quds Day was underscored by comments from the hardline cleric Ahmad Khatami during Friday prayer services. Khatami echoed the sentiments of various government officials including President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, who have vowed that missile development activities would continue without paying any heed to concerns and warnings from the United States and other world powers.

Coinciding with the implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement in January of last year, the United Nations Security Council passed a resolution calling upon the Islamic Republic to avoid development or testing of weapons that, like ballistic missiles, are designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Tehran later informally rejected that resolution, asserting that it was only a suggestion and not legally binding, and also declaring that the Iranian nation would accept no foreign imposition regarding its military capabilities.

Some officials have gone further by boasting of the growing extent of those capabilities and even putting them in context of readiness for war against Israel, the US, or other adversaries. Khatami contributed to this rhetoric on Friday when he pointed to the missile strike in Syria and emphasized that it did not involve the most powerful of Iran’s ballistic missiles. “The missiles shot at Daesh were mid-range,” he said, using an Arabic acronym for ISIL. “You can imagine the power of our long-range missile.”

On Tuesday, the leading coalition of Iranian opposition, the National Council of Resistance of Iran held a press conference at its Washington, D.C. offices wherein it announced intelligence findings regarding the escalation of Iran’s missile activities. The increase in development, manufacture, and testing had allegedly been initiated upon the direct order of the supreme leader, and the NCRI reported that it had uncovered 42 specific missile sites including one where the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force was recognizably coordinating with the government institution that had been tasked with weaponizing the Iranian nuclear program.

The inclusion of ballistic missile-related provocations in the Quds Day celebrations was arguably indicative of the escalating tensions throughout the region, involving not just Iran but also its terrorist proxies and allies. Groups like Hezbollah have reportedly secured a deeper foothold in regional conflicts on the basis of Iran’s own involvement, and this has seemingly bolstered those groups’ propaganda regarding the prospects for coordinated opposition to Israel and its backers.

In fact, Reuters quoted Hassan Nasrallah, the head of the Lebanese paramilitary, as saying that a war with Israel “could open the way for thousands, even hundreds of thousands of fighters from all over the Arab and Islamic world to participate.” Nasrallah specified that he was not referring to intervention by actual regional militaries but instead to non-state actors like the numerous Shiite militant groups that have proliferated in Syria and Iraq during recent years, largely as a result of direct recruiting efforts and logistical support from the Islamic Republic and its Revolutionary Guards.

Opposition to Israel is a longstanding focus of Iranian coordination and propaganda among militant groups. And insofar as these efforts focus specifically on militant groups whose ideology is in line with the Iranian regime’s hardline Shiite version of Islam, the regime is increasingly exploiting the growing tensions between it and Sunni Saudi Arabia. This aspect of Iranian propaganda has been bolstered by American efforts to tighten relations with traditional regional allies, and on Friday the head of Iran’s atomic energy agency, Al Akbar Salehi, published an article in The Guardian attacking both Saudi Arabia and the US.

The article accused the US of upsetting the balance of power in the Middle East by siding with Saudi Arabia. It also suggested that the US was returning to the previous status quo either as a result of financial inducements including the Saudi purchase of American arms or because of “short-sighted political motivations.” Furthermore, Salehi warned of “chaotic behaviour” and “further tension and conflict” if the US continued along its present course.

Earlier in June, Iran attempted to justify similar rhetoric about Saudi Arabia by claiming that the Arab nation was directly responsible for a pair of terrorist attacks in Tehran which had been claimed by ISIL. Iranian officials have since maintained this claim in spite of the fact that no evidence has been presented and Saudi Arabia has suffered ISIL attacks as well. This week, the Saudis countered by claiming that it had foiled a planned attack by IRGC operatives on a Saudi oil platform.

According to a Fox News editorial by Georgetown Professor Brenda Shaffer, the Iranian regime has made significant efforts to use the Tehran terrorist attacks as a way of presenting itself as uniquely under siege from terrorists while also blurring the boundaries between ISIL and other enemies of the Islamic Republic. The report in question highlighted the fact that Iranian security forces began to crack down on domestic groups in the wake of the attacks but focused their attention not on ISIL affiliates but rather on Kurdish and Baluch groups that are generally ethno-nationalist but not religiously motivated.

“Tehran’s official statements and ISIS finger-pointing would have us dismiss domestic ethnic tensions as insignificant,” Shaffer explains. Similar conclusions can be drawn from Iran’s celebration of Quds Day, which comes one week before a major gathering in Paris of supporters of the National Council of Resistance of Iran, in which dissidents will make the case that hardline celebrations calling for the destruction of Israel do not represent the vast majority of the Iranian population, which is generally young, well-educated, pro-Western, and in favor of a democratic alternative to the theocratic regime.

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