One day after Iran News Update reported upon a general outpouring of anti-US rhetoric from officials in the Iranian regime, reports emerged to suggest that the Islamic Republic had finally blinked in the midst of what had been widely described as an escalating war of words between it and the White House.
Rhetorical exchanges on Sunday including the latest in a long series of declarations by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani that his country would pursue any weapons it saw fit, including controversial ballistic missiles. As noted in the previous INU report, ballistic missile tests are among the most prominent pieces of evidence for US President Donald Trump’s conclusion that Iran has been violating the “spirit” of the nuclear deal spearheaded by his predecessor in 2015.
Although the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did not include restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile activity, the United Nations Security Council resolution governing the implementation of the nuclear deal did call upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on weapons that are designed to be capable of carrying nuclear warheads. Nonetheless, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has carried out perhaps more than a dozen tests of such weapons since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations.
The IRGC has also boasted of improvements in Iranian missile technology, much of which is based on equipment purchased from North Korea, a fellow adversary of the United States and an emerging nuclear power. In a recent military parade, the IRGC claimed to premier a Khorramshahr missile that was capable of striking targets as far away as 2,000 miles, thus putting practically the entirety of the Middle East within range.
But following weeks of mutual antagonism between Tehran and Washington, as well as the passage of several executive and congressional measures for the US to impose new sanctions on the Iranian missile program, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei stepped into the fray to set the 2,000-mile range as the limit for Iran’s near-term ballistic missile development.
This declaration is easily interpreted as a tentative effort to forestall subsequent US actions punishing the Islamic Republic for its missile-related provocations. And this interpretation is arguably backed up by statements made by Major General Mohammad Bagheri, the Chief of Staff of the Iranian armed forces.
Bagheri’s statements on Monday seemed to be further examples of the ongoing war of words with the United States, but, the statements were noteworthy for the rhetorical content that they left out.
In the first place, Bagheri described the signing of the JCPOA as “the decision of the Islamic Republic,” thus stepping back from hardline talking points that attribute the agreement only to the administration of President Hassan Rouhani and not to the regime as a whole.
Additionally, and more significant, Bagheri also reiterated Tehran’s threats of willingness to walk away from the nuclear deal, but he did so while making reference only to “nuclear-related sanctions.” This too is a shift away from previous hardline talking points, insofar as various officials including the supreme leader have insisted that Iran would declare the JCPOA null and void if the US violated its spirit by imposing new sanctions on any topic, including human rights abuses and support of terrorism. Under the letter of the agreement, the US and five other world powers only agreed to the suspension of nuclear-related sanctions, evidently worth tens of billions of dollars. Other sanctions remain in effect and the agreement does not bar the US or its partners from imposing more of the same. And indeed, the US has repeatedly taken advantage of this permission, as with the Counter America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, which was signed into law on August 2.
Tehran responded to that incident by passing its own law, defying American pressure with new increases in financing to the IRGC and missile development. But Bagheri’s recent statements suggest that this is as far as the regime will go in countering such American pressure, provided that it continued to avoid directly threatening the JCPOA. President Trump has threatened to use his authority to cancel the deal if Congress and European leaders prove unable to strengthen it, but the overwhelming majority of American lawmakers appear to support strict enforcement of the agreement, even if they are personally skeptical of the value of the JCPOA.
Although Bagheri and Khamenei can be seen as reaching out to this faction of American politics with their apparent limits on Iranian provocations and reprisals, it bears noting that this shift has not entailed a noticeable reduction in overall anti-US rhetoric. While that outreach is brand new, even the announcement of Khamenei’s ballistic missile restrictions was accompanied by extremely boastful commentary regarding Iran’s military readiness and its prospects in a war with the US.
As the Associated Press pointed out, General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the IRGC accepted Khamenei’s restrictions by saying that the Guards’ missile capabilities are “enough for now,” being capable of responding to “any possible desperate attack” from the United States. Jafari also asserted that the US will not dare to start a war because “they know that if they begin a war between Iran and the United States, they will definitely be the main losers.”
Furthermore, Jafari made a point of insisting that the IRGC is capable of increasing its missile range, even though they accept the edict of the supreme leader, who has sole authority over the hardline paramilitary organization. In fact, the AP quoted Michael Elleman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies as saying that if the IRGC’s own claims are accurate, they are already capable of achieving a farther range than 2,000 miles by attaching a lighter warhead to the Khorramshahr missile. This arguably lessens the significance of Khamenei’s limit.
Jafari’s statements on Tuesday were not the only outlet for Iran’s familiar militarist rhetoric. Fox News reported that the Iranian air force had also used that day to begin a demonstration over the area of Isfahan. The location of the maneuvers is significant because of its proximity to key nuclear facilities including the Natanz enrichment site. In this sense, the demonstrations could be regarded as a further statement of defiance regarding Iran’s commitment to future nuclear activities.
Amidst the outpouring of rhetoric that INU reported upon on Monday was a statement by Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, claiming that if Iran felt compelled to abandon the nuclear deal it would be able to enrich enough nuclear material for an atomic bomb in just four days. Taken together with the air force demonstrations, such remarks may be meant to suggest that Iranian opposition could delay an attempted military strike on its nuclear facilities for long enough to allow the regime to create a weapon of mass destruction.
Interestingly, the demonstration of defenses in the area of existing nuclear facilities closely coincided with the start of construction on a second Russian-built nuclear facility, Bushehr-2. Russia Today reported that the state atomic energy company Rosatom had announced the start of the project on Tuesday. It is expected to cost 10 billion dollars and to be completed in approximately 10 years. This places the start of its operations close to the date when sunset provisions written into the JCPOA begin cancelling the enforcement of that agreement’s restrictions.
Many opponents of the nuclear deal point to these sunset provisions as a particular weakness. They argue that by keeping the JCPOA in force while abiding by only its strictest and most verifiable provisions, the Iranians can advance their nuclear capabilities gradually over a period of 10 to 15 years and then rush toward the completion of a nuclear weapon in the weeks or months immediately thereafter.