In recent days, Iranian policymakers have seemed to put forward multiple different strategies, expressed in widely varying tones, as part of the effort to safeguard the integrity of the country’s missile program. Although the United Nations Security Council resolution governing the 2015 Iran nuclear deal call upon the Islamic Republic to avoid work on ballistic missiles or other weapons that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, at least a dozen such missiles have been tested since nuclear negotiations were concluded. The actual tests have been carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, but those activities have also been vigorously defended by representatives of both factions of Iranian politics.
Chief among these figures is the hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the so called pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani, who spearheaded the nuclear negotiations on the Iranian side. While the United States and some of its allies have been stepping up their efforts to impose limits on Iranian missile activities, Khamenei and Rouhani have repeatedly reiterated that they will accept no imposition on matters of the military or national defense. Various affiliates of both men have done the same, and this pattern continued on Thursday in response to recent remarks from French President Emmanuel Macron.
Iran’s Fars News Agency called attention to the fact that Macron had embraced the idea of opening new negotiations with Iran over this matter, a move that many critics of the nuclear agreement would surely regard as filling in conspicuous gaps in that agreement. Although the Security Council resolution mentions Iran’s missile activities in the context of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the text of the JCPOA itself imposes no restriction on such activities. This allows for Iran to defy the somewhat vaguely worded resolution without being at any risk of a material breach of the nuclear deal.
Generally speaking, European leaders remain committed to the preservation of the JCPOA. But this has not stopped them from expressing nervousness about Iran’s other activities, including its belligerence toward Western interests in the Persian Gulf and its intervention in regional conflicts, including the provision of more advanced missile technology to groups like the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Early in November, an apparently Iranian-made rocket was launched from Yemen and penetrated deep into Saudi Arabian territory before being shot down over King Khaled International Airport.
Such incidents provide further incentive for Western allies of the Saudi government to push for restrictions on the Iranian missile program. But Thursday’s Fars News report quoted Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the Revolutionary Guards as saying that Westerners would “soon become aware of the fruitlessness of their attempts.” Jafari specifically referenced the French president in his remarks and said that his call for relevant restrictions could be attributed to Macron’s “youth and naivety”.
But Mirage News implied that Macron’s comments might be part of a developing strategy for confrontation of the Islamic Republic. In addition to explicitly affirming that new sanctions might be necessary to compel Tehran to limit its missile activities, he also followed up his comments later the same day with a surprise trip to Saudi Arabia. Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have been escalating for months, and the Yemeni missile launch provided still further incentive for Gulf Arab states to continue a strategy aimed at curtailing Tehran’s influence in the broader Middle East. With US President Donald Trump developing a distinctly assertive Iran policy that may now be influencing some European leaders, the Saudis and their regional allies may have a growing number of partnerships to lean on in pushing back against the Islamic Republic.
Tehran and its Arab adversaries have been similarly inconsistent in their rhetoric regarding the current tensions. At times, each side has provoked the other, and at times, each has accused the other of being uniquely unwilling to negotiate or compromise. The same inconsistency is increasingly on display in Iran’s dealings with Europe, and Mirage News called attention to this phenomenon in its report on Friday.
In the first place, it quoted Rouhani as encouraging the French government to be unbiased about Middle Eastern affairs so as to play a productive role in them. It then went on to say that Iranian messages to France hadn’t been so kind just days earlier. For instance, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi explicitly declared France to be biased toward “ongoing crises and humanitarian catastrophes” and thus to be fueling regional conflicts. Subsequently, Qasemi also echoed Jafari’s remarks about the missile program, saying, “France is fully aware of our country’s firm position that Iran’s defense affairs are not negotiable.”
“Defense” appears as a key word in a variety of public statements on this topic. It was accordingly used by Ali Shamkhani, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council whom Fars quoted as saying, “The Islamic Republic of Iran’s conventional defense capabilities and capacities are not negotiable at all and they will continue [development] based on the national plans by a deterrence approach against threats.”
Tehran has long maintained that its missile activities are purely defensive in nature, but these claims are undermined by a steady outpouring of anti-Western and anti-Israeli rhetoric, which has included painting the message “Israeli must be wiped out” on the sides of at least two of the missiles that were tested after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. Such rhetoric may raise questions about what sort of activity the Islamic Republic considers to be defensive in nature.
At a religious conference on Thursday, Supreme Leader Khamenei called for Muslim unity across the Middle East and declared that the Islamic Republic would be prepared to help counter the activity of Western powers in any place where Iranian assistance might be desired. Such commentary underscores the danger of Iranian weapons being delivered into the hands of other anti-Western entities, including both state and non-state actors. It also calls attention to the perceived danger of a multilateral anti-Western alliance coalescing around Iran.
The latter concern is exacerbated by Iran’s apparent expansion of relations with Russia, which has been strongly at odds with both the US and Europe in recent years. On Thursday, Tasnim News Agency, which is closely linked to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, published a report on calls by Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani for expanded security cooperation with the Russian Federation. Speaking at a meeting with a Russian legislator on the sidelines of the Asian Parliamentary Assembly, Larijani also expanded his commentary to declare, “In Iran, all sectors are interested in cooperation with Russia.”
Certainly, there has been growth in economic cooperation between the two countries, even prior to the lifting of economic sanctions under the nuclear agreement. But Iran would likely not be able to rely only on Russia and other anti-Western partners, and this complicates the situation in a way that is reflected in the inconsistency of public commentary by Iranian officials.
Although much of that commentary asserts that Iran needs expanded defensive capabilities to meet a persistent Western threat, at least one member of the Iranian parliament recently attempted to defend his country’s missile program by saying that it could actually be used to expand cooperation between Iran and Europe.
“Iranian officials… must talk with their counterparts such as Macron and present to them the issue of our strategic defense, because Iran’s missiles with a range of less than 2,000 km can also serve the security of the [European Union],” said Hashmatollah Falahat-Pishe, according to World Net Daily. “If we move ahead with such a strategy,” he added, “Europe will defend Iran’s missile capability like it defends the JCPOA.”
This invitation to security cooperation is reflective of the trade situation, insofar as Iran has been alternately seeking European investment and repeating rhetoric about a domestic “resistance economy” and the lack of any need for such investment. Some public commentary has even gone so far as to threaten would-be European investors in an effort to compel them to make financial commitments about which they are presently wary.
This trend was on display recently in remarks by Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh, which were once again aimed at France. Specifically, in this case, the Iranian official was addressing the French oil and gas giant Total SA, which was the first such European company to sign agreements with the Islamic Republic after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations. Although Total’s pending investment in represents a significant first step in Iran’s pursuit of hundreds of billions of dollars of foreign investment, Zanganeh seemed to threaten the company’s relationship with Iran on Tuesday, saying that it would lose the entirety of its investment if it pulled out of the deal to develop the South Pars gas field.
E & P Magazine reported upon these remarks on Wednesday and gave no indication that they had been prompted by any sort of threat to the investment from Total’s leadership. The Iranian oil minister was evidently responding to the general threat to Western investment that is being created by the ongoing escalation of tensions between Iran and its traditional adversaries. Although Europe as a whole continues to stand behind the JCPOA and the resulting investment atmosphere, there are growing signs that European officials such as Macron are being affected by either the threat of possible US sanctions or the ongoing American efforts to expose Iranian malfeasance, or both.
As noted by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Germany’s Financial Supervisory Authority imposed a credit ban on Iran’s Bank Sepah earlier this month after having previously sanctioned the same bank for ties to the Iranian missile program. Implausibly, Iranian media denied reports of the new measures, arguably highlighting the difficulty that the Islamic Republic is having in managing its relationship with Western entities in the era of the JCPOA.