In reporting on the announcement, the UK’s Independent newspaper emphasized that Esmaili’s comments come in the midst of a months-long political conflict between Iran and the United States over the Iranian ballistic missile program and associated military development projects. US President Donald Trump has expressed willingness to cancel the 2015 nuclear agreement negotiated by his predecessor, primarily as a result of repeated ballistic missile tests following the deal’s implementation in January of last year. Although such tests are not banned by the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action itself, the deal is governed by a United Nations Security Council resolution that calls upon the Iranians to avoid work on weapons that are designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
Iranian officials including the hardline Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and the supposedly more moderate President Hassan Rouhani have repeatedly rejected American efforts to curtail its missile development. After Trump signed a congressional bill this summer imposing new sanctions on Iran over its terrorist sponsorship and provocative foreign policy activities, the Iranians responded with a nearly immediate gesture of defiance, allocating more money to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps’ Quds Force and to the ballistic missile program.
As well as being an apparent extension of this type of provocative gesture, the Bavar 373 test is also a reminder of earlier Iranian efforts to evade foreign restrictions on its military buildup. The Independent report points out that that system was initially developed as a domestically manufactured alterative to the S-300 missile defense system, which Iran had purchased from Russia in 2010, but the delivery of which was halted amidst international pressure.
In recent months, Iran successfully completed installation of the S-300, following Russia’s decision to quickly move ahead on the delivery after some weapons embargos on the Islamic Republic were removed in line with the nuclear agreement. That move became a new topic of criticism for many of those who were opposed to the JCPOA and anticipated the Iranians exploiting diminished restrictions in order to try to build leverage against Western adversaries.
These efforts and the associated military buildup have been accompanied by often severe rhetoric describing Iran’s defensive capabilities and readiness for war with the United States or enemies in the Persian Gulf region. Esmaili provided a new example of this phenomenon in the form of recent comments to another Iranian media outlet. The Associated Press reported on Monday that Esmaili claimed that his air defenses warned off American spy planes in March and then again in August. Apart from simply implying that the craft had been intimidated into withdrawing, Esmaili was quoted as saying, “We do not allow such rabid aircrafts to enter our territory and if necessary, will not hesitate to destroy them.”
The comments were carried by al-Alam television news station, which broadcasts in Arabic. This suggests that the military rhetoric was aimed not just at the alleged operators of the spy planes in question but also at Iran’s chief regional rival Saudi Arabia, as well as other Arab allies of the United States.
Tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia have ramped up in recent years, with sectarian tensions escalating in the midst of Iranian efforts to exert more and more influence over the broader Middle East. The civil war in Yemen has long since turned into a proxy war between Iran’s Shiite theocracy and the Sunni Arab kingdoms, and the two sides also backed different factions in the Syrian Civil War, where Iran created Shiite militant proxies that now appear to be entrenched. A similar situation exists in Iraq, contributing to anxiety about the expansion of a “Shiite crescent” controlled by Tehran.
Another Iranian military official, Chief of Staff Mohammad Baqeri, appeared to make reference to this expansion of influence in the context of his own boastful rhetoric, carried by Tasnim News Agency, which is affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards. Adding to familiar commentary about Iran’s ability to win in open conflict with the US and its allies, Baqeri said of the West, “Even if they would control the start of an aggression, they would not have a say about its end and they won’t even be able to limit the war to Iran’s borders.”
Reuters notes that the Iranian general used this as a partial explanation for why he believed it was “unlikely” that Iran’s adversaries would actually launch such an attack. “Thank God, even the unwise who lead world arrogance… can conclude that attacking the Islamic Republic would entail heavy costs,” he said, using a familiar derogatory term for leading Western powers.
But at the same time that Tehran has striven to portray itself as simply too powerful to be in danger of attack by the West, it has seemingly made efforts to encourage Western leaders to question whether such an attack would be in their interest. Among these efforts is Iran’s portrayal of itself as a particularly effective force in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. Many Western commentators have indeed recognized the significant role of Iran’s militant proxies in pushing the Sunni militant group back in both Iraq and Syria. But many of those same commentators have been quick to highlight the danger of defeating ISIL at the expense of empowering its Shiite competitors.
Iran’s dual role in this conflict was one highlight of an editorial that appeared at the Huffington Post on Monday. It called attention to Iran’s contribution to the safe relocation of ISIL fighters from Lebanon to the area of the Syria-Iraq border. The article suggests that this is indicative of Iran foreign policy making its primary focus the development of the Shiite crescent and the reorganization of the Middle East along sectarian lines, and not defeat of ISIL or other terrorist groups.
Toward that end, Iran is expanding its support of terrorist groups of differing types as the Syrian Civil War nears an end. It was reported last week that Iran is once again the leading sponsor of the Palestinian terrorist group, Hamas. According to another Reuters report, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, met this news by saying that it shows Iran’s “true colors.” She went on to say, “Iran must decide whether it wants to be a member of the community of nations that can be expected to take its international obligations seriously or whether it wants to be the leader of a jihadist terrorist movement. It cannot be both.”
But Tehran’s simultaneous efforts to portray itself as a threat and an asset to Western powers suggests that it is certainly trying to straddle the boundaries between provoking and cooperating with the world community. And it is behaving in much the same way toward its Arab neighbors. Yet another Reuters report quoted Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh as praising the Saudi-led Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries for apparently increasing their compliance with oil output cuts that were negotiated last year as an effort to stabilize global prices.
Zanganeh also referred to talks being underway to further extend those cuts. His commentary seems to imply that Iran is playing a leading role in the creation and enforcement of multilateral oil policy, or at least that it intends to do so. But this is at odds with the fact that the Islamic Republic refused to participate in the output cuts, insisting that it be exempted until it is able to return to self-described pre-sanctions levels in the wake of the nuclear agreement, thereby increasing its share of the market and, by extension, its regional economic influence.