But two days later, reports indicated that the Islamic Republic was striking a somewhat more conciliatory tone. On that day, Iranian state media announced that Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei had limited the range of the country’s ballistic missiles to 2,000 miles, a distance that a spokesman for the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps described as “enough for now.”
Also on Tuesday, the chief of staff of the Iranian army scaled back the country’s threats regarding the future of the nuclear agreement, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Mohammad Bagheri said that Iran was prepared to cease compliance with the JCPOA over the re-imposition of any nuclear-related sanctions by the US, but he said nothing of other types of sanctions, in contrast to previous statements from him and other regime officials.
But on Thursday, the supreme leader cut against any sense of moderation in the regime’s tone when he delivered a speech on state television in which he declared once again that the United States is the “number one enemy of the Iranian nation.” Reuters pointed out that Khamenei’s fiery pronouncement came just before the regime celebrates Saturday’s anniversary of the beginning of the 1979-80 hostage crisis at the US embassy in Tehran.
The speech also closely coincided with a visit to Tehran by Russian President Vladimir Putin, which both leaders used as an opportunity to consolidate opposition to the United States and its Western allies. Khamenei specifically highlighted the two nations’ mutual anti-Western postures in commenting on the visit. The Sydney Morning Herald quoted him as saying “uur cooperation can isolate America” before going on to describe US-backed rebels in Syria as “terrorists” and to accuse the Americans of continuing “plots” in the Middle East.
These comments come nearly three weeks after US President Donald Trump refused to certify the Iran nuclear agreement and also announced a broad-based strategy to confront destabilizing Iranian influence in the Middle East and to counter Iran’s sponsorship of global terrorism. On Tuesday, the US Treasury Department added more than 40 individuals and organizations to its list of Specially Designated Nationals targeted for counterterrorism sanctions. Each of the new designees is an arm, affiliate, or member of the IRGC, which Trump described in his speech as a personal terror force for the Iranian supreme leader.
Trump’s strategy also involves additional pressure on Iran over its ballistic missiles, the more advanced of which are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, thus falling under the category of weapons identified in United Nations Security Resolution 2231, which calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid development or testing of such weapons. Despite this resolution, the IRGC has carried out upwards of a dozen such tests since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations in July 2015, thereby lending credence to Trump’s claim that Tehran is routinely violating the spirit of the JCPOA. Resolution 2231 was passed in order to implement the nuclear deal, and its own provisions were seen as filling in some of the perceived gaps in the JCPOA, including its failure to address the missile issue.
Iranian advancements in intermediate and long-range missile technology began before the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, and they have involved collaboration with other adversaries of the United States, chiefly North Korea and Russia. In 2015, with Iran and six world powers approaching the finish line of a nuclear agreement, Moscow took advantage of the emerging circumstances to reactivate a long-delayed deal for the transfer of the S-300 missile defense system to Iran. The weapon’s delivery concluded last year, and its installation continued into 2017.
This is only one instance of military cooperation between Iran and Russia, with the most prominent example being their mutual operations in defense of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad during the six year civil war. That cooperation remained a major topic of discussion upon Putin’s arrival in Tehran on Wednesday. The Russian president said that his talks with Iranian officials were “very productive,” and he specifically called attention to the two nations’ progress in “coordinating their positions” on the future of Syria.
Analysts in the international media had previously suggested that divergent Iranian and Russia interests in Syria could be exploited to create distance between the two governments; but Wednesday’s meeting seemed to underscore their ongoing commitment to cooperation in that area while also providing both with opportunities to brag about their positions as bulwarks against Western influence in the region.
The Sydney Morning Herald also quoted one anonymous Iranian official as saying that “the determination of Tehran and Moscow to deepen their strategic alliance… will shape the future of the Middle East.” Naturally, Iranian-Russian military cooperation is backed up by expanding economic ties, and Putin’s visit to Tehran notably occurred one day after Russian media announced the start of construction on Bushehr 2, which will be the second Russian-build nuclear power plant in Iran, and potentially the first of seven reactors to be built under an agreement that was signed in November 2014.
Russia Today quoted Aleksey Likhachev, the director general of Russia’s state nuclear energy company Rosatom as saying “I am sure this major Russia-Iran investment project will strengthen cooperation and ties between our countries.” Putin’s visit yielded six new provisional energy deals worth an estimated 30 billion dollars, as reported by the Financial Times.
These agreements underscore the fact that Russia and Iran continue to enjoy a genuine confluence of economic interests. But their mutual antagonism of the US and Europe is arguably more important to Tehran and particularly to hardliners like Supreme Leader Khamenei and the Revolutionary Guards. The Iranian regime has a demonstrated track record for choosing partnerships – with both state and non-state actors – largely on the basis of their willingness to directly confront traditional Iranian adversaries including the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel.
This record was highlighted again on Thursday with the release of additional documents from the cache discovered during the 2011 raid on Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden’s compound in Pakistan. The Associated Press reported upon the contents of a 19-page report prepared by the terrorist group in which it acknowledged that the Iranian regime had offered money, arms, training with Hezbollah, and other resources to anyone who was willing to attack US interests in Saudi Arabia.
This further undercuts Tehran’s claim that it has never had anything to do with Al Qaeda, a claim that had already been contradicted by the Central Intelligence Agency and the 9/11 Commission, according to the AP report. US intelligence had been aware of connections between Tehran and Al Qaeda at least since 1991. This is made more noteworthy by the sectarian differences between the two entities, with Al Qaeda being a Sunni terrorist group and the Islamic Republic being a Shiite theocracy.
Each new piece of evidence for inter-sectarian cooperation by the Iranian regime is also further evidence of the primacy of anti-Western rhetoric in the regime’s self-identity and diplomatic decision-making.