Iran was permitted to keep a portion of the enrichment centrifuges that were already operating at the site, but under the agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany, Iran is technically banned from enriching uranium at Fordo for approximately the next 15 years. The facility is now ostensibly committed only to producing isotopes of other elements for medical research and other scientific purposes. But the move to protect Fordo with advanced missiles seems to cast doubt upon Iran’s commitment to this provision.
In fact, the Washington Post pointed out that General Farzad Esmaili, the head of Iran’s air defense, had commented on the S-300 situation by saying that Iran’s nuclear enrichment facilities are “national achievements” that “must be vigorously protected.” Iranian officials also stated that the bolstered defense was aimed at preventing airstrikes by the “regional enemies” or the United States. But it is difficult to imagine what reason there would be for such airstrikes if Iran continues to abide by the relevant provisions of the nuclear agreement.
If Iran’s supposedly defensive gesture is an indicator of long-term interest in violating the nuclear agreement, it is far from being the first such indicator. In recent weeks, Iranian officials have made various statements detailing plans to effectively cancel the JCPOA if they feel they are not deriving adequate benefit from it. On orders from government officials, the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran outlined specific details on how it would ramp up enrichment activities beyond their pre-JCPOA levels, in response to perceived American “aggression.”
At the same time, a number of Iranian officials have been intent on encouraging the perception that that aggression is a persistent threat, even as the Obama administration has been widely criticized by his political adversaries for maintaining an excessively permissive Iran policy. Iranian hardliners, particularly members of the Revolutionary Guard Corps, routinely boast of military readiness and technological advancements with the explicit intent of giving the impression of readiness for war with the United States.
It is perhaps not mere coincidence that the defensive gestures around Fordo were revealed at roughly the same time that Iran’s state media claimed that an American surveillance drone had violated the country’s airspace and been “warned off” by Iranian military. Deutsche Welle detailed the alleged incident and its coincidence with the S-300 unveiling.
Iranian state media appeared eager to portray the supposed drone encounter as a victory for Iran over “enemies” and “arrogant powers” in the West. In this way it is reminiscent of a number of previous statements and incidents, including situations last week in which Iranian naval vessels moved close enough to American ships that the US Navy was compelled to fire warning shots. Those provocations came shortly after the Revolutionary Guards reiterated previous claims that they would close off the Strait of Hormuz if ever they felt threatened by the US.
Although analysts tend to agree that Iran could do some damage to Western forces using asymmetrical warfare tactics such as placing mines in the Strait, it is generally understood that Iranian claims about its military capabilities and overall readiness are highly exaggerated. Those exaggerations continued in recent days when, according to the Clarion Project, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan said that there is “no limit for the range” of the country’s ballistic missiles.
The most advanced known Iranian missiles are capable of reaching Israel, but Iran’s military technology is reportedly some ways off from being able to reach Western Europe or the United States. Nevertheless, Dehqan, other officials, and Iranian state media appear intent on convincing the widest possible domestic audience that the Islamic Republic is capable of standing up military to a global superpower. In fact, Dehqan’s latest comments specifically included the claim that Iran has matched the rest of the world’s standards for most domestically-produced weapons.
Such provocative statements help to cast doubt upon Tehran’s claims that such actions as the S-300 deployment are purely defensive in nature. What’s more, at least one state-affiliated outlet, Fars News Agency declared that Iran now possesses a multi-warhead ballistic missile that would make an “efficient area attack weapon.”
The Clarion Project article also detailed a number of other provocative Iranian gestures and the ways in which they’ve been utilized by state media to create a narrative of Iranian strength and American weakness. Meanwhile, other reports have highlighted the ways in which Tehran is trying to tighten control over domestic information, a move that could make state media’s boastful narrative seem more plausible to a certain segment of the Iranian population.
But at the same time, Iran’s own account of its control over media seems to be prone to exaggeration. On Monday, the BBC reported that Iranian Communications and Information Technology Minister Ali Vaezi had announced the completion of the first phase of a project aimed at isolating the Iranian internet from the rest of the world, with the stated purpose of exclusively promoting content that reflects Islamic values.
Although such claims are reflective of Iran’s commitment to information control, they are also dubious in a way that is similar to Iran’s claims about its military advancements. The “halal net” program has been publicly discussed among Iranian officials since 2010 and was originally supposed to complete its third and final phase in 2015. But prior to the latest announcement there had been little indication of progress toward that goal, and many analysts have expressed doubt about the logistical and technological feasibility of such comprehensive restrictions.
Presently, many Iranians reach Western media outlets and other banned online materials using proxy servers, and even if Vaezi’s claims are accurate the first phase of the national internet project will not change this.