Those concerns were further reinforced on Monday when Iran made the latest in a series of provocations regarding its stockpile of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. The Islamic Republic tested two such missiles in October and November, thereby confirming its commitment to defying UN Security Council resolution 1929 and other measures constraining Iran’s development and use of weapons that have the potential to deliver a nuclear warhead to foreign territories. The US eventually responded to those tests with new economic sanctions, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani retaliated by ordering the dramatic expansion of the country’s stockpiles.
Subordinate officials have taken that order very seriously. Most recently, Iranian armed forces Chief of Staff Major General Hassan Firouzabadi announced plans for “massive missile drills” to be held over the next several days. In a hearing before Congress last week, US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper described the October and November tests as acts of deliberate defiance by the Iranian regime. The newly announced drills will certainly be regarded as an even more aggressive form of defiance, and will also raise new questions about Iran’s trustworthiness in the wake of implementation of the JCPOA.
While last week’s stories emphasized the ongoing skepticism on this point within the US Congress, that skepticism remains strong among other groups as well, including the leadership of several Arab nations that are traditional rivals of Iran in the Middle East. In fact, this rivalry has also been a factor in the talking points of Western critics who worry that Iran’s exploitation of existence of evidence that the Gulf Arab states are already taking steps in this direction. If the recent Western scrutiny of the nuclear deal reaches the ears of the leadership of these countries, it could exacerbate the region-wide instability that some critics already perceive on the nuclear issue. And that could in turn contribute to more general instability in the midst of proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia.weaknesses in the JCPOA could kick off a regional arms race, with Saudi Arabia and some of its allies pursuing their own nuclear capabilities.
With this in mind, Intelligence sources reported on Monday about the existence of evidence that the Gulf Arab states are already taking steps in this direction. If the recent Western scrutiny of the nuclear deal reaches the ears of the leadership of these countries, it could exacerbate the region-wide instability that some critics already perceive on the nuclear issue. And that could in turn contribute to more general instability in the midst of proxy conflicts between Iran and Saudi Arabia.
Conversely, the apparent Arab desire to match Iran’s power in the nuclear sphere may be partially a reaction to the perceived growth in Iran’s traditional power and its military and political reach beyond its own borders. This power stands to grow in the wake of the JCPOA, which has resulted not only in the acquisition of new wealth by the Islamic Republic but also in the opening of trade in conventional weapons and military equipment with such partners as Russia.
A Fiscal Times report on this situation on Monday described it as a shift in the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran been anticipating the delivery of a Russian S-300 missile defense system since before the JCPOA was finalized. And despite some delays and false starts over the past months, the Indo-Asian News Service reports that Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hossein Jaber Ansari recently declared that the weapons are currently being shipped.
The Fiscal Times adds that Tehran has expressed interest in even more powerful S-400 missiles. And although Russia has not yet given any indication that it plans to sell the more advanced alterative, it seems likely that it will do so in light of the ongoing growth in cooperation between Tehran and Moscow. Case in point, the National Interest reports that the two countries are on the verge of signing an agreement that would start Iran on the way to modernizing its currently antiquated air force.
The deal involves Russia’s Sukhoi Su-30 Flanker jet fighters. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Dehqan will be in Moscow on Tuesday to discuss the acquisition as well as the S-300 delivery. The National Interest describes this as the “Middle East’s nightmare” and adds that as with the missile systems, Iran may pursue and receive more advanced aircraft as well.
Dehqan’s visit is only the latest of many official exchanges between the two countries. Past visits reportedly secured such acts of cooperation as the deployment of Russian aircraft to the Syrian Civil War, to further aid in the defense of the government of Bashar al-Assad. Trend reported on Monday that Tehran had issued a standing invitation to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first half of the forthcoming Iranian year, which begins on March 21. It appears likely that Lavrov will accept the invitation, although explicit plans have not yet been made.
If such a meeting does take place, it is all but certain that collaboration in Syria will be on the agenda, and Moscow is presumably aware of the fact that its emerging contributions to the Iranian armed forces will be dedicated to that war effort. This was made clear on Monday when reports of the Su-30 agreement coincided closely with a statement by Iranian Brigadier General Farzad Esmaili declaring that Iran was prepared to commit its air force to Assad’s defense.
Esmaili’s comments were detailed by the Kashmir Observer on Monday, and they seemed to presuppose increased capabilities for that air force in the near future. But regardless of whether the modernization of Iran’s military capabilities take place on the regime’s optimistic timeline, the offer of assistance to Syria serves as a salvo in the propaganda war between the Iranians and the regional rivals that are backing the moderate rebels fighting to unseat Assad. It comes on the heels of reports that Saudi Arabia and Turkey were preparing to jointly enter the conflict in an effort to counterbalance the growth of Iranian power.
That growth and the resulting proxy wars are also taking place in other areas of the Middle East, especially in Yemen where Iran is still backing the Houthi rebels. Although Iran routinely denies reports of its intrusions, Emirates 24/7 reported on Monday that the Arab Coalition, which is fighting to prevent an Iranian foothold on the Arabian Peninsula, had intercepted a new shipment of military equipment that was heading from Iran to Yemen disguised as medical supplies.
Such reports certainly help to justify Arab efforts to act unilaterally against the perceived Iranian threat, given the fact that even members of the US Congress tend to believe that there is insufficient Western leadership in the region at the present moment. But the overlap between the traditional military threat and the nuclear issue has been highlighted by that same Congress as it strives to curtail Iranian power and thereby remove the justification for a possible nuclear arms race in the Middle East.