Rouhani’s Missile Threat Contributes to Doubts about Rapprochement

That resolution bars Iran from further work on or testing of weapons that are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, although Iran characterizes those restrictions as applying only to missiles that are “designed to” carry a nuclear bomb. It is not clear what the practical difference is between these two types, but in any event Iran has also declared its unwillingness to abide by any such restrictions.

Rouhani’s message to his defense minister reiterated the idea that missile control is a separate issue from Iran’s nuclear program and that the Rouhani administration had only entered into agreements regarding the latter. Nevertheless, the Wall Street Journal pointed out on Friday that the new disputes over missile control “cast fresh doubts” on the long term viability of the July 14 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action agreed upon between Iran and six world powers.

The Journal notes that the Western powers involved in that deal had previously expressed hope that the two Iranian ballistic missile tests – one in October and one in November – would not seriously endanger the other elements of the deal, even if those tests did constitute a violation of the European Union’s resolution governing implementation.

Still, Western critics of the Iranian regime have been pushing for their own governments, particularly the Obama administration, to take steps to express opposition to the ballistic missile violations, and to make it clear that there would be consequences for more of the same. The US Treasury Department finally indicated this week that it was preparing to take measures toward this end, in the form of new economic sanctions that would be enforced outside of the scope of the nuclear deal.

At the same time that Iran refuses to abide by the terms of such non-JCPOA enforcement measures, Iranian officials have at times indicated that they would view the actual implementation of such measures as violations of the JCPOA. Regardless of whether these contradictory sentiments were governing Rouhani’s decision-making process in ordering the expansion of Iran’s ballistic missile stockpiles, it seems clear that the previous violations of Security Council resolutions threaten to set off a series of retaliations that could eventually threaten the actual text of the nuclear agreement.

What’s more, this danger appears to have further exposed the extent to which the Obama administration and its allies are willing to make compromises and concessions in order to preserve that agreement. In a move that will certainly stoke the ire of individuals and groups who have criticized the administration on this point in the past, the Treasury apparently drew back from its sanctions threat following Rouhani’s threats of escalation.

Voice of America News pointed out on Friday that the Obama administration said that those sanctions, which would have affected about a dozen Iranian and non-Iranian businesses with ties to the country’s ballistic missile program, still remained on the table. But it was unclear when or even if they would actually move to enforcement. Meanwhile, the administration also indicated that it was looking at alternative, diplomatic means of responding to the missile test violations.

This latter statement seems to suggest persistent faith in the diplomatic process in spite of the objections from critics who say that the process was based on false premises about a moderate Iranian government under the leadership of President Rouhani. Western critics generally feel that the Iranian side of the nuclear negotiations was able to exploit this faith to secure an agreement that promises large-scale sanctions relief in exchange for very few commitments from Tehran, none of which indicate a general change in hostile behavior.

As Iran News Update pointed out on Thursday, Rouhani’s threat of an expanded missile stockpile gives additional ammunition to the National Council of Resistance of Iran and other groups that insist Rouhani is a regime insider and an implausible source of moderation or reform.

In the months since the conclusion of nuclear negotiations, there has been a surge in anti-Western rhetoric coming out of Tehran. And while most of this has originated in the office of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his allies in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, some of it has come from Rouhani as well. Thursday’s letter included examples of this. According to Business Insider, Rouhani used it to accuse the US of “continued hostile policies” and “illegal meddling” in the form of its enforcement of UN resolutions.

Just days earlier, Rouhani further undermined his own moderate credentials, according to Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty, when he used an Islamic unity conference to praise pro-government protests that helped to bring an end to the 2009 Green Movement protests against the disputed reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Rouhani was initially embraced as representing a major shift away from that hardline presidency. But this characterization has been strongly questioned by his former supporters inside of Iran, even though it has generally been defended by Western leaders including US President Barack Obama. Whereas the conclusion of the nuclear agreement seemed to support the moderation narrative, it coincided with an increase in the number of executions inside of Iran, as well as other signs of a heightened crackdown on dissent and “un-Islamic” elements of society.

Rouhani’s comments at the December 29 conference explicitly praised the theocratic system of governance in place in Iran, saying for instance, “Iran’s security today is established under the supreme leader.” He added that the pro-government demonstrations in 2009 demonstrated broad-based support for the clerical government, although this claim ignores the fact that those demonstrations were dwarfed by the reformist protests that they were responding to, which were violently repressed by Iranian security forces.

RFE/RL quoted one commentator as saying that Rouhani’s hardline perspective on the 2009 events had shattered the dreams of many of his remaining supporters. But many others had already withdrawn support over a range of broken campaign promises, relating to virtually all expected reforms other than rapprochement with the West over the nuclear issue. Now, his contribution to confrontation with the US may undermine that campaign promise, as well.

Rouhani certainly will have help in this. Other elements of the Iranian regime have been much more consistent about negatively impacting relations between the two countries. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has arguably taken the lead in this, as demonstrated by its decision last week to “test-fire” naval weapons in the vicinity of a US aircraft carrier, its role in a surge of recent arrests of persons accused of having ties to the West, and its boastful commentary about Iranian military capabilities and readiness for war.

In the latest example of this, Agence France-Presse reports that IRGC General Hossein Salami has expanded upon former propaganda regarding Iran’s missile capabilities. In an unprecedented move early in October, the IRGC broadcast images of hidden missile silos on state television. At a prayer gathering on Friday, Salami suggested that those images represented an insubstantial portion of the total IRGC stockpile. “We lack enough space in our stockpiles to house our missiles,” he said, nonetheless adding that Iran would never stop developing this “defense deterrent.”

Whether incidental or intentional, this statement clearly reflects that which was expressed by Rouhani in his letter. The similarity is all but certain to inflame commentary among Western critics and Iranian dissidents suggesting that the Rouhani administration and the IRGC are ideologically and strategically close together, and that Rouhani’s record does not justify concessions or the preservation of the nuclear deal in the face of belligerence.