As well as issuing this and other verbal warnings, the administration has imposed new sanctions on 25 individuals and companies with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program. Shortly thereafter, satellite imagery showed the Semnan launch pad to have been reset for another launch, but that those plans were apparently scrubbed. It is unclear if Wednesday’s launch was a rescheduling of the previous test or whether it was something altogether new. But what is clear, according to Fox News, is that the follow-up launch involved a different category of weapon. Instead of a medium-range ballistic missile, this incident involved a short-range surface-to-air weapon.
It is therefore possible to interpret this at once as an act of defiance and as an effort to scale back the extent of that defiance, and to test the Trump administration’s response to an arguably lesser provocation. This dual interpretation is arguably made more significant by a policy statement from former International Atomic Energy Agency Deputy Director General Olli Heinonen, which was published on Wednesday at the website of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Heinonen noted that there are undisclosed side-deals involved in implementation of the Iran nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, and that some of these deal with the question of to what extent Iran’s missile programs will be restricted. It is well known that United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid further development or testing of ballistic missiles that are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. But it is possible that the Iranians and Americans also discussed restrictions on less powerful missiles, such as cruise missiles, that are nonetheless considered nuclear-capable.
In any event, the apparent shift from ballistic missile to conventional missile testing at Semnan is quite possibly indicative of an Iranian effort to antagonize the Trump administration to whatever extent it can do so while still staving off the threat of war. However, the public statements of hardline Iranian officials seem tailor-made to discourage the perception that Tehran is backing down in any way. Indeed, some of those statements have explicitly embraced the prospect of war, just as the IRGC and other hardline entities have done on various occasions in the past.
For instance, Al Jazeera reported on Thursday that Ali Akbar Velayati, the foreign affairs advisor to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, had declared that “Washington does not dare carry out its military threats against Iran.” He went on to say that Iranian retaliation against a theoretical attack would “make America face dark days to come.” Velayati also urged the US to leave the Middle East altogether, but it is all but certain that the Trump administration will be taking a more assertive role in the region than its predecessor had.
This promise of assertiveness has had a significant impact on public discourse throughout Iran, according to the New York Times. It reports that many Iranian citizens are preparing for the re-imposition of sanctions, as well as considering how the Trump administration’s interactions with Russia will affect the fledgling alliance between that country and the Islamic Republic. The Times also quotes some Iranians as recognizing the role that their government is playing in ramping up the tensions between itself and the White House. The ballistic missile test launch was openly criticized in this context, but was defended by supporters of the Iranian regime as a justified response to Western threats.
Still, that response has raised concerns among some Iranians about the possibility of US-led bombing – a drastic shift from the supposed improvement in relations that had been witnessed during the Obama era. However, it bears noting that neither President Trump nor his leading foreign policy advisors have explicitly threatened military action against Iran. The wording of the statement putting Iran “on notice” was deliberately vague, reportedly being aimed at convincing the Islamic Republic to tread lightly in its future dealings with the White House.
Insofar as military action is on the table, there is no doubt about American superiority in that regard. But as if in response to the defiant remarks by Velayati and others, the National Interest has re-published a feature from more than a year ago comparing American and Iranian military technologies and considering the likely focus of military efforts by each side in the event of direct conflict. A note accompanying the article states that it has been re-run as a result of renewed reader interest.
In the time since the feature’s original publication, the US has presumably improved its capabilities for responding to the Iranian “swarm tactics” that would be deployed in an attempt to overwhelm superior technology with greater numbers of outmoded weapons. Meanwhile, the IRGC and the regular Iranian military have repeatedly boasted of their own technological advancements, but many of these can be shown to be fabrications, such as images of non-functional models or merely cosmetic modifications to the same old weapons and vehicles.
All of this goes to show that the Trump administration is not likely to take Velayati’s defiant tone very seriously. But this is not to say that the administration is actively pursuing a military option. Doing so might be seen as violating Trump’s slogan of “America first,” which seems to call for limited direct involvement in foreign affairs, but also for the assertive promotion of American interests in regions like the Middle East. A balance between these goals can, at least in theory, be accomplished via economic pressure and other non-military means, including the promotion of a domestic resistance movement in Iran, like that which is organized under the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
The ballistic missile-focused sanctions are one early example of this, and others appear to be pending. For instance, the administration is said to be considering listing the IRGC as an international terrorist organization, in the interest of discouraging Western investment that might indirectly support the Islamic Republic’s destabilizing activities in the region and throughout the world. There is considerable pressure on the administration to continue following this line, some of it coming from American supporters of the PMOI, some of it from long-standing Iran hawks, and some of it from American allies such as Israel.
It had previously been reported that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was planning to meet with President Trump. Now, Bloomberg indicates that Netanyahu is specifically planning to urge the US administration to use sanctions and other pressure to drive a wedge between Iran and the Lebanese terrorist organization Hezbollah, a longstanding dependent of the Islamic Republic. The article also notes that the Israelis naturally desire a solution to the Syrian crisis in which both Hezbollah and Iran have a greatly diminished role. Netanyahu’s meeting with Trump will presumably seek to obtain commitments on this point as well.
What’s more, an editorial that appeared in The Hill on Wednesday implied that Netanyahu would have a high likelihood of success in this latter endeavor, since the Israeli position on Syria aligns closely with that which had previously been expressed by the Trump administration’s Secretary of Defense James Mattis. In 2012 he said that the fall of the Assad regime in Syria would be a substantial strategic setback for Tehran, which he described much more recently as the single greatest contributor to instability in the Middle East. Other reports suggest that Mattis’ view on the importance of addressing the Iranian threat is widely shared within the administration.
So far, though, the Iranian role in Syria has not been seriously undermined by the US. The former administration approved of an Iranian seat at international negotiations over the crisis, and now the Iranians are standing side-by-side with the Russians and Turks in ceasefire talks, although the three countries have distinctly different interests where the Syrian Civil War is concerned. New Kerala reported that on Wednesday the three parties undertook their first negotiating session on the implementation of a ceasefire for which a framework has already been established.
Of course, critics of the Iranian regime object to Iranian participation in such talks, especially considering that Iran-backed militant groups have repeatedly violated past ceasefire agreements. It is highly likely that the Trump administration shares this critical view, and although it hasn’t yet taken notably steps to constrain Tehran’s influence over Syria, it is virtually assured that American confrontations with the Islamic Republic will not be limited to the issue of ballistic missile testing.