The Iranian dissident group known as the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran has cited its own intelligence-gathering alongside that of Western intelligence agencies in order to repeatedly emphasize the connections between Tehran and the North Korean nuclear weapons program. Other critics of the Iranian regime and other advocates for a more assertive US foreign policy have done the same. Collectively, this advocacy has served to raise awareness of what the Washington Free Beacon describes as the potential “threat of a direct attack on the United States.”
The PMOI and its political allies have urged more assertive US policies not just on the Iranian missile program, but also on the entire issue of Iran’s nuclear research and development. In the view of some policymakers these two issues are separate, and they were treated as such under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which was finalized in July 2015.
Unable to come to an agreement about how tightly the Iranian missile program would be constrained under the nuclear deal, the US and Iran resolved to simply leave the issue out of the final agreement, addressing it instead via supplementary deals and documents. The United Nations Security Council resolution that oversaw the implementation of the JCPOA called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid further work on and testing of weapons “designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.”
This actually softened the language of a previous Security Council resolution, which made it clearer that compliance was obligatory, as well as referring to ballistic missiles only as being “capable of carrying a nuclear warhead,” regardless of the supposed intentions behind their design. The change has given the Islamic Republic some standing to argue that none of its post-JCPOA ballistic missile tests were violations of existing agreements, both because the missile restrictions are non-binding and because the international community cannot prove that the Iranian missiles are intended for nuclear warheads.
Naturally, though, many critics of the Iranian regime are skeptical of Iran’s intentions or even fully convinced that the leadership still intends to eventually obtain usable nuclear weapons. Olli Heinonen, a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, has frequently pointed out that every other country that has developed intercontinental ballistic missiles has armed them with nuclear warheads. This point about the essential identity of such weapons was reiterated in a new policy statement that Heinonen has written for the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, which retains him as a senior advisor on science and non-proliferation.
In that article, the former nuclear official elaborated upon other recent calls for the Trump administration to lift the veil of secrecy that has been held over from the Obama White House with regard to the so-called secret side deals to the nuclear agreement. While some of these details have already been revealed, Heinonen points out that one thing that remains unknown is how Iranian and American negotiators mutually defined the key phrases in the ballistic missile resolution.
Clarification on this point could help to determine how the Trump administration can move forward to hold Iran accountable for ballistic and cruise missile tests. But in any event, Heinonen argues that this is an issue that must be addressed. “Developments on Tehran’s missile program therefore cannot be dealt with in isolation from its nuclear efforts,” he writes in his list of recommendations.
Heinonen goes on to say that if it turns out the existing language of the resolution is too weak to justify enforcement, then the UN Security Council should move to make sure that more explicit and long-lasting restrictions are in place before such time as the Islamic Republic is in a position to sprint toward the levels and quantities of nuclear enrichment that would allow it to produce a nuclear weapon. Heinonen’s statement reiterates that this sprint could be completed in as little as a few weeks.
In theory, the JCPOA will prevent Iran from reaching sufficient levels of enrichment for a period of at least several years. But even if inspections succeed in keeping Iran from enriching uranium significantly beyond the levels defined under the agreement, there are other sources of significant concern for critics of the deal. Among these is the notion that the regime is actually being permitted to expand its access to raw uranium, thus giving it abundant resources with which to undertake the theoretical nuclear sprint.
This was the focus of several reports this week describing the conclusion of a large-scale uranium sale from Russia to Iran, which was approved by the Obama administration in its final weeks. The Iranian Students News Agency gave the total figure for this purchase as 149 tons of “yellow cake” uranium, and the report also boasted that this was equivalent to 10 years’ worth of domestic production. It raises the total quantity of post-JCPOA uranium importation to 360 tons, most of it coming from Russia. News outlets that are critical of the Iranian regime have emphasized that this results in Iran having approximately 60 percent more uranium than prior to the nuclear deal.
The multiple import deals with Iran also underscore the still-developing relationship between the two countries – something that has the potential to be a source of frustration as the Trump administration attempts to impose a more assertive Iran policy on the world and build consensus for it. Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi left Iran on Wednesday for a one-day visit to Moscow, where he was set to discuss “bilateral and international issues,” according to 24 India News and Iran’s Tasnim News Agency.
The visit comes shortly after Foreign Minister Javad Zarif made a public statement predicting “difficult days ahead” for the nuclear agreement, not just because of the Trump administration’s interest in renegotiating it but also because of the rejection of this prospect by the other six parties to the agreement, especially Tehran and its reliable backers in Moscow and Beijing. However, Trump’s former promises regarding the nuclear deal have virtually fallen silent since he took office last month, and the Daily Mail suggested on Wednesday that his team may be shifting its focus in order to punish Iran over objectionable non-nuclear behaviors, without undermining the JCPOA directly.
The Washington Free Beacon’s report on the prospective missile defense system may highlight one aspect of this strategy. But there are others that are still coming clear as the administration’s approach to Iran policy continues to take shape. The Daily Mail report focuses on the possibility that Trump may have the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps placed on the US State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. Currently, the foreign special operations wing of the IRGC, known as the Quds Force, occupies a spot on the list. But harsh critics of the regime, including many of Trump’s advisors as well as the PMOI, have long been urging a formal expansion in the recognition and punishment of Iran’s record as the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism.
The IRGC’s role in this terrorism is one of the justifications for criticism of the JCPOA, since the hardline paramilitary organization has controlling interests in a very wide range of Iranian economic institutions and industries. The Daily Mail article points out that the “fine print” of current sanctions laws allow for Western firms to do business with the IRGC indirectly, even though its acknowledged business interests are on blacklists. Many other such interests are unacknowledged, but are widely understood to be hidden behind shell corporations and collectives of minority ownership.
The designation of the IRGC as a terrorist group is reportedly in one of several executive orders that President Trump is expected to sign in the days ahead. The Daily Mail explains that the explicit intention behind this move is to discourage Western businesses from dealing with the IRGC, even directly. It is possible that for many of those businesses, this will mean effectively ending their plans to explore economic opportunities in the Islamic Republic. In other words, it may serve to partly reverse the situation created by the JCPOA, thereby undermining in the name of taking a tougher stance on terrorism.
Whatever the precise plans may be for the Trump administration’s Iran policy, Voice of America News suggested on Tuesday that that administration is largely of one mind about the way forward. In confirmation hearings, Defense Secretary James Mattis readily described Iran as the most destabilizing force in the Middle East today. And in the wake of Iran’s most recent ballistic missile test, National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was quick to publicly put Iran “on notice,” while President Trump himself emphasized that all options were on the table for the sake of dealing with Iran’s malign behaviors.
In public statements, the Iranian leadership has apparently been dismissive of Trump’s aggressive tone, but Voice of America quoted Press Secretary Sean Spicer as saying that Tehran is “kidding itself” if it does not take the change in administration seriously. Nevertheless, the free exchange of rhetoric appears to be continuing, with Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei insisting, according to Bloomberg, that the regime’s domestic supporters would come forward on Friday, the 38th anniversary of the Islamic revolution, to defy Trump’s hardline tone.
On the other hand, in an interview with Fox News, the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ executive director, Mark Dubowitz argued that the Iranian leadership’s resurgence in rhetoric may conceal “some deep-seated fears about what the United States is willing to do” under the leadership of an administration that already agrees to a very great extent about its need to confront Iran over missile development, support for terrorism, and the misappropriation of Western capital.