By Edward Carney
Less than a week after Brian Hook, the US special representative for Iran, exhibited components that had been recovered from Middle East combat zones, the political conflict over Iranian weapons development and exportation ramped up again on Tuesday, as the international community contemplated a response to a recent ballistic missile launch.
The test was conducted by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps on Saturday, just two days after Hook’s exhibition at joint base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, DC. It involved a weapon that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo described as being capable of carrying multiple warheads, according to NBC News.
In this sense, Saturday’s launch was in tension with United Nations Security Council 2231, which oversaw the implementation of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and separately “called upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid work on all weapons that are designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear payload. The comparatively weak language has led to some differences of interpretation, and these were highlighted on Tuesday when the Security Council held a closed-door meeting at the request of the French and British governments, both of which have previously expressed concern over the Iranian ballistic missile program and the regime’s destabilizing influence over the broader region.
In keeping with pre-established talking points, the US used the meeting to describe the latest launch – one of approximately a dozen since the nuclear deal went into effect – as an outright violation of the Security Council resolution. Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, added that the move was “dangerous and concerning, but not surprising.” She went on to accuse the international community of turning a blind eye to violations and malign activities of the kind that the Trump administration used to pull out of the nuclear deal, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, in May.
For their part, France and the United Kingdom extended their former criticisms of Iranian belligerence but would only say that Saturday’s launch was “inconsistent” with Resolution 2231. Still, Agence France Presse quoted British Ambassador Karen Pierce as saying that Iran’s activities “go way beyond legitimate defensive needs,” and Reuters credited France with objecting to the Iranian “frenzy” for missile development and stockpiling.
The two European nations and permanent Security Council member states have, along with Germany, been effectively torn between the White House’s assertive Iran policy and the efforts by the rest of Europe to expand trade relations with the Islamic Republic by keeping the JCPOA in force.
Some supporters of the JCPOA have expressed concern that further pressures on the Iranian regime could prompt it to follow the US in withdrawing from the deal, which imposes limited restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activity in exchange for sanctions relief. The agreement does not bar Western powers or the United Nations from imposing additional sanctions on Iran’s non-nuclear activities such as ballistic missile tests, support of terrorism, and human rights violations. Yet the European leadership has been wary of taking such steps, nonetheless.
As Reuters pointed out in its report on Tuesday’s Security Council meeting, this wariness was put on display in March when other European Union member states rebuffed efforts by the UK, France, and Germany to impose sanctions on the Iranian ballistic missile program. However, the same report underscored that the whole of Europe is facing rising levels of pressure from the US over this and related issues. Furthermore, European lawmakers may be generally more open to the notion of financial penalties on the Islamic Republic, following the past several months’ revelations of terrorist plots targeting Iranian opposition figures on European soil.
In June, two Iranian operatives were arrested while attempting to travel into France with explosives and a detonator. German authorities subsequently arrested a high-ranking Iranian diplomat who had been stationed in Vienna and was identified as the mastermind behind the plot to bomb the international rally organized near Paris by the National Council of Resistance of Iran. Three months earlier, authorities in Albania disrupted a plot to attack members of the NCRI’s main constituent group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran.
And in October, it was announced that an Iranian operative had been arrested in Denmark on suspicion of plotting the assassination of Iranian Arab opposition leaders.
The affected states naturally responded to these threats by urging collective action to confront Iranian terrorism and undermine relevant networks.
This pressure, together with more broad-minded pressure from the White House, may serve to amplify the “cracks” that Fox News reported to be showing in the “Iran deal coalition” on Tuesday. The report described some European leaders as “fuming” over the provocative ballistic missile tests, although this and other reports on the subject indicated that no collective action had been decided by either the Security Council or the EU.
This could still change, however, as the council is expected to meet again on December 19 to engage in a broader discussion about the implementation of the relevant resolution. Even if this also fails to yield concrete measures, Fox emphasized that the Trump administration has made it clear that the US will continue to take unilateral actions as they are deemed necessary.
In what may be a relevant example of a unilateral response, Business Insider reported on Tuesday that a US aircraft carrier was en route to the Persian Gulf for the first time since the USS Theodore Roosevelt left eight months ago. Although the deployment was scheduled far in advance of the Iranian missile test and surrounding political conflict, US officials did reportedly portray it as an answer to Iranian belligerence, as well as a warning to European allies about the potential danger of ignoring Iran’s destabilizing influence.
Tehran has made no secret of its vigorous pursuit of a greater regional presence, and Saturday’s missile launch is arguably emblematic of this effort. Business Insider quoted Brigadier General Aziz Nasirzadeh, the head of the Iranian air force, as saying “One of our most important programs is increasing the range of missiles and ammunition.” Officials have previously boasted of increasing their missile range and have specifically highlighted their supposed ability to strike US bases in Afghanistan, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere.
Furthermore, Reuters reported that the chief of staff of Iran’s armed forces claimed in 2016 that the regime was thinking of setting up its own naval bases in Yemen and Syria, two areas of civil war where Iranian influence has been credited with greatly protracting the conflict. This rhetoric was greatly expanded last week when Tehran announced its intention to place a number of new military naval vessels into service, including one that allegedly features stealth technology. One naval commander even claimed that the Sahand destroyer may soon be dispatched on a mission as far away as Venezuela.
Such rhetoric even goes beyond that which Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei offered when lauding new domestic military developments. “Increase your capability and readiness as much as you can,” Khamenei said in a speech before naval officials, adding that new ships and submarines should serve to extend the Iranian military’s influence well beyond the nation’s borders and the Persian Gulf.