Missile Tests Point to Persistence of Broader Iranian Confrontations with the US

Further specifications of the Ghadr-series missiles indicate that they are capable of carrying nuclear warheads, a fact which led much of the international community to decry the test-firing as a clear violation of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which governs implementation of the July 14 nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers and which calls upon the Islamic Republic to avoid further development or testing of such weapons.

In the wake of similar violations in October and November, Iranian officials denied that it had violated the earlier Security Council resolution 1929, which imposed stricter restrictions and was abrogated by the implementation of the nuclear deal. At the time, Iran’s defense focused on the claim that the missiles in question had not been “designed for” the purpose of carrying a nuclear payload, even though they were generally understood to be capable of doing so.

This defense was reiterated this week, with Iranian foreign ministry spokesperson Hossein Jaberi Ansari having been quoted by the Associated Press as saying on Friday that the newly-tested missiles were “conventional defensive instruments and they were merely for legitimate defense.” Ansari emphasized that his government’s position was that the latest tests, like the previous ones, are not violations of Security Council resolutions. But this claim seems to be undermined by comments from a number of his colleagues and even by Ansari himself.

As Iran News Update reported earlier in the week, IRGC Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh declared that Iran’s ballistic missile program will not be restrained under any circumstances. He also boasted that Iran’s “enemies” were “shivering from the roar” of the latest tests. This defiant commentary closely parallels remarks that were made by several military and government officials, including President Hassan Rouhani, around the time of the previous tests.

Those figures have repeatedly emphasized that the Islamic Republic has no intention of complying with international resolutions that are outside of the scope of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. Furthermore, when the US eventually imposed new economic sanctions on entities linked to the Iranian ballistic missile program in response to the October test-launch, Rouhani ordered the dramatic expansion of that program.

The latest launches appear to demonstrate that the IRGC is following through on this order. But more than that, Iran’s declared non-compliance with the UNSC resolutions seems to imply that Rouhani and the IRGC are aware of the fact that these test-launches are violations, and are committed to carrying them out nonetheless.

This transparent defiance has led to the even stronger calls to action by US congressmen who were already outraged by the previous ballistic missile tests. The Washington Post reports that whereas former congressional proposals and requests to the Obama administration were largely issued separately by Republicans and Democrats, the latest violations have elicited a more strongly bipartisan response than their precursors.

And in addition to jointly urging the Obama administration impose strong sanctions and other enforcement measures, the bipartisan leadership of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is crafting its own sanctions legislation as part of an attempt to take action if the executive fails to do so.

Many members of Congress were unsatisfied by the executive response to the October violation, both in terms of its speed and in terms of its strength. The Washington Post quoted Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte as saying that those sanctions, which were imposed in January after implementation of the nuclear agreement, are “proving to be anemic,” especially in light of the latest violations of ballistic missile provisions.

The Times of Israel clarifies that the weakness of those sanctions is largely a result of Iran’s sophisticated tactics for sanctions-evasion, which have led the country to develop multiple procurement networks for ballistic missile technology, so as to effectively continue illicit behavior once prior channels are closed off. This has led such experts as Foundation for Defense of Democracies Executive Director Mark Dubowitz to conclude that a repeat of January’s enforcement measures will not be effective in the present case.

The Times of Israel quotes Dubowitz as recommending that Congress compel the Obama administration to be “much more forceful in going after the foreign companies that are enabling Iran’s missile program using secondary sanctions all the way to identifying those sectors of Iran’s economy that actually provide technology and equipment for the missile program and imposing sector-based sanctions.”

This would be in contrast to what some expect to be a more modest approach to sanctions by the administration, if acting on its own. Furthermore, some have suggested that that administration is moving deliberately slowly in responding to the latest violations, in line with a soft policy that the administration’s greatest critics have at times described as “appeasement.”

This assessment was, however, disputed by the Center for Research on Globalization, which pointed out in a report on Friday that the controversy over Iran’s missile tests had contributed to President Obama’s decision to sign an executive order extending the state of “National Emergency” with regard to Iran for another year.

The report quotes the president as acknowledging, “Despite the historic deal to ensure the exclusively peaceful nature of Iran’s nuclear program, certain actions and policies of the Government of Iran continue to pose an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States.” 

The report also surmises that even if the Democratic frontrunner for this year’s presidential elections is the ultimate victor, she will be more willing to take strict punitive action against the Islamic Republic. “Clinton has long taken a hard-line and militarist position in relation to Iran,” the Center writes, without suggesting that Obama’s stance has been as weak as some of his detractors suggest. It points out, for instance, that Obama “personally authorized and oversaw” the Stuxnet cyberattacks that damaged an Iranian nuclear enrichment facility.

However, this incident was followed by a steady growth in Iran’s own hacking and cyberespionage capabilities, and that fact has opened up the Obama administration to further criticisms and questions about whether it is doing enough to confront threats from the Islamic Republic. Those questions began to look more urgent in 2013 when hackers employed by the Iranian government gained access to back-office systems of a dam outside of New York City. The intelligence-gathering operation prompted Western security experts to wonder whether it was a precursor to attempts at a serious attack.

CNN reports that the Justice Department is expected to issue an indictment against the government of Iran for this attack in the coming week, as part of an effort to “name and shame” participants in such activities, thereby raising international awareness of the threat. While it is fair to assume that the administration’s critics will not be satisfied with the strength of the response, it is also true that this episode demonstrates some of the ways in which the US is using the international legal system and multinational intelligence gathering, as well as economic sanctions, to confront ongoing illicit behavior by the Islamic Republic.

Inquisitr points out that another such legal challenge emerged this week when US District Judge George Daniels issued a judgement against the Iranian government ordering it to pay 10.5 billion dollars in damages to the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The suit alleged that Iran offered material support to the 19 hijackers who crashed commercial aircraft into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, mostly through its financing and support of the Hezbollah terrorist group, which provided training to some of those hijackers.

The judgement in that case does not represent conclusion proof of an Iranian connection but was rather issued as a default judgment because Tehran elected not to defend itself against the allegations. Instead, spokespeople for the Islamic Republic simply decried the case as “absurd” and “another evil joke by the Americans,” with Iran Press Editor-in-Chief Emad Abshenas arguing that the Al Qaeda perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks were “sworn enemies” of the Islamic Republic.

But this argument was undermined this week when new documents from the archives of the late Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden were released to the press. The National Council of Resistance of Iran reports that a letter from bin Laden to a high-ranking operative in Iraq warned the latter against conflict with Iran, which bin Laden referred to as “our main artery for funds, personnel, and communication, as well as the matter of hostages.”

The newly-released documents underscore what many foreign policy analysts have already observed about Iran’s traditional relations with Al Qaeda and other Sunni terrorist groups: that despite sectarian differences between the two side, they have frequently been willing to put aside those differences for the sake of shared goals, chiefly attacks on American and Israeli targets.