By Edward Carney
On Wednesday, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, issued vague warnings about “suspicious nuclear projects” that Tehran’s regional adversaries had supposedly invested in. Shamkhani did not describe these projects or identify any countries by name, but the relevant statement appeared to come in response to previous disclosures about a Trump administration plan to transfer American nuclear energy technology to Saudi Arabia.
That plan did not ultimately come to fruition and there is presently no information to suggest that it is being actively pursued, but Shamkhani’s remarks suggest that the Iranian regime has seized upon the mere hint of Western nuclear cooperation for propaganda purposes and to justifying the continuation of a longstanding military buildup, which was already amplified around the time of last month’s 40th anniversary of the Iranian revolution.
“This will force us to revise our strategy based on the nature and geography of new threats, and predict the requirements of our country and armed forces,” Shamkhani said, according to Reuters. Without acknowledging international concerns over Iran’s own failure to fully disclose the details of its nuclear work, the security official declared that suspicious nuclear projects “can endanger the security of the region and the world.”
Tehran routinely insists that even amidst large-scale buildups, its military projects are purely defensive in nature. However, the rhetoric of Iranian officials, particularly members and supporters of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, frequently consists of explicit threats against perceived “enemies” including the US, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the United Arab Emirates.
Shamkhani’s statement was no doubt intended to strengthen the former trend by giving the impression that there is an actively growing regional threat that Iran must be prepared to meet. But that statement closely coincided with the continued outpouring of militarist rhetoric that eagerly highlighted the prospect of war. On the same day that Shamkhani spoke out on this topic, Fars News Agency published a report highlighting the threats and warnings offered in recent days by three separate military officials.
While these remarks generally upheld the official line about Iran’s defensive posture, they also emphasized the supposedly distant geographical reach of Iran’s military capabilities. The overall message, according to Fars, was that “Iran is powerful and its enemies are weak.” And as such, General Rahim Safavi was quoted as saying, “We tell these groups that the Iranian Armed Forces will destroy them even beyond the borders.”
Referring to Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, General Hossein Salami said the IRGC and its proxies “will chase them thousands of kilometers away and will not stop this chasing until purging their remnants.” But foreign action and the threat thereof has certainly not been limited to ISIL targets, least of all when one takes into account instances of Iran-backed terrorism. At least six such terror plots were uncovered in Europe and the United States during 2018, including a plot to set off explosives at the annual gathering of Iranian expatriates near Paris under the banner of the National Council of Resistance of Iran.
In the midst of Iran’s recent military buildup, some officials have also teased the prospect of a conventional military threat against Western targets, ostensibly in order to counterbalance perceived Western threats in the Persian Gulf. In January, for instance, Admiral Touraj Hasnai Moqaddam was quoted as saying that an Iranian flotilla would soon be ready to travel to the Atlantic Ocean, near the American coast.
In an apparent effort to amplify such threats on Thursday, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei called for “maximum mobilization” against the US and Israel, adding that Iranian forces are capable of inflicting the “heaviest defeat” on its declared enemies. Once again, these comments were justified by appeal to an unspecified “hostile campaign” by those countries, thereby giving the supreme leader and his supporters plausible deniability in the face of criticisms that Iran is assuming an aggressive posture in its foreign policy.
The Iranian regime has made every effort to extend that deniability to its much-criticized ballistic missile program as well, even though international arms experts recognize very limited defensive applications of such technology.
The United Nations Security Council Resolution that codified the 2015 Iran nuclear deal also called upon the Islamic Republic to avoid all work related to such nuclear-capable weapons, but Iranian ballistic missile tests have continued uninterrupted. In fact, the Algemeiner published an extensive report on this weapons program on Wednesday and pointed out that IRGC officers have personally boosted plans for upwards of 50 ballistic missile tests per year.
This situation provided a major part of the foundation for the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action last May. Because of the potential nuclear applications of Iran’s ballistic missiles, the ongoing development of those weapons leads many observers to conclude that the regime has not given up its ambition to develop nuclear arms. This in turn encourages questions about Tehran’s seriousness when it condemns prospective nuclear projects among its regional adversaries, though it will surely have little impact on the regime’s efforts to leverage that issue in its war of words with the US and its allies.