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Iranian Rocket Launch Stokes Western Concerns

While the US and many of its allies regard this as a broad proscription, Iranian officials have carried out numerous ballistic missile launches since the resolution was adopted, arguing that its language does not obligate Iran to comply, and that the weapons are not extremely designed for the purpose of delivering a nuclear payload. This dispute provided a substantial part of President Trump’s justification for withdrawing from the Iran nuclear deal last May, and it has contributed to an escalating war of words between the two countries.

That escalation continued up until the scheduled launch, with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo threatening additional sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Tehran refused to back down, although when the launch of “Simorgh” rocket was carried out, it failed to achieve its stated purpose of putting a domestically-made communications satellite into orbit. The launch involved three stages, the first two of which were successful before problems emerged as the Payam satellite was being pushed beyond the Earth’s atmosphere.

Iranian state media nevertheless portrayed the launch as a success – a decision that could arguably reinforce the Trump administration’s position that the rockets are considered more important than the satellites and are actually being tested in the interest of further development of the Iranian regime’s long-range ballistic missile program. In theory, a rocket that is capable of placing an object in orbit is also capable of striking targets almost anywhere in the world, including in the United States.

Perhaps equally alarming as the fact that Iran carried out the launch is the revelation that Western intelligence had not discerned all of the relevant details ahead of time. According to the Associated Press, the failure of the rocket’s third stage came as a surprise to all parties involved, because experts outside of the Islamic Republic did not even know that the Simorgh had been equipped with a third stage. While its failure will no doubt underscore the persistent limitations in Iran’s missile development, it still appears as if some advancements in that development have taken place under the noses of foreign adversaries who are trying to monitor the issue closely.

Continuing the effort to forestall more of the same, Pompeo issued a statement soon after the launch was conducted, reiterating the administration’s position that this was done “in defiance of the international community and UNSCR 2231.” He then added that “the launch yet again shows that Iran is pursuing enhanced missile capabilities that threaten Europe and the Middle East.”

The day before the launch, NPR ran a story detailing the controversy and examining the Trump administration’s concerns. And while that story raised some doubts about the practicality of the known space-launch components as serious long-range weapons, it also acknowledged two essential facts: that the space program and the Simorgh rocket engine do indeed have links to the Iranian military, and that the relevant rockets were originally designed as missiles.

Additionally, the NPR piece said that it is “not necessarily” the case that satellite launches could provide stepping stones in the direction of more advanced missile development. But it did not discount the possibility of a link between the two programs. Rather, the report pointed out that other nations that have developed intercontinental ballistic missiles, like North Korea, have done so using newer rockets than those used for their space program. Iran need not follow the same pattern, but even if it did, the re-purposing of the older Simorgh rocket for a satellite launch may suggest underlying upgrades in the rockets used for military testing.

These observations help to highlight concerns that are shared among numerous countries in the West and in the Middle East. Accordingly, the government of France joined Pompeo in condemning the launch on Tuesday. “The Iranian ballistic program is a source of concern for the international community and France,” said Foreign Ministry spokesperson Agnes von der Muhll in what Reuters described as “the latest in a string of French comments expressing irritation at Iran’s ongoing ballistic missile program.”

Von der Muhll specifically called upon the Iranians to forego the second of its planned satellite launches, but on Wednesday, President Hassan Rouhani once again reiterated his regime’s disregard for warnings from both the US and Europe. According to Rouhani, the next launch will be ready in a few months’ time, although this represents an apparent delay in the regime’s original plans. That fact, along with the failure of the Simorgh’s third stage, may help to assuage some portion of Western observers’ concerns.

Yet those same observers are certain to continue pressuring the Islamic Republic over the issue, and the nature of that pressure may be explored in more detail next month. The US State Department announced last week that it would be hosting an international summit in Warsaw on February 13th and 14th, focusing on Middle Eastern affairs and more specifically on Iran. Pompeo expressed confidence that the summit would be attended by a long list of nations, representing, Europe, the Middle East, and much of the rest of the world. Their participation, he added, would contribute to the development of a broader coalition with the collective goal of containing Iran’s malign behaviors.

While missile testing is certainly counted among these activities by the regime’s adversaries, it is unlikely to be the highest priority topic of discussion. International cooperation on that subject may require advance agreement on other matters related to the 2015 nuclear deal, which the European Union and its member states have been actively defending even after the US withdrawal.

Fortunately for American efforts to develop a more tight-knit coalition, European commitment to that defense has seemingly been challenged by the proliferation of Iranian rhetoric and threatening actions against the West. These include recently-revealed terror plots and instances of spying, arrests of Western nationals inside the Islamic Republic, and open defiance of the international community. Ballistic missile tests are a prime example of the latter phenomenon, but Iranian officials have also warned of their willingness to take defiant steps in other areas, even by cancelling the nuclear deal in response to perceived slights from the West.

In one of the latest examples of this, the head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran said on Sunday that the country had already begun to take steps toward designing a nuclear enrichment program that would produce uranium of 20 percent purity, up from the only 3.67 percent that has been permitted since the implementation of the nuclear deal.

If Iranian officials continue to pursue these plans, it may effectively bring an end to European efforts to preserve the agreement, thereby removing a key incentive for European policymakers to oppose US sanctions and avoid adopting the White House’s assertive strategy for dealing with other matters, including Iranian missile tests.

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