Khamenei Pushes Iranian Missile Program, More Conflict with West

In October, while Iran was taking steps to comply with the previous summer’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and secure relief from US-led economic sanctions, the IRGC carried out the test-launch of a nuclear-capable ballistic missile, in violation of UN Security Council resolution 1929.

The incident provoked immediate condemnation from a number of foreign powers, in the midst of which the IRGC carried out a similar test of a more advanced missile in November. Around the same time, Iranian state media broadcast images from inside Iran’s missile silos, with IRGC officials boasting of the size of the country’s stockpiles.

The Obama administration eventually responded to the first incident by imposing new sanctions on 11 individuals and organizations with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program. That response, however, came only after the JCPOA was finally implemented in mid-January, and also after several weeks of urging by the US Congress.

Following the sanctions, Iran’s supposedly moderate President Hassan Rouhani responded by ordering Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan to greatly expand the country’s ballistic missile program. Figures in the Iranian military indicated to the media that such development was ongoing, and this commentary was followed up on March 8 and 9 by tests of three additional nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, at least two of which were painted with the message, “Israel must be wiped out.”

The US quickly asked the UN Security Council to take up this issue, but it has faced opposition from some supporters of the Islamic Republic, most importantly Russia, which shares permanent member status with the US, Britain, France, and China on the Security Council. In the midst of this opposition, American prospects for an international response to the latest tests have seemed dim.

Of particular issue is the fact that as of implementation of the JCPOA, the Security Council’s resolution 1929 was abrogated by resolution 2231, which is based upon the same essential principles but uses decidedly softer language, “calling upon” Iran to avoid work on weapons “designed to be capable of carrying” a nuclear warhead, as opposed to simply saying that Iran shall not test or develop any ballistic missile capable of carrying such a payload.

Khamenei’s latest remarks on the topic seem to suggest that the lack of enforcement options has emboldened the regime’s rhetoric. Many Western critics of the July 14 nuclear agreement have expressed concern that the Obama administration might not be willing to take unilateral measures to punish Iranian misbehavior if it believed that doing so would endanger the longevity of the JCPOA. Tehran has repeatedly insisted that any new sanctions could be regarded as violations of the deal and grounds for Iran to cease its own compliance. In this context, Iranian provocations over the ballistic missile issue can be seen as essentially daring the US to put the agreement in peril.

As the ultimate authority in all matters of Iranian policy, Khamenei theoretically could have prevented the JCPOA from going forward. But most analysis of the agreement has maintained that he was compelled to allow limited concessions, for fear of prompting domestic unrest if he undermined what was apparently the only reformist platform that President Rouhani pursued after his 2013 election. Subsequent to the agreement, Khamenei has voiced extensive criticism of and skepticism about the JCPOA, albeit without directly undermining its implementation or continuance.

The supreme leader’s speech on Wednesday continued that pattern. It reiterated a position he had taken when nuclear negotiations were being concluded, barring his subordinates from negotiating with the US over anything other than the nuclear issue. “Those who say the future is in negotiations, not in missiles, are either ignorant or traitors,” he said in his latest remarks.

Fox News suggested that this comment may have been a direct response to former President Ali Akbar Rafsanjani, an ally of Rouhani who was a leading advocate for the political faction that was identified as primarily moderate and reformist in last month’s elections for the Iranian parliament and the Assembly of Experts, the body which could be tasked with choosing Khamenei’s successor.

But the supreme leader’s decision to put missiles ahead of negotiations may also be a response to Rouhani himself, and an expression of a widely-recognized conflict within the regime regarding the future of Iran’s relations with foreign powers including the United States. On Monday, Al Monitor published an article indicating that Rouhani has expressed interest in pursuing a national agreement modeled after the JCPOA and focused upon a plan for Iran’s economic future.

Presumably, if that plan follows Rouhani’s strategy it will include more engagement with the West, creating the sort of “calm environment” that he praised for allowing Iran to expand its nuclear program when he was the country’s lead nuclear negotiator. Khamenei, on the other hand, appears to remain intent on open defiance, even at the cost of further sanctions. This was underscored by his speech coinciding with the Iranian New Year, which began on March 20. In it, he declared the coming year the “Year of the Resistance Economy,” referring to the program of domestic development and regional commerce by which the Islamic Republic had attempted to weather its isolation from international trade.

The maintenance of this “resistance economy” can also be expected to preserve the status quo for state-affiliated institutions that have been enriched in recent years either in spite of the sanctions or even because of them. Many of these institutions are owned either in whole or in part by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, which has dominated the country’s black market trade in foreign goods and which the National Council of Resistance of Iran estimates as currently controlling more than 50 percent of the Iranian gross domestic product.

Predictably, the IRGC would also stand to benefit financially from the continued expansion of the ballistic missile program, owing to their connections to companies involved in the domestic production of those weapons. Meanwhile, as long as Russia continues to stand by the Islamic Republic, the latter will likely rely upon the former in order to gain access to missiles that are not currently produced domestically. This could deepen a political and economic relationship that gained strength during the period of economic sanctions, when Russia skirted those sanctions to continue doing business with Iran.

Khamenei’s speech may appeal to Russian as well as Iranian figures who are committed to open defiance of the West, although it will perhaps be poorly received by figures in both countries who are interested in managing that defiance over the long term. Meanwhile, the conflict between these two strategies is mirrored in the West by conflict between those who are committed to upholding the nuclear deal at most any cost and those who, like Middle East policy analyst Elliot Chodoff, believe the JCPOA “shows incompetence” and has “hurt America’s image as a superpower.”