Politifact ultimately judged this claim to be mostly true, noting that it has qualified support from most foreign policy and nonproliferation experts. The supposed success of Obama’s policy of engagement stems from the fact that, under the interim agreement governing negotiations, Iran agreed temporarily to halt enrichment of uranium above the 20 percent level, to convert already enriched stockpiles into forms that are more difficult to weaponized, and to delay the installation of certain new components and the completion of the Arak heavy water reactor.
These, at least, are the agreements that Iran has been abiding by in public. This does not preclude the possibility that the regime has violated some terms of the agreement in secret, especially considering that officials have refused to accept the Additional Protocol to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and have placed limits on investigator access to the country, even barring them from sites that have been specifically cited as suspicious.
The International Atomic Energy Agency has specifically and repeatedly criticized Iran for a lack of cooperation in this regard, and has called upon it to be more transparent as the process moves forward. Nevertheless, the IAEA has supported the Obama administration’s self-assessment by saying that Iran still appears to be broadly in compliance with the agreements that it made under the Joint Plan of Action.
Still, the experts interviewed by Politifact indicate that Iran’s public compliance only makes Obama’s policy temporarily successful at best. In fact, earlier in December a US delegation to the UN raised concerns about Iran’s efforts to illicitly purchase components for the Arak heavy water reactor, which could provide the Islamic Republic with a plutonium pathway to a nuclear weapon. The regime defended itself by saying that it was only the installation of such components that was banned under the interim agreement, and not their purchase. But incidents like this suggest that Iran may be positioning itself to rapidly advance its nuclear program, and possibly its nuclear weapons development, as soon as talks conclude or break down.
Indeed, some experts cited by Politifact made it clear that Iran will almost certainly be in a position to move that program forward much more quickly at that time, because crucial supporting activities have been ongoing, including research into more advanced enrichment centrifuges, production and stockpiling of missiles, and perhaps even work on the design of a nuclear bomb.
Iran’s work on its weapons systems has been vigorous during the period of strained diplomacy with the US and Europe, and public statements surrounding that work have been aggressive toward Iran’s traditional adversaries. In recent weeks, Iranian military and political figures have been persistent in lauding the strength and new advancements of the nation’s missile stockpiles. The International Business Times noted on Monday that Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan added to this rhetoric by making the bold, if implausible claim that Iran is the world’s fourth leading missile power, behind the United States, Russia, and China.
Dehqan’s comments came in the context of his attempts to enlist Russia’s help to further expand Iran’s arsenal. Claiming that an agreement between the two countries was signed before the imposition of relevant international sanctions, Dehqan urged Russia to violate those sanctions by shipping its S-300 surface-to-air missile system to Iran.
It would not be the first violation of sanctions agreed upon between Iran and Russia, which have previously entered into agreements to barter oil for goods or make purchases in local currencies instead of reserve currencies, in order to circumvent sanctions enforcement structures.
The S-300 missile system would reportedly give Iran some ability to track and intercept cruise missiles and low-altitude aircraft. Of course, Iran claims to already have such capabilities, and on Monday it used its official news outlets including Fars News Agency to claim that it had tracked several spy planes with its missile systems and forced them to turn back.
The same article claims that Iran had downed a US ScanEagle drone in 2012, and also that “Iran has downed many other US drones as well, and always started reproducing them after conducting reverse engineering on them.”
Iran has previously shown photographs and footage of what Revolutionary Guards claimed was a reproduction of a US-made drone, but independent aviation experts concluded that the craft was probably little more than a model.
However true or false Iran’s claims about its weapons systems are, the repetition of those claims, especially at this time of unusually open diplomacy, goes to show that any success the Obama administration has had at engaging with the Islamic Republic has been very limited in scope. In fact, Ali Shamkhani, the secretary or Iran’s Supreme National Security Council took care to confirm this on Monday. Tasnim News Agency quotes Shamkhani as saying, “Negotiations are only for the nuclear issue,” and declaring that Iran will not seek to resume diplomatic ties with the United States even if those negotiations come to a successful agreement.
The Tasnim reported also noted that Shamkhani said Iran now enjoys a stronger position than ever in Iraq since the replacement of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with Haider al-Abadi. This comment plainly justifies fears of just such an outcome by Iran’s major critics, who note that the rise of Sunni militants of the Islamic State in Iraq is largely attributable to the Shiite takeover of the Iraqi government by the Tehran-supported Maliki administration.
If Shamkhani’s claim is accurate, it raises serious questions about the possibility that in spite of ongoing diplomatic talks, Iran’s regional influence poses at least as great a threat to US interests as before.