How significant are sanctions against Iran’s ballistic missile programme?
Dubai - Implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) that Iran secured with the P5+1 regarding its nuclear-related activities is a groundbreaking development that Tehran hopes will end its international isolation.
The removal of international economic sanctions against Iran, some dating back 40 years, will release an estimated $150 billion in frozen assets and reconnect Iranian markets to the global economy and finance — especially with much-needed investment from Europe.
However, just as those sanctions on Iran were lifted, the United States imposed new penalties related to Tehran’s ballistic missile programme.
Iran sees attempts to rein in its missile programme as a ploy to disarm the country and is likely to fight any such moves aggressively. Even as the JCPOA was being negotiated, Iran was positioning itself to ensure the nuclear programme was treated separately from other issues, especially the development of missiles, and warned that sanctions would jeopardise a potential nuclear agreement.
The ballistic missile programme is the centrepiece of Iran’s defence strategy. For the region, however, it represents a dangerous and increasingly sophisticated threat reinforcing insecurities.
In August 2015, Iran unveiled its Fateh-313 short-range ballistic missile and two months later tested the liquid-fuel Emad intermediate-range ballistic missile — apparently in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which prohibits Iran from conducting launches of ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.
In early January, the US military released a video of small craft, purportedly Iranian, test-firing unguided missiles in close proximity to US and French warships transiting the Strait of Hormuz.
Although President Barack Obama’s administration regards the JCPOA as its most important diplomatic feat, it has contended with pressure from Congress, as well as its Israeli and Arab allies, to not go soft on Iran, which spearheads an anti-US alliance in the Middle East creating more problems than ever.
Similarly, the Iranian government has been under pressure at home from critics wanting reassurances against any rapprochement with the United States and to dispel fears that the JCPOA is the start of a campaign to force Iran into compromise on its wider strategic interests.
The United States committed in the JCPOA to refraining from policies intended to “adversely affect normalisation of economic relations with Iran”. The latest US sanctions targeting Iran arguably conflict with this but do so limitedly — for now. The new US sanctions are narrow — designating 11 entities and individuals involved in procurement of components for the Iranian ballistic missile programme — and are unilateral, so do not affect non-US companies. The United States modestly expanded sanctions on Hezbollah, whose patron is, of course, Iran.
While the new US sanctions against Iran lie in a grey area, legally speaking, they could be politically manageable so long as they do not make a secondary impact, such as if they were to be enforced extraterritorially, affecting European trade with Iran. While there will be contending perspectives on the new US sanctions, and the JCPOA could face difficulties, broadly speaking Iran and the P5+1 — especially the United States — remain keen to safeguard the nuclear agreement.
Meanwhile, the United States continues to reach out to Iran. US Secretary of State John Kerry has spoken over the phone with Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif at least 11 times already in 2016 (in comparison, he has done so with Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir twice). The United States has also included Iran in mediation efforts for the Syrian civil war, granted clemency to seven Iranians charged with export violations and dropped Interpol warrants for 14 others in exchange for the release of five Americans.
Despite improving US-Iranian relations, talk of rapprochement is premature. Adam Szubin, acting under secretary for terrorism and financial intelligence at the US Treasury Department, stated that the United States will “vigorously press sanctions against Iranian activities outside of [JCPOA] — including those related to Iran’s support for terrorism, regional destabilisation, human rights abuses and ballistic missile programme”.
By targeting the ballistic missile programme in Iran, the US administration hopes to allay concerns at home, in Israel and among Arab allies of going soft but also desires a control valve to snap back European companies shaping up for business with Iran as a lever of influence.
The real test will come when a new administration takes office in the United States next January and how it chooses to work — or not — with Iran. Longer term, however, Europe will play the decisive role in safeguarding the JCPOA if US-Iranian relations sour under new American leadership.