Iran’s ballistic missile threats alienate Europe

December 03, 2017
Path to showdown. France’s President Emmanuel Macron (L) walks into a meeting with his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rohani at a hotel in New York, on September 18. (AFP)

French President Em­manuel Macron’s public expressions of concern about Iran’s ballistic missile programme provoked angry reac­tions in Tehran. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) has threatened to increase the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles, a response that shows the limits of European diplomacy even as it exposes the IRGC’s self-defeating approach by unnecessarily alien­ating the Europeans.

The row between Tehran and Paris began with Macron’s well-meaning attempt to preserve the nuclear agreement between Iran and six world powers, officially known as the Joint Comprehen­sive Plan of Action (JCPOA).

During a surprise visit to Ri­yadh, Macron correctly identified Iran’s ballistic missile programme as a threat to the JCPOA’s survival. He suggested a new round of ne­gotiations to “put a framework in place for Iran’s ballistic activities and open a process, with sanc­tions if needed.”

The nuclear agreement does not address Iran’s missile programme but a subsequent UN Security Council resolution “calls upon Iran not to undertake any activ­ity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of deliver­ing nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” US officials accuse Iran of testing missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons but Iranian leaders argue their country’s missiles are not de­signed to carry nuclear warheads.

Macron’s statements were not well received in Tehran.

Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, IRGC chief commander, in a November 23 news confer­ence, said the French president’s statements reflected his “inexpe­rience.” Jafari added: “This issue [missile programme] is different from the nuclear issue. Missile capability is defensive.”

Jafari’s deputy, Brigadier-Gen­eral Hossein Salami, later raised the stakes in a televised interview. “Until now, we have limited the range of our [ballistic] missiles to 2,000km and did not increase it,” he said. “This is not because of technological limitations but due to a certain strategic logic behind the range of our missiles. The Eu­ropeans should know: If they tres­pass our realm, we will increase the range of our missiles.”

Remarkably, Salami’s statement runs contrary to Jafari’s of October 31. Then, the IRGC chief commander said there was no need to increase the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles: “The Americans are within the 2,000km range of our country. We will respond in the case of aggres­sion.”

In the end, Salami’s threat to in­crease the range of Iran’s ballistic missiles may be more bluster than a reflection of Iranian military power, capabilities and intent but it is still significant in showing the limits of European diplomacy.

Worse, such statements alienate the European Union, which does not take the Trump administra­tion’s hard-line approach towards Tehran. If anything, the threat to increase ballistic missile range may force the Europeans to aban­don attempts to mediate between Iran and the United States.

If that is the outcome, it will not be the first time that the IRGC has demonstrated its self-defeating approach to diplomacy.