Iran’s doublespeak is a desperate ploy

If history is any guide, Iran has no intention of giving up its ballistic missiles.
Saturday 20/07/2019
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles as he meets with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters Thursday, July 18, 2019. (AP)
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif smiles as he meets with U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres at United Nations headquarters Thursday, July 18, 2019. (AP)

Iran is playing a sneaky rhetorical game to fool its Western counterparts into thinking it is open to peace discussions, sending conflicting signals on the status of its ballistic missile programme and whether it could be the subject of future negotiations.

In an interview with US television network NBC, which aired July 15, Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif appeared to open the door to possible negotiations over Iran’s missile programme, saying that the United States would need “first to stop selling all these weapons, including missiles, to our region” if it wants Iran to give up theirs.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reacted, saying that Iran appeared willing to negotiate over its missile programme “for the first time,” in what he and US President Donald Trump presented as evidence that sanctions and military pressure were working.

However, within hours of Pompeo’s statement, the idea was shot down by the Iranian mission to the United Nations, which iterated that Iranian missiles are “absolutely and under no condition negotiable with anyone or any country, period.”

Ali-Reza Mir-Yousefi, spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, said the two men had misinterpreted Zarif’s public statements, in which he repeated demands that, if the United States “wants to talk about missiles, it should stop selling weapons, including missiles, to regional states.”

Pompeo’s comments not only showed Washington’s eagerness to turn weeks of confrontation with Iran into a negotiation opportunity but also served as a reminder of how hard such an endeavour will be to accomplish.

So what is Iran’s plan? Is it open to scaling back its missile programme if a compromise can be reached with the United States or is it unwilling to negotiate under any circumstances, as Zarif said?

If history is any guide, Iran has no intention of giving up its ballistic missiles, which are a central feature of its militaristic designs to exert influence throughout the region. Not only does Iran’s missile technology allow it to reach US targets in the Arab Gulf region with growing accuracy, it enables it to equip its regional proxies with increased military might, extending its sphere of influence far beyond its borders.

If Iran loses this technology, it knows it would lose a core part of its military strategy and leave itself more vulnerable than it already is. For Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which oversees the programme, this is not an option.

However, Zarif’s doublespeak does serve a purpose. It allows Iran to present fake peace-keeping credentials in front of a foreign audience and portray itself as the victim of Arab aggression.

This tired narrative is unlikely to prove convincing. It is well known that Iran has, for years, used its weapons to instigate conflict and stir sectarian strife outside its borders, including in Lebanon and Yemen.

Iran’s Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, for example, has acquired through Iran a staggering arsenal of short-range missiles, including those with greater accuracy and destructive power.

Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah recently claimed the missiles could reach all of neighbouring Israel, which he threatened to bring to the “verge of vanishing.”

In Yemen, Iran-made missiles have proven equally dangerous, falling into the hands of the Houthi rebels battling the internationally recognised government of Abd Rabbo Mansour Hadi.

Time and again, the Iran-backed Houthis have fired missiles at Saudi Arabia, often hitting civilian infrastructure and causing civilian casualties. The United Nations has repeatedly condemned such attacks “in the strongest terms.”

Perhaps most frightening are Iran’s alleged efforts to pair its ballistic missiles with nuclear technology, in clear violation of UN regulations. Last December, Iran was condemned by the United States, the United Kingdom, Germany and France for conducting a missile test to this effect.

All of this illustrates why Iran is the single biggest threat to peace and stability in the Gulf region and why curbing its missile programme should be a priority for the international community and the US administration as they seek to forge a new deal.

To ensure the Iranian threat is minimised, any potential deal between the parties should not only address Iran’s nuclear programme but also its missile programme. Anything short of that would put us back at square one and put the region at increased risk of Iranian aggression.