Nuclear deal in jeopardy over Iran missile spat
Beirut - The landmark nuclear agreement between Iran and US-led world powers, which raised expectations that nearly four decades of hostility between the Islamic Republic and the United States was coming to an end, has been plunged into jeopardy over a swelling dispute over Iran’s ballistic missile programme.
The United States was reportedly planning to levy new sanctions on Iranian companies and individuals after Tehran test-fired missiles on October 10th and November 21st.
Those launches did not violate last July’s ground-breaking agreement, under which crippling international economic sanctions imposed on Iran would be lifted in return for Tehran curtailing its contentious nuclear programme. The tests, however, were a breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, passed in 2010, that banned Iran from testing ballistic missiles that could one day carry nuclear warheads.
The tests indicate that Iran still seeks to develop at least intermediate-range missiles, suggesting that hardliners in Tehran are looking to strengthen Iran’s strategic deterrence as it engages in a string of proxy wars across the Middle East and to develop more powerful missiles, possibly as first-strike weapons, despite the prospect of rapprochement with the West that the July 14th agreement held out.
Iran already has the largest missile armoury in the Middle East and has long made clear it is determined to become a long-range missile power to rival Israel, the only Middle Eastern state with a ballistic force and nuclear arms.
This was pressed home on October 14th, days after the Emad medium-range missile test-firing, when Iranian state television showed a vast tunnel network inside a mountain with what appeared to be Ghadr ballistic missiles mounted on mobile launchers. This was said to be one of several secret installations built by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) across Iran.
It is not clear how far the brewing missile dispute could affect the nuclear agreement but other elements are also coming into play that are raising hackles on both sides and could wreck the fragile efforts to improve US-Iranian relations.
Tehran is angry about a new US anti-terrorism measure, enacted by US President Barack Obama on December 18th, that restricts visa-free travel for people who have visited Iran, Iraq, Syria or Sudan since 2010.
For its part, the United States accused IRGC naval units of carrying out “highly provocative” rocket tests on December 26th near the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman and vessels it was escorting through the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow gateway in and out of the Gulf.
Tehran denied that and accused the United States of waging “psychological warfare” against Iran.
The missile dispute hardened after UN experts ruled on December 11th that Iran’s October 10th test-firing, the first of the medium-range Emad ballistic missile, violated UN sanctions. It remains unclear what, if any, action the Security Council will take.
The new sanctions reportedly being prepared by the US Treasury would target 12 companies and individuals in Iran, including two commercial networks that operate in Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates to provide special materials to develop long-range missiles.
Tehran argues that the planned US sanctions are illegal and it has been backed by Russia and China, two of the states that signed the July 14th nuclear agreement. Iran argues that the proposed sanctions violate the Vienna pact.
On December 31st, the Obama administration apparently decided to delay the sanctions.
That may have been to head off a collision with Iran as the sanctions would have blocked US businesses from moving into the Iranian market once the Vienna deal takes effect, although there was no indication this was the reason for the postponement.
The same day, Iranian President Hassan Rohani ordered Defence Minister Hossein Dehqan to expand Iran’s missile programme in response to Washington’s “hostile policies and illegal and illegitimate meddling against Iran’s right to develop its defensive power”.
That was seen as a direct challenge to the United States. Dehqan declared: “Iran’s missile capabilities have never been the subject of negotiations with the Americans and never will be.”
Major-General Mohsen Rezaei, a former IRGC commander and currently secretary of the powerful 28-member Expediency Council that advises Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, urged Dehqan to accelerate the development of missiles with a range of 5,000km, which he said would put US targets within Tehran’s reach.
“Iran’s missiles can already hit any part of the Middle East, including Israel,” observed missile specialist Michael Elleman of London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies.
But he stressed that Iran is “likely to face difficulties if it decides to develop a ‘second generation’ intermediate-range missiles of 4,000km to 5,000km using solid-fuel technology… There is little reason to believe that the Islamic Republic could field such a missile before 2018.”