Nuclear deal in jeopardy over Iran missile spat

Friday 08/01/2016
An October 2015 file picture shows the launch of an Emad
medium-range ballistic
surface-to-surface missile in an undisclosed location.

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.”