Will Russia play ball with the US on Iran’s ballistic missile programme?
Dubai - The Trump administration’s Iran hawks will likely signal the end of the honeymoon period in US-Iran relations following the 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers.
Efforts under US president Barack Obama to safeguard the Iran nuclear accord and use the apparent confidence-building it generated for further progress in US-Iran engagement has masked the deep divide between the two countries. On almost every strategic crisis in the Middle East, Iran and the United States appear to be in direct competition.
While the Iranian nuclear programme has taken centre stage internationally in recent years, the Iranian ballistic missile programme continues to generate great risks to American interests.
Even without nuclear warheads, those weapons represent potent devices whose growing sophistication in range, accuracy and lethality ultimately outpaces the ability of effective countermeasures to thwart them.
The United States will, as a matter of course, confront Iran over its ballistic missile programme, seeking to curtail its development. However, as no military option exists to destroy the weapons, the Americans can go only as far as diplomacy can take them.
Alongside the threat of unilateral sanctions against Iran, the United States will need to build diplomatic momentum internationally and here the Russian position will be critical. From the Russian perspective, there is little motivation to provide much support to American efforts to force Iran to curtail its ballistic missile programme. Moscow may view it as troublesome, as it typifies the international challenge of missile proliferation and its consequences, but it does not in itself constitute a threat to Russian security interests.
Note that Russia continues to restrict any sensitive technology transfers to Iran that could benefit its indigenous missile programme. At the same time, Russian security interests within the Middle East context indirectly benefit from the insecurity Iran’s growing missile capabilities create for US strategic dominance in the region.
Russia will also be sympathetic to the fact that, in the absence of any modern air force, Iranian security strategy has been built on its missile capabilities since the 1980s. Moscow can only risk irreparably spoiling relations with its most important partner in the Middle East by supporting American pressure for Iran to curtail its most prized of all military capabilities. Moscow is ambitiously trying to create a loose political alliance with Iran and Turkey.
Iran is not explicitly contravening any international obligations with its development of ballistic missiles. Many other countries have such programmes and there are no international laws applicable on these activities.
Where Iran is vulnerable is if it can be successfully charged with transferring missiles in contravention of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) to groups such as Hezbollah or Syria, for example, or if its missile testing can be proven to be for delivering nuclear weapons. Both are difficult to prove and even then Iran is likely to be protected by Russia and Chinese veto power at the United Nations.
Irate with growing US military deployments to Eastern Europe and especially with NATO’s expanding ballistic missile defence shield, Russia is intensifying its confrontation with the West.
The United States has argued its case for expanding ballistic missile defence to Eastern Europe because of Iran’s growing missile capabilities but Moscow has never bought the argument. Iran is unlikely to have any serious current motivation for developing ballistic missiles that can target Europe or the United States.
If Iran had nuclear weapons, the strategic equation could logically change — radically, even — but that scenario ostensibly has been put to rest with the nuclear deal. For all strategic intents and purposes, the Iranian ballistic missile programme needs to focus attention only on short- and medium-range weapons. Everything else only serves political rhetoric or defiance, which Moscow would feel confident it could moderate.
Yet, if the United States goes hard after Iran for its ballistic missiles, then the nuclear accord is jeopardised. Tehran has provided every possible signal to that end together with the non-negotiability of its missile capabilities. The repercussions of the nuclear deal collapsing would make it a preceding footnote before an inevitable but dangerous US-Iranian military confrontation, within years if not months.
Without a major geopolitical realignment by Moscow, Iran can count on its northerly partner to get the United States to somehow learn to live with Iranian ballistic missiles and keep working on improving political trust with its greatest adversary in the Middle East; however costly that is to its interests.