Will Russia play ball with the US on Iran’s ballistic missile programme?

Sunday 22/01/2017
A 2016 file photo shows a member of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps next to a missile in an underground tunnel at an undisclosed location in Iran. (AFP)

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.