Thursday, 8th June 2017

Tehran extends challenge to Trump with IRGC’s new missile site

Donald Trump clearly chose his ground during his first foreign visit as US president, with the view of enunciating a simple but assertive foreign policy message for the Middle East. In Riyadh and Jerusalem he chose to focus on rallying his Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) allies, led by Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi, and their erstwhile enemy Israel, with a unifying call to confront Iran – which has been confirmed in the Trumpian vision as the pre-eminent regional villain (GSN 1,037/15). Trump repeated his mantra, in meetings with Gulf, other Islamic and Jewish leaders, “that Iran must never be allowed to possess a nuclear weapon – never, ever – and must cease its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias, and it must cease immediately”. Read his lips.

Iran has recently re-elected a president who is committed to reintegrating the Islamic Republic into the global economy and consolidate the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal (GSN 1,037/1). But this does not mean Iran under the Rouhani II presidency will substantially modify its behaviours just to reduce the threat of a new onslaught, of sanctions or even worse, from a Washington administration in which several key players would like to simply ditch the JCPOA deal negotiated (like the Paris climate accord) by its predecessor.

Many analysts believe that, for all the White House’s bluster, Washington may prefer to stick to the JCPOA and a policy of containing Iran. But several major flashpoints remain, and can be further aggravated by challenges thrown down by Iranian regime hardliners to the volatile Trump administration. These include the Islamic Republic’s missile programme, whose curtailment Washington has made a priority, and Tehran’s wider defence and security policy, which has seen it project force across the region and build relations with powers, including North Korea, China and Russia, who trouble Washington. Members of the Trump team may have flirted in Moscow, and Trump may admire President Vladimir Putin – as does Rahbar (Supreme Leader) Ayatollah Ali Khameini – but there is consensus across Washington that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) and Quds Force commander General Qasem Soleimani are major opponents in critical Middle Eastern theatres. Their so-called 4+1 coalition with Russia, Syria, Iraq and Hizbollah – who have an information-sharing unit in Baghdad – is an uncomfortable reminder of how difficult the new US administration may find transacting business with Moscow and Baghdad.

The announcement that Iran had built a third underground missile production plant, made by IRGC Aerospace Force commander Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh on 25 May, may not have clarified what sort of missiles the facility would produce and to whom they represent a threat, but it was clearly another challenge to Trump and his allies.

Hajizadeh recognised the potency of his message, telling a public meeting in Dezful: “Our enemies the United States and the Zionist regime [Israel] are naturally upset and get angry at our missile production, tests and underground missile facilities because they want Iran to be in a weak position.” The IRGC planned to develop a new ground-to-ground ballistic missile named Dezful, in honour of the south-western city, he added.

Iran’s ballistic missile programme is repleat with controversy. It is not covered by the JCPOA deal between Iran and the major world powers. However, UN Security Council resolution 2,231, which endorsed the JCPOA, called on Iran to stop any development work on ballistic missiles designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran claims to be abiding by the letter of that resolution; the US says its actions are “inconsistent” with it.

In retaliation, the US has imposed a sanctions on individuals and companies involved with the ballistic missile programme, to which Tehran has responded with sanctions of its own against US citizens and corporations. The day after President Hassan Rouhani’s re-election on 19 May, secretary of state Rex Tillerson told reporters in Riyadh that the US hoped, among other things, that Rouhani “puts an end to [Iran’s] ballistic missile testing”.

Rouhani is likely to be more assertive in arguing his corner during his second term, when succession to Khameini may also be a big issue, than during his initial mandate. But Tillerson’s hope that he expresses his independence by ending tests is unlikely to be fulfilled. The development of missile technology is one area where Iranian moderates and conservatives appear to be working in tandem. A day before the IRGC announced its new underground facility, Rouhani was quoted telling a cabinet meeting: “We need missiles and the enemy should know that we make everything we need and we don’t pay an iota of attention to your words”.

This suggests the regional arms race will continue – another theme of Trump’s 20-21 May visit to the Gulf. As Iran has continued to develop its capabilities, it has become imperative for the GCC states to bolster their own missile defences,. Their inability to pool resources has long held them back in this area, but is an area which could be addressed (GSN 1,026/10). Among the slew of defence deals announced during of Trump’s visit to Riyadh was an agreement for Riyadh to buy terminal high-altitude area defence (THAAD) missiles from Lockheed Martin (GSN 1,037/5). This, like the several other defence deals, allowed Trump to bask in the glow of bringing mega-contracts and jobs with them back to middle America. But these deals had been planned (if not authorised) under the previous administration, underlining how key GCC countries identify the long-term threat coming from just across the Gulf.

Congressional opposition to the arms deals may yet scupper the THAAD deal or other aspects of the sales programme. Republican senator Rand Paul of Kentucky and his Democrat colleagues Chris Murphy of Connecticut and Al Franken of Minnesota were among those to publically voice their opposition to one part of the deals, demanding a vote on the sale of any new weapons that would be used by Saudi Arabia in its war in Yemen; all three have a track record of opposing such deals (GSN 1,022/7). But the direction of travel is towards building up the GCC’s missile defence and attack capability, while building pressure on Iran to go in the other direction. This will colour a range of policies, including the direction that US relations evolve with Russia, the IRGC’s preferred defence partner.

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