The Nuclear Deal and Iran’s Missile Program

by LobeLog’s Tehran correspondent

On July 20, 2015, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2231, endorsing the Iran nuclear agreement and overturning previous resolutions that imposed restrictions on Iran over its nuclear program. However, not all of the restrictions levied on Iran as a result of past UN resolutions concerning its nuclear program will be removed. Significantly, Res. 2231 extends restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missiles and heavy arms transfers to Iran—which were mandated by previous resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program—for eight and five years, respectively. Iran is enjoined from undertaking any activities related to ballistic missiles than can deliver nuclear weapons, which includes launches that use this missile technology. To date, Iran has not violated these restrictions.

The extension of restrictions on Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities has in particular drawn the ire of some members of the Iranian parliament and commanders of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). On September 1, Mohammad Ali Jafari, the commander of the IRGC, proclaimed: “This is absolutely not acceptable to the Islamic Republic and there exists not a single person in Iran who would accept such restrictions. We have developed our missile capabilities out of necessity and have put considerable effort into doing so.”

Jafari further stated that one of Iran’s “strategic capabilities” was its possession of “surface-to-surface missiles that have a range of up to 2,000 kilometers.”

Despite the IRGC’s apparent opposition to Res. 2231, Iran has over the last three weeks evidently chosen to take a cautious approach to its ballistic missile program.

Debate over Missile Exercises

On August 10, 30 members of the Iranian parliament—mostly from the hardline “Endurance Front” faction that was critical of the nuclear negotiations—released a letter directed at President Hassan Rouhani that referenced Res. 2231’s restrictions on Iran’s missile program and called on Rouhani to declare his support for new military exercises centered on missiles. The statement read in part: “The missile capabilities of the Islamic Republic were among the country’s most important redlines in the negotiations. Failing to conduct a military exercise centered on these capabilities now will lead to a weakening of the armed forces. As such, the representatives of the people ask you to support such missile exercises.”

Iran’s moderate president has a tepid relationship with the hardliners in Iran’s parliament. His subsequent cold response to their letter was thus not surprising. More surprising was the response of the chief of staff of Iran’s Armed Forces, General Hassan Firouzabadi, to a similar letter addressed to him by 204 MPs urging missile exercises. On August 12, Firouzabadi issued a vague and dismissive response to the hardline parliamentarians, saying: “Military exercises involving the Islamic Republic’s missile capabilities will be conducted at the appropriate time pending the approval of the Supreme Leader, our commander-in-chief.”

One political analyst based in Tehran has told LobeLog about Firouzabadi’s comments: “If there were really serious plans for a missile exercise there would be no reason not to announce them or to say that the exercises will be ‘conducted at the appropriate time.’ As such, it is reasonable to state that there is some level of dispute over this matter at the highest levels of Iran’s power structure.”

At the same time, the commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, has dismissed claims that the IRGC has suspended its ballistic missile program, delayed any missile exercises, or compromised anything related to its missile capabilities as a result of negotiations. Hajizadeh emphasized that Iran’s missile tests will continue but did not give a precise date for Iran’s next missile exercises. He stated: “Military exercises that were previously planned have been conducted but publicizing them is not in the purview of the IRGC but rather lies with the National Security Council.”

Res. 2231 specifically calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” for eight years after the passage of the resolution.

At a recent press conference, IRGC Commander Jafari stressed that Iran will continue its missile program. But in similar fashion to Firouzabadi, he also emphasized the importance of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei’s opinion on Iran’s missile program. Jafari also echoed Hajizadeh by saying Iran will conduct missile exercises while neglecting to give a specific date.

Khamenei on Missiles

In June 2015, Ayatollah Khamenei gave a speech to high-level Iranian officials before the start of what proved to be the final round of negotiations before a comprehensive nuclear agreement was reached. He laid out seven redlines for Iran’s diplomats, including that “we reject American demands for long-term 10, 12 year limits against us.” He added: “The appropriate amount of years for any limitations have been conveyed to the negotiators.”

Khamenei’s remarks do not indicate in explicit terms his opposition to the extension of constraints on Iran’s missile program. It also is not clear whether the eight-year limitation spelled out by Res. 2231 is the upper limit of the acceptable period of limitations he discussed with Iran’s nuclear negotiators or whether it is simply a compromise with the West.

Regardless, from the time the nuclear deal was reached until today, Iran’s leader has given four public speeches related to the nuclear agreement but has not made any clear-cut statements about the continued limitations on Iran’s missile program.

In February 2014, a number of Iranian MPs who used to be members of the Revolutionary Guards wrote Rouhani a letter rebuking him for not conducting Iran’s annual missile exercises. “Unfortunately, for the first time in the past 10 years, missile exercises have been prevented from taking place by the National Security Council and the necessary orders for the allocation of financial resources for support of emergency projects of armed forces had not been issued.”

If Ayatollah Khamenei continues his silence about the eight-year extension of limitations on Iran’s missile program, it may mean that there is a dispute on this issue in the National Security Council—which is headed by Rouhani—and among factions within the Parliament and IRGC. For the past few years, quarrels between these centers of power in the Islamic Republic have usually ended in President Rouhani’s favor.

Picture: Hassan Firouzabadi

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