photo composition of Iran flag with missile images

photo composition by Thursday Review

How Far Will Iran Go to Bend (or Break) Accord?

| published January 4, 2016 |

By R. Alan Clanton, Thursday Review editor

Iran just won’t stop being Iran, and its bad behavior in recent weeks and months has caused deep friction between U.S. lawmakers and the White House as Republicans (and many Democrats)—wary of the July 2015 landmark nuclear deal with Iran ending decades of sanctions—suggest Iranian officials are ignoring U.N. restrictions and are taken advantage of weak U.S. foreign policy.

In October, in violation of the terms of last summer’s complex but comprehensive accord to relax a wide battery of sanctions against Iran, the Iranian military conducted a full scale test of medium range ballistic missiles—rockets capable of carrying warheads (nuclear or otherwise) for more than 2000 miles. That test was a violation not only of the agreement reached between the U.S., six partner nations, and Iran, but also a clear violation of restrictions placed on the country by the United Nations.

But Iran, like its kindred spirit a continent away on the Korean Peninsula, thrives internally when domestic politics converts flaunting international rules into a form of national pride. Iranian politicians decry the meddling of the United States and the long years of economic sanctions; this very public banter spurs nationalism in Tehran; in the fever the military steps up its various programs of missiles and rockets; America and its allies bemoan the hazards of a nuclear-tipped Iranian rocket or missile, raising the fear level from yellow to red, all of which was the point in the first place. The cycle feeds itself, spurring some Iranian politicians to outdo each other making extreme statements, and prompting the military toward more dangerous and provocative acts.

Just last week, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani requested that the military begin an immediate and aggressive technological campaign to expand the missile program—in both the potency of the warheads and the range of those rockets. Rouhani’s very public request to the Iranian Defense Minister came only weeks after the White House again threatened to slap new harsh sanctions on Iran for its open violations of the terms of last summer’s agreements.

Less than two weeks ago Iranian naval commanders aboard small attack boats fired live rockets at the USS Harry Truman and a nearby French frigate as both ships passed through the Strait of Hormuz on their way to support the coalition air campaign against ISIS. A couple of those missiles soared to within 1500 yards of the Truman, and triggered what was arguably the most dangerous international incident to flare up in those last few days of 2015.

That the Iranians would fire upon U.S. and French ships is provocative enough, but the economic impact of Iranian warships or small attack craft interceding militarily at the most critical strategic chokepoint of the Persian Gulf—where millions of gallons of oil are transported each and every day—should give pause to someone, somewhere.

Republicans in Washington took their own retaliatory action, not-so-quietly placing language in the new American budget deal designed to make doing business with Iran costly and unpleasant. Some GOP members of Congress say that President Obama has put on blinders, ear-plugs, rose colored glasses, and even cups his hands over his ears singing la-la-la-la-la when anyone attempts to point out the number of ways that Iran has already violated every aspect of the nuclear accord and a variety of United Nations agreements.

Pentagon officials insist that the Truman and the French frigate were well within international waters as they passed through the Strait of Hormuz. Iran has in effect denied the incident altogether, saying that there were no shots fired at U.S. or French vessels.

Aside from those rockets fired at U.S. and French ships, there is the issue of Iran’s testing of ballistic missiles. Even as Iran appears to be cooperating on a few aspects of the accord—allowing part of its stockpile of enriched uranium to be carted off and loaded onto ships for transport out of the country, President Rouhani’s very public plan to expand the nation’s missile program sparked concerns from a variety of quarters that Iran may ultimately bring about the complete implosion of the accord and any progress made in 2015.

On the other hand, for the U.S., less response may be more. In the delicate and complex balance that is the anti-ISIS coalition, Iran still plays a role—however carefully measured. Iranian military units have been used as recently as six weeks ago in some of the battlefield offensives which have been successful in pushing ISIS back and regaining some lost territory in Iraq. Fears of sectarian violence between Sunnis (who make up a majority of the people in many ISIS-controlled areas) and Shiites (Iran is predominantly Shiite, as is the vast majority of its military) in clashes within Iraq have meant that Iraqi units have been sparingly but carefully deployed. Baghdad needs Iran’s help, and the United States—though officially it does not coordinate or communicate in any way with Iraqi commanders in Iraq—welcomes any on-the-ground support it can get.

The U.S. currently has some 2300 military personnel in Iraq, but the Pentagon and the White House stress that the Americans are not in front-line positions. Republicans and many Democrats in Washington worry openly about two factors: the air campaign alone will not be enough to effectively defang ISIS; and mission creep, in which more and more Americans are eventually placed in Iraq, turning it into the third time in as many decades that the United States has become embroiled on the ground in a war in Iraq.

Complicating an already complex situation in the wider Middle East are the rapidly increasing tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Both nations have long sought to exert effective suasion over their neighbors in the Middle East and the northern rim of Africa. Saudi Arabia has traditionally preferred using economic leverage to accomplish that goal, whereas Iran has a history of backing states or supporting groups which will advance its hegemony in the region. But both countries are now involved in what amounts to a proxy war in the Middle East—each intervening directly in a lawless and chaotic Yemen, and each with a large stake in the outcome of Syria’s long civil war. Iran has openly backed the regime of Bashir al-Assad, seeking to use Damascus as leverage against Sunni dominated Iraq and Saudi Arabia.

In recent days relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia have deteriorated. Over the weekend, Saudi Arabia severed all diplomatic and commercial ties with Iran after protesters in Tehran set fire to the Saudi embassy, smashing windows, destroying documents and papers, and ransacking the grounds. The protesters—numbering in the thousands—were angry over the execution of a Shiite cleric, Sheik Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed along with scores of others (many of the condemned prisoners had al Qaeda or Islamic State ties, and some had been charged with terror) last week. Nimr al-Nimr was an outspoken critic of the Saudi government, and had called for elections in Saudi Arabia during the uprisings and protests known as the Arab Spring, but he was later was charged with sedition by officials in Riyadh.

The riots which broke out in Tehran were officially condemned by Rouhani, but in Saudi Arabia the embassy attack was viewed as another reason to distrust Iranian intentions in the region. Saudi Arabia gave Iranian diplomats 48 hours to leave the country.

The U.S. State Department called upon both countries to tamp down the shrill language and the brinkmanship, and to find ways to de-escalate the sectarian tensions.

In the meantime, friction between Saudi Arabia and Iran may only heighten Iran’s desire to keep its ballistic missile program moving forward as rapidly as possible, despite whatever threats of new U.S. sanctions may come its way.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Recent Airstrikes Kill Some Paris Attackers; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; December 29, 2015.

Saudi Arabia to Lead Military Coalition Against ISIS; Keith H. Roberts; Thursday Review; December 15, 2015.