An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Miguel Miranda is the founder of 21st Century Asian Arms Race.  He frequently writes about modern weapons and the different conflicts being fought across the world today.  He also runs the Twitter account @21aar_show to scrutinize arms fairs and military/security conferences.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.


Title:  An Assessment of the Iranian Ballistic Missile Arsenal and Regional Preparedness

Date Originally Written:  September 17, 2018.

Date Originally Published:  October 8, 2018.

Summary:  As battle lines are drawn across the Middle East, the U.S. is sinking deeper into a protracted struggle with the Islamic Republic of Iran.  But any plans to confront the neighbourhood’s penultimate rogue actor don’t acknowledge its single greatest capability—an enormous ballistic missile stockpile that can strike the capital cities and military bases of its enemies.

Text:  In August 2018, Iran’s defence ministry unveiled two new weapons.  One was a long-range air-to-air missile called the Fakour[1].  The other is the latest addition to the Fateh-series of short-range tactical ballistic missiles called the “Fateh Mobin[2].”

Then in September 2018, a barrage of Fateh-110B missiles launched from northwestern Iran struck a target 200 kilometres away in Iraqi Kurdistan[3].  Although condemned by press statements, the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ (IRGC) attack on a Kurdish militant base had zero repercussions from a docile Iraq.  The Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC) countries struggling to defeat the Houthis in Yemen are in the same pickle.  Try as they might, continuous Iranian support for the Houthis means regular launches of guided and unguided munitions aimed at Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). 

Iran’s missile activity is reason enough for the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) to start thinking about anti-ballistic missile defences in the region.  After all, DoD outposts in Eastern Syria are very close to local Iranian proxies.  Meanwhile, the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units or PMUs controlled by Tehran have quietly acquired large diameter battlefield rockets and perhaps a few missiles[4].  Keep in mind, DoD air defences are legacy “platforms” such as the Avenger ADS and the MIM-104 Patriot.  Neither legacy platform is suited for intercepting large diameter rockets, much less current generation ballistic missiles.  Then consider the almost two dozen DoD bases in the Gulf and the Levant.  What protection do they have from Iranian missiles?

Since 2000 at least two new large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles are unveiled each year by the Iranian media, who are complicit in spinning these as homegrown “innovations.”  While it’s true some Iranian weapons are blatant fakes[6], there are two niches where Iran’s state-owned military industries excel: drones and missiles.

Iran’s obsession with missiles dates to the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq from 1980-1988.  Towards the end of the bitter conflict an exhausted Iraq launched its Scud A rockets at Iranian cities[8].  With its air force crippled by attrition and a lack of spare parts, Iran’s war planners concocted an elaborate scheme to acquire the same capability as Iraq.  In an arrangement whose details remain muddled, Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Syria’s Hafez Assad, and North Korea’s Kim il Sung all agreed to supply Iran with hand-me-down Scud B’s after years of selling conventional weapons to Tehran.

As both Iraq and Iran endured economic sanctions in the 1990s, Tehran kept spending vast sums on its missiles because its airpower and naval fleet had atrophied.  Since the advent of the first domestically produced Shahab missile, which was modelled after a North Korean Scud C variant called the Nodong/No Dong[8], Iran persisted in improving its conventional missiles on top of an immense rocket artillery arsenal.  Imitating Soviet, Chinese, and North Korean doctrine, both the Artesh (regular army) and the IRGC have a multitude of short, medium, and long-range rockets whose quantity now surpasses those of neighbouring countries.  In recent years, only Azerbaijan’s bloated defence expenditures has produced an inventory to rival Iran’s battlefield rocket stockpile[9].  When it comes to missiles, however, there are no specifics on how many Iran has, but a total above four digits is the lowest estimate[10].

For the reader’s benefit, below is an easy guide to Iranian ballistic missiles:

Fateh-100 “family” – Comparable to the Soviet SS-21 Scarab and even the SS-26 Stone (Iskander) surface-to-surface ballistic missiles.  Fatehs are made in eight variants, with the Fateh Mobin and the Zolfaqar being the deadliest with ranges of 700 kilometres[10].

Scud C – North Korean Hwasong 6 or “Scud C” missiles with a range of several hundred kilometres.  It’s assumed Pyongyang also helped build a production facility somewhere in Iran.

Shahab “family” – Introduced in the 2000s, the Shahabs resemble the Scud C 6 but have varying capabilities.  The Shahab-3 is considered a nuclear capable medium-range ballistic missile that can reach targets more than a thousand kilometres away. 

Khorramshahr – This road mobile medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is suspected to have been developed with North Korean assistance and its range covers much of South Asia and the Middle East.  Analysts acknowledge its resemblance to the Musudan MRBM that Pyongyang showed off in its annual parades until early 2018[11].

Soumar – A land-based variant of the Soviet Kh-35 naval cruise missile.  In December 2017 Houthi fighters launched a cruise missile resembling the Soumar at a nuclear power plant in Abu Dhabi.  Although the result of the attack is unknown, it proves how Iran can strike its enemies anywhere[12].

Although the U.S.-developed Patriot surface-to-air missile (SAM) batteries are in service with Kuwait, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, these don’t count as serious anti-ballistic missile defenses as a layered network is best.  So far, only the UAE  is close to achieving this layered network with its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) batteries complemented by short-range SAMs.  Of course, Israel is in a better position to stop Iranian missiles since it built a network for the PAC-3 together with its own Arrow 2/3 long-range SAM, the David’s Sling, and the Iron Dome[13].

Remarkably, Saudi Arabia is the most vulnerable to an Iranian missile barrage.  Since 2016 not a month has gone by without the Houthis in Yemen sending either large diameter rockets or ballistic missiles into the Kingdom, with successful intercepts by Saudi air defences up for debate[14].  Even with a defence budget considered the third largest in the world, Saudi Arabia’s collection of Patriot’s won’t be able to thwart multiple launches at its major cities and energy infrastructure[15].  Worse, Riyadh’s orders for either the S-400 Triumf or the THAAD have yet to arrive[16].

If the Trump Administration is serious about confronting Iran in the region, it’s doing an abysmal job preparing for the small and big fights where the IRGC and its proxies can bring asymmetric weapons to bear.  Whether or not Gulf allies agree to host a top of the line DoD ballistic missile defense capabilities like AEGIS Ashore[17], genuine layered anti-ballistic missile defences[18] are needed to protect U.S. bases against hundreds of potential missile and rocket attacks by Iran in a future war.  Thousands of American servicemen and women are at grave risk without one.


Endnotes:

[1] Miranda, M. (2018, July 29). Iran made a big deal about a copycat missile. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/07/29/iran-made-a-big-deal-about-a-copycat-missile/

[2] Miranda, M. (2018, August 14). Iran unveiled a juiced up ballistic missile this week. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/14/iran-unveiled-a-juiced-up-ballistic-missile-this-week/

[3] Miranda, M. (2018, September 11) Iran just bombarded kurdish rebels with missiles. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/09/11/iran-just-bombarded-kurdish-rebels-with-missiles/

[4]  Karako, T. (2015, August 10). Getting the GCC to Cooperate on Missile Defense. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://warontherocks.com/2015/05/getting-the-gcc-to-cooperate-on-missile-defense/ 

[5] Irish, J. (2018, August 31). Exclusive: Iran moves missiles to Iraq in warning to enemies. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.reuters.com/article/us-iran-iraq-missiles-exclusive/exclusive-iran-moves-missiles-to-iraq-in-warning-to-enemies-idUSKCN1LG0WB?il=0

[6] Miranda, M. (2018, August 26). Iran military industries are promoting fake modernization. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/08/26/iranian-military-industries-are-promoting-fake-modernization/

[7] Press, A. (1988, March 14). ‘War of Cities’ Truce Ends as Iraqi Missile Hits Tehran. Retrieved from http://articles.latimes.com/1988-03-14/news/mn-734_1_iraqi-news-agency

[8] No-dong. September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[9] Miranda, M. (2018, July 12). Azerbaijan is showing off new weapons again. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2018/06/12/azerbaijan-is-showing-off-new-weapons-again/

[10] Iran’s ballistic missile capabilities. (2017, September 21). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/interactive/2017/06/iran-ballistic-missile-capabilities-170621125051403.html

[11] Iran Inaugurates Production Line Of New Missile. (2016, September 26). September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/content/iran-inaugurates-production-line-new-missile

[12] Musudan (BM-25). September 17, 2018, from https://missilethreat.csis.org/missile/musudan/

[13] Yemen’s Houthis claim to fire missile toward unfinished Abu Dhabi nuclear reactor. (2017, December 3). September 17, 2018, from https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/12/03/world/yemens-houthis-claim-fire-missile-toward-unfinished-abu-dhabi-nuclear-reactor/#.W56g0_ZoTIU

[14] Defense, I. (2018, February 19). Israel Successfully Test Fires Arrow 3 Missile System. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from http://www.israeldefense.co.il/en/node/33120

[15] Gambrell, J. (2018, March 26). Videos raise questions over Saudi missile intercept claims. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/global/mideast-africa/2018/03/26/videos-raise-questions-over-saudi-missile-intercept-claims/

[16] Riedel, B. (2018, March 27). What you need to know about the latest Houthi attack on Riyadh. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2018/03/27/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-latest-houthi-attack-on-riyadh/

[17] Saudi Arabia wants Russian help for its arms industry. (2017, October 7). Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://21stcenturyasianarmsrace.com/2017/10/07/saudi-arabia-wants-russian-help-for-its-arms-industry/

[18] Larter, D. (2018, June 20). The US Navy is fed up with ballistic missile defense patrols. Retrieved September 17, 2018, from https://www.defensenews.com/naval/2018/06/16/the-us-navy-is-fed-up-with-ballistic-missile-defense-patrols/

Assessment Papers Iran Middle East Miguel Miranda Rockets and Missiles United States

Assessment of the Potential Security Challenges Posed by Water Security Between Afghanistan and Iran

Max Taylor is currently an Intern Intelligence and Security Analyst at Intelligence Fusion where he focuses on the Afghan security landscape.  Max also has a Master’s degree in International Security and Terrorism from the University of Nottingham, United Kingdom.  Max contributes to the @AfghanOSINT Twitter account.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group. 


Title:  Assessment of the Potential Security Challenges Posed by Water Security Between Afghanistan and Iran

Date Originally Written:  September 8, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  October 23, 2017.

Summary:  Whilst the relationship between Afghanistan and Iran is characterised by generations of shared history and culture, concerns over water security provide a more contemporary security challenge.  Iran’s reliance on Afghanistan’s water supply and Afghanistan’s refusal to cede control over its waterways to Iran will ensure that this issue, if left undressed, will fester.

Text:  Water security between Afghanistan and Iran is not necessarily a new concern, as disputes can be traced back to the 19th century when Afghanistan was under British control[1].  However, as time has progressed, water security as a challenge facing Afghanistan and Iran has continued to grow.  In an attempt to respond to the looming challenges posed by water security, both countries have engaged in various treaties and agreements which intended to ensure Iran received a sufficient amount of water.  The question as to how to allocate sufficient water supply to Iran has not been simple, as the treaties designed to manage the Afghan water supply have largely failed to provide effective oversight and control.  Therefore, with much of Iran’s water supply originating in Afghan sovereign territory, Iran has very little control over their own water supply.  This relative lack of reliable control over their own water supply is a particularly pressing concern for Iran, and is likely to continue to dominate the Afghan-Iran relationship.  This article will aim to expand upon this assumption by first examining the position from which both parties approach their water security, and will then analyse what Iran has done to address the problems it faces.

From Iran’s perspective, the forecast is somewhat bleak.  A study by Dr M. Molanejad and Dr A. Ranjbar[2] suggested that Iran has seen more extremes of weather as a result of climate change, such as draught, and can continue to expect additional extremes of weather.  Precipitation levels recorded in Molanejad and Ranjbar’s study show that in 1998, Iran saw its lowest total precipitation since 1969, but show that such extremes are only going to occur more often.  As within 10 years of the 1998 draught, a similar extreme low in rainfall was recorded which exceeded that of 1998.  Furthermore, agreements such as the 1973 agreement between Afghanistan and Iran which guarantees that Iran can expect to receive 22 cubic meters per second of water from Afghanistan provide little comfort.  The water allowance extract of this agreement is a static figure (albeit with the option to buy increased water allowance) and therefore does not correlate with predicted Iranian population increase.  With Iran’s population expected to be over 90 million in 2021[3], the figures of the 1973 agreement will not be sufficient in years to come.  As climate change is expected to increase the occurrence of extremes of weather, it is wise to assume that Iran’s fragile reliance on their Afghan water supply will become increasingly important.

Within this context the Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) is unlikely to commit to  agreements which may limit their control over their own water ways.  Development of water management projects such as the Baksh-Abad Hydroelectric Station is both an effective way to win over the hearts of the Afghan population in the NUG’s ongoing conflict against the Taliban and a highly symbolic move.  In Afghan provinces such as Nimroz, where agriculture characterises the majority of the province, a damming project instigated by the NUG is an effective way for the NUG to connect with a population traditionally isolated from Kabul’s central control.  Construction of water management projects also acts as a symbolic gesture to the people of Afghanistan and the international community.  The NUG’s leading role in organising the projects suggests to observers that the NUG is capable of rebuilding itself in the wake of decades of conflict.

With climate change promising to increase the frequency of extreme weather and the creation of additional water management projects continuing in Afghanistan, time is not on the side of Iran.  Iran is not ignorant of this fact, and has attempted to assert an element of control over Afghan’s water supply.  Iranian President Rouhani has attempted to voice his concerns regarding water security through traditional diplomatic means, but Iran has also been accused of pursing more covert avenues of approach.  Afghan and U.S. officials have frequently accused Iran of supporting the Taliban by funding[4] and supplying the group.  As part of this support, Iran is accused of using the Taliban to sabotage key Afghan water management projects such as the Kamal Khan Dam which Iran claims will negatively affect the Iranian Sistan-Baluchestan Province.  In 2011, a Taliban commander was allegedly offered $50,000 by Iran to sabotage the Kamal Khan Dam[5].  Predictably, Iran explicitly denies that it supports the Taliban, and justifies its dialogue with the group by highlighting their common interest in combating the Islamic State.

Iran’s alleged support for the Taliban as a foreign policy tool has led to obvious implications for the Afghan-Iranian relationship.  With Iranian support for the Taliban being denied by Iran, and largely conducted under the guise of plausible deniability, the Afghan NUG is struggling to bring Iran to justice for their accused support.  Regardless, the sheer volume of accusations of Iranian support for the Taliban emanating from analysts, policy makers and Afghans alike adds an element of credibility to the claims.  The exact nature of Iran’s support for the Taliban is unclear, as the Taliban is a largely decentralised force with local commanders having substantial autonomy.  Furthermore, the Taliban’s traditional opposition to Iranian backed Shia groups in Afghanistan also holds back an ideologically supported relationship forming freely.

In order to comprehend the complexity of the issues posed by Afghan-Iranian water security, it is important to observe the subject from the perspective of both countries.  Iran finds itself stuck between a metaphorical rock and a hard place, with climate change and a rising population acting as the rock, and the continued creation of water management projects acting as the hard place.  On the other hand, the Afghan government is faced with a powerful Taliban insurgency and a distinct lack of public support from within more remote areas of the rural south.  Therefore, improved irrigation would act as an effective bridge between the NUG and the rural Afghan population of provinces such as Nimroz.  With both Afghanistan and Iran’s disposition in mind, it is difficult to comprehend how such an issue will be resolved.


Endnotes:

[1]  Fatemeh Aman, Retrieved 10th September 2017, from: http://www.css.ethz.ch/content/dam/ethz/special-interest/gess/cis/center-for-securities-studies/resources/docs/Atlantic%20Council-Water%20Dispute.pdf

[2]  Dr M. Molanejad & Dr A. Ranjbar, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: http://www.comsats.org/Latest/3rd_ITRGs_ClimateChange/Dr_Molanejad.pdf

[3]  Parviz Garshasbi, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: http://www.droughtmanagement.info/literature/UNW-DPC_NDMP_Country_Report_Iran_2014.pdf

[4]  Ahmad Majidyar, Retrieved September 8th 2017, from: https://www.mei.edu/content/io/iran-and-russia-team-taliban-undermine-us-led-mission-afghanistan

[5]  Radio Free Europe, Retrieved September 10th 2017. from: https://www.rferl.org/a/captured_taliban_commander_claims_trained_in_iran/24305674.html

Afghanistan Assessment Papers Environmental Factors Iran Max Taylor

Great Power Interaction: United States Options Towards Iran

Phillip J. Giampapa is a personnel security assistant contracted with United States Customs and Border Protection.  Prior to that, Phillip was a civil affairs specialist with the 96th Civil Affairs Battalion (Airborne) at Fort Bragg, North Carolina and is currently an Officer Candidate in the Washington, D.C. Army National Guard.  Phillip has operational experience in Afghanistan and Qatar, as well as familiarity with the Levant and Gulf Countries.  He can be found on Twitter at @phillipgiampapa.  The views expressed in this article do not represent the views or policies of his employer, the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the United States Government.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.  


National Security Situation:  United States’ interactions with Iran under the Trump Administration.

Date Originally Written:  June 6th, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  August 7, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  This article is written from the point of view of a United States policymaker advising the Trump Administrations on possible options towards Iran.

Background:  In the Middle East, the Trump Administration has signaled its preference to strengthen relationships with the Sunni Gulf states by way of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.  By strengthening relationships with the Sunni Gulf states, as well as announcing an arms deal with Saudi Arabia, the United States appears willing to continue isolating Iran.  This has the potential to exacerbate tensions with Iran, which if one views it through an international relations theory lens, Iran will attempt to counteract actual or perceived Saudi (read: Sunni) influence gains to maintain balance in the region, as well as prevent loss of Iranian influence.

Iran has a variety of proxies, as well branches of its armed services serving in countries throughout the Middle East.  This is illustrated through the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, as well as deployment of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in Syria and Yemen.  This does not include the activities of the IRGC in other countries that include Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan[1].  Iran’s military adventurism throughout the Middle East serves to advance the foreign policy agenda of its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei[1].  Put succinctly, the foreign policy agenda of the Supreme Leader is the expansion of Iranian (read: Shia) influence throughout the Middle East to serve as an ideological counterweight against the expansion of Saudi/Wahhabi ideology.

Recently, on May 20, 2017, Iran held a presidential election.  The incumbent, President Hassan Rouhani, won re-election by receiving 57% of the vote[2].  Mr. Rouhani is seen as a reformer in Iran, and he is expected to attempt most of his proposed reforms now that he is in his second term.  How many reforms will actually take place is anyone’s guess, as is the influence Mr. Rouhani will have on IGRC policy, but it will be a factor that should be considered when considering the United States’ approach to great power interactions.

Significance:  The Middle East will continue to be a region that perplexes United States policymakers.  United States’ Allies will continue to be confused as to policy direction in the Middle East until more fidelity is provided from Washington.  Iranian meddling will continue in sovereign nations until it is addressed, whether diplomatically or militarily.  Furthermore, Iranian meddling in the region, and interference in the affairs of sovereign nations, will continue to destabilize the Middle East and exacerbate tensions in areas where conflict is occurring, such as Syria and Yemen.  A complete withdrawal of the United States’ presence in the region would likely create a stronger vacuum potentially filled by an adversary.  As such, the United States must choose the option that will provide the strongest amount of leverage and be amicable to all parties involved in the decision.

Option #1:  Maintain the status quo – the United States continues to strengthen Sunni states and isolate Iran.  Through maintaining the status quo, the United States will signal to its allies and partners in the Middle East that they will continue to enjoy their relationship with the United States as it exists in current form.  President Trump’s recent trip to Saudi Arabia signals this intent through proposed arms sales, announcing the establishment of a center to combat extremism, and the use of negative language towards Iran.

Risk:  The risk inherent in pursuing Option #1 is that the window of opportunity on having a moderate, reform-minded person as President of Iran will eventually close.  Through isolating Iran, it is likely they will not be keen on attempting to make overtures to the United States to reconsider the relationship between the two countries.  Since the United States is not going to pursue a relationship with Iran, other countries will seek to do so.  The risk of missed economic opportunities with an Iran that is an emerging market also has the possibility of closing the window for the United States to be involved in another area where it can exert its influence to change Iranian behavior.

Gain:  Through maintaining the status quo that exists in the Middle East, the United States can be sure that pending any diplomatic, political, or international incidents, it can maintain its presence there.  The United States can continue to nurture the preexisting relationships and attempt to maintain the upper hand in its interactions with Iran.  The United States will also remain the dominant player in the great power interactions with other countries in the Middle East.

Option #2:  The United States strengthens its relationship with Iran through moderate reformers and building relationships with moderates in Sunni states to provide shared interests and commonalities.  Given the propensity of nation-states to expand their power and influence, whether through political or military means, it is likely inevitable that conflict between Iran and the Sunni states will take place in the near future.  If a relationship can be built with moderates in the Iranian government as well as Sunni states, it is possible that commonalities will overlap and reduce tensions between the different powers.

Risk:  The risk exists that neither rival will want to have the United States attempting to influence matters that may be viewed as neighborly business.  The possibility also exists that neither nation would want to build a relationship with the other, likely originating from the religious leaders of Iran or Saudi Arabia.  Finally, the worst-case scenario would be that any type of relationship-building would be undercut through actions from independent and/or non-state actors (i.e. terrorist groups, minority religious leaders, familial rivals from ruling families).  These undercutting actions would destroy trust in the process and likely devolve into reprisals from both sides towards the other.

Gain:  Through interacting with Iran, the United States and other powers can establish relationships which could eventually allow the opportunity to address grievances towards existing policies that serve to inflame tensions.  It is also likely that by having a partner in Iran, instability in the Middle East can be addressed in a more effective manner than is currently being done right now.

Other Comments:  None.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1] REPORT: Destructive role of Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) in the Middle East. (2017, March). Retrieved June 06, 2017, from http://www.eu-iraq.org/index.php/press-releases/item/851-report-destructive-role-of-iran’s-islamic-revolutionary-guard-corps-irgc-in-the-middle-east

[2] Erdbrink, T. (2017, May 20). Rouhani Wins Re-election in Iran by a Wide Margin. Retrieved June 06, 2017, from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/20/world/middleeast/iran-election-hassan-rouhani.html?_r=0

Great Powers Iran Option Papers Phillip J. Giampapa United States

Trump Administration Options Towards Iran

Ted Martin has a keen interest in Iranian affairs and has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Divergent Options content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of  any government, any organization, or any group.


National Security Situation:  Iran, sanctions, and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) / United Nations (UN) Resolution 2231(2015)[1].

Date Originally Written:  March 27, 2017.

Date Originally Published:  May 8, 2017.

Author and / or Article Point of View:  Author has spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan as a member of the U.S. Military.  He has also studied Iran and Hezbollah since 2000.  This article is written as advice to a U.S. decision maker.

Background:  Despite the negotiation of the JCPOA, Iran is still a U.S. foreign policy concern.  Iran occupies a strategic position, able to block the export of oil through the Persian Gulf at the narrow Strait of Hormuz, and able to strike the Arab countries that produce that oil.  Iran has long had aspirations of regional hegemony and employed destabilizing proxy forces to further its ends in the region.  Iran’s continued belligerent behavior and the recent U.S. election of President Donald Trump beg a re-assessment of U.S. options.

Significance:  The JCPOA was negotiated by the previous administration under President Barack Obama and has been subject to harsh criticism by the new administration under President Trump.  Iran has recently engaged in provocative behavior by conducting new ballistic missile tests[2].  Although these new ballistic missile tests do not violate the JCPOA, these actions suggest Iran may test the limits of the JCPOA and the Trump administration[2].  As a counter-point to any hard-line the Trump administration may take against Iran, many European companies are already renewing business and banking contacts with the regime[3].  There is little interest in canceling the JCPOA in Europe, and without European support, it would be nearly impossible to re-impose effective sanctions[8].

Option #1:  The U.S. treats Iran as a pariah and continues to work to isolate Iran from the international system.  This assumes that isolation, as a punishment that negatively impacts the Iranian people, will serve to pull Iran back into the fold of acceptable behavior.

Risk:  Iran developed ties with other states on the margins such as Russia and the People’s Republic of China that helped to sustain it during 30 years of sanctions[4][5].  Iran has become proficient at working behind the scenes and using proxies and can mitigate some of the impacts of sanctions and continue its attempts to influence its neighbors[6].  It is unlikely that Europe will willingly join in another round of sanctions if the U.S. decides to renew them[8].  The U.S.’s likely only remaining option would be military action with few international partners.

Gain:  With Option #1, the U.S. will continue to keep local allies in the region who despise Iran such as Saudi Arabia and other Arab states happy[7].  The enduring threat of sanctions and the forced isolation of Iran by the U.S. will maintain the balance of power in the region cultivated over the last twenty years and is an important consideration.  A shunned Iran may make U.S. allies in the region stronger.

Option #2:  The U.S. allows Iran to continue to integrate into the international system.  This assumes that the closer Iran comes to the rest of the world, the less likely it will be to lash out and the more vulnerable it will be to economic or diplomatic pressure.

Risk:  Iran gains legitimacy by being allowed to rejoin the economic and political systems of the world.  Iran would also gain the ability to access items needed for its nuclear program on the international market.  Iran has blustered about closing the Gulf to oil transit before.  However, Iran has never done so, even during its war with Iraq, as such a move would hurt its own oil exports[7].  Closing the Persian Gulf at the straits of Hormuz is still a risk, even if mitigated by Iran’s increased dependence on the world.  Saudi Arabia would oppose Option #2 in the strongest possible terms, and it may seriously damage U.S. formal relations with them[9].

Gain:  Iran in the international community would find itself the beneficiary of access to the international banking system to enable oil exports and other civil export and import rules that would benefit its civil and military population.  As a member of the international community, Iran may find it harder to justify proxies such as Hezbollah.  The U.S. has long hoped to influence Iran to become more moderate and this may further that goal.

Other Comments:  The proxy war between Iran and the allies of Saudi Arabia has involved the U.S and is currently raging in Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen[6][9].  Both the U.S. and Iran are likely to continue to fight using proxies in other countries, and the potential to involve the U.S. in more regional conflicts is high.  Iran’s nuclear ambitions are a central part of this problem and finding a solution is important.  Iran may also consider keeping the region chaotic to distract the U.S. and Europe to benefit its purposes.

Recommendation:  None.


Endnotes:

[1]  United Nations. (2015) Retrieved from: http://www.un.org/en/sc/2231/

[2]  Kenyon, P. (2017 February 3). Did Iran’s ballistic missile test violate a U.N. resolution? National Public Radio. Retrieved from: http://www.npr.org/sections/parallels/2017/02/03/ 513229839/did-irans-ballistic-missile-test-violate-a-u-n-resolution

[3]  Arnold, M. (2016 April 3). Europe’s banks begin tentative return to Iran. Financial Times. Retrieved from: https://www.ft.com/content/75dc8d7e-f830-11e5-803c-d27c7117d132

[4]  Katz, M.N. (2010). Iran primer: Iran and Russia. Public Broadcasting System. Retrieved from: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2010/10/iran-primer-iran-and-russia.html

[5]  Takeyh, R., & Maloney, S. (2011). The self-limiting success of Iran sanctions. International affairs 87 (6) pp. 1297-1312. doi: 10.1111/j.1468-2346.2011.01037.x

[6]  Fisher, M. (2016, November 19). How the Iranian-Saudi proxy struggle tore apart the Middle East. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/world/middleeast/iran-saudi-proxy-war.html

[7]  Glaser, C.L. & Kelanic, R.A. (2017 January/February). Getting out of the gulf. Foreign Affairs 96(1).

[8]  Alkhalisi, Z. (2016, November 10). Trump could hit Iran with sanctions — but Europe would scream. CNN Money. Retrieved from: http://money.cnn.com/2016/11/10/news/economy/trump-iran-sanctions/

[9]  Morris, L. & Naylor, H. (2015 July 14). Arab states fear nuclear deal with give Iran a bigger regional role. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/middle_east/arab-states-fear-dangerous-iranian-nuclear-deal-will-shake-up-region/2015/07/14/96d68ff3-7fce-4bf5-9170-6bcc9dfe46aa_story.html

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