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Missile Launches Since JCPOA Undercut Narrative of Iranian Moderation

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In April, the Islamic Republic of Iran conducted another rocket launch, ostensibly to put an Iranian satellite into orbit, which fell far short of its mark. Many analysts speculated that its purpose had nothing to do with satellites. Those paying attention to Iran’s recent activities & skeptical of the Islamic Republic suggested that this latest launch was yet another example of Tehran’s ongoing effort to test its long-range ballistic missile program.

About two weeks later, these suspicions were confirmed when the deputy commander of the Iranian armed forces, Brigadier General Ali Abdollahi, boasted that the launch had been a successful test of “another” ballistic missile.  The latter, this IRGC commander proclaimed, was supposedly a precision-guided projectile capable of striking targets upwards of 1,200 miles. Additionally, this latest weapon system is reportedly similar to five others tested since September and capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

Under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Islamic Republic is reminded of the UN Security Council’s resolutions demanding that it avoid all new work on ballistic missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons. With its missile tests since JCPOA, however, Tehran has ignored the U.N. and instead ramped up development efforts, publicly boasting of the growth and advancement of its ballistic missile repertoire.

Objectively assessed, Iran’s actions since JCPOA, particularly when viewed in light of its behavior in the past 37 years must be regarded as a willful and defiant decision by the regime & its President Hassan Rouhani’s to step-up work on these weapons. The so-called moderate Rouhani is reported to have issued this directive to Iran’s Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan after the U.S. imposed additional sanctions on persons connected to the Iranian ballistic missile program.  The long overdue sanctions were a U.S. response to Islamic Republic’s first post-JCPOA missile test back in October.

A historic rise in the number of executions in Iran notwithstanding, nearly two years’ worth of sample size belie Rouhani’s moderate claims. There apparently is more at play here.  As it turns out, the latest ballistic missile test in Iran occurred at a fortuitous time.  Recent Iranian mischief occurred just as a New York Times revelation linked President Obama and White House foreign policy advisor Ben Rhodes to a willful effort to promote a narrative of Iranian moderation to justify the nuclear negotiating process, including while Rouhani stood for Iran’s presidential selection.

The New York Times’ exposé and the April missile launch speak volumes about recent US Iran policy missteps. The Iranian test launch reiterates that its foreign policy posture has not changed. Now that Rouhani’s supposedly moderate disposition is seen as an invention of the Obama administration (and likely that of Ayatollah Khamenei), seriously expecting a change in Iranian regime behavior is at best naive. Even before Rouhani’s rise to presidency, staunch critics of Iran’s theocratic regime, including the National Council of Resistance of Iran (NCRI) led by Maryam Rajavi had warned of the latter. Today, we can only hope that their message (one that will again be articulated by participants in an international gathering in Paris on July 9th) will have more resonance.

For its part, Congress is moving to hold Iran accountable.  House Foreign Affairs Committee Ranking Member, Rep. Elliot Engel (D-NY) recently noted that, “Iran’s recent ballistic-missile tests directly contravened the expressed purpose of the UN Security Council and were meant to test our resolve.”  Iran’s leaders, he added, “Insisted that their ballistic-missile program and support for terrorism be off the table during the nuclear negotiations.  Now they have to face the music as we act to target this behavior and those who support it.”

The Committee’s Chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), meanwhile called on the administration to stop, "tripping over technicalities" to “explain how they [Iran] don’t violate the president’s deeply flawed nuclear deal.”

Let’s hope that the next administration, whomever runs it, will recognize the expertise of the individuals and credible Iranian dissident groups as it sets future U.S. policy toward the Islamic Republic. By and large, the Iranian opposition has recommended ramping up pressure on the theocratic regime and U.S. outreach towards the people of Iran. 

There is good reason to believe that if the United States had followed this course of action (or if it adopts it soon), it will be able to elicit greater concessions and force Iran’s fundamentalist zealots into choices which yield either large-scale reform within Iran or an internal regime collapse. Given the organized nature of Iran’s main opposition movement, both would be positive developments as either would help improve prospects of regional peace as well democracy for the Iranian people. 

Indeed, these are the only choices that the Islamic Republic’s leadership should be given. As ayatollahs’ recent missile tests suggest, a false narratives of moderation will only continue Iran’s present aggressive trajectory and predatory behavior.

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