Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that his country will further enhance its missile power despite international concerns. He also warned the six Iranian presidential candidates to avoid statements and electoral slogans that would embolden the country’s enemies. “Some think that we should go into a defensive shell to counter the allegation that we seek expansionism and power in the region and across the world,” he said in an apparent rebuke of President Hassan Rouhani’s latest remarks. “But this idea is a mistake,” Khamenei told a gathering of Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) university students. “We have missiles and they are very precise. They can hit targets with precision from thousands of kilometers away. We will forcefully preserve and enhance this capability,” he emphasized.
Khamenei, who has the final say in all state matters, also stressed that the presidential candidates “must clearly demonstrate that they stand up to the bullying of America and evilness of the Zionists [Israel].”
I.R.G.C. Chief Commander Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari also addressed the gathering. He praised Iran’s “repeated victories” vis-à-vis the United States and its allies in the region and cautioned that the enemies of the Islamic Republic now aim to increase economic pressure against the country.
Rouhani under fire
Khamenei’s remarks were explicitly directed at Rouhani, who is seeking a second term in May 19 presidential elections and has in recent days openly criticized the country’s clerical and security establishments. The president’s latest comment on the country’s controversial missile program appears to have particularly irked Khamenei and the I.R.G.C., which controls Iran’s nuclear and missile programs.
In the second presidential debate aired on Iran’s state-run TV over the weekend, Rouhani accused the I.R.G.C. of having tried to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in July 2015 – by test-firing a missile in 2016 which had “Israel should be wiped off the Earth” inscribed on it in Hebrew. The move prompted the U.S. Treasury to slap new financial sanctions on Iranian entities involved in the country’s ballistic missile work.
On Monday, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces criticized Rouhani and reiterated that the country’s missile program is not covered under the nuclear agreement. “It is not appropriate for a candidate and official to relate the projection of the nation’s missile power – which has been attained through the blessing of the blood of martyrs and has deterred enemies’ threats – to a trivial matter such as J.C.P.O.A,” said Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri. Separately, Brigadier General Gholamhossein Ghaib-Parvar, who was appointed by Khamenei the new head of the Basij Organization in December, also blasted the president’s comment. “Is the slogan of death to Israel on a missile a bad thing? In principle, the annihilation of Israel is one of our goals,” he emphasized.
The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces had previously warned the six presidential candidates in an official letter not to express views on the country’s military and defense matters during the campaign season. But as the election campaign is heating up, candidates are ignoring such requests and are crossing some red lines to discredit each other.
Mostafa Mir-Salim, a conservative presidential candidate, triggered another controversy two days ago when he claimed that Iranian diplomats had asked the country’s military to conduct a missile launch to boost Tehran’s position vis-à-vis world powers during the nuclear negotiations with the United States and five other world powers two years ago. In reply to a question on the campaign trail as to why Iran test-fired missiles during the negotiations, Mir-Salim said: “This was a request by the negotiators. If you don’t believe it, ask the defense minister.”
He did not elaborate on the issue, but the Rouhani government was quick to reject the allegations. A Foreign Ministry official hours later said “negotiators were very sensitive about removing restrictions of the dangerous 1929 [U.N. Security Council] Resolution, which was imposed on Iran’s missile program under the previous administration.” On Tuesday, the Iranian Defense Ministry also rejected Mir-Salim’s claim. “The allegation by this presidential candidate is inaccurate. The Islamic Republic of Iran’s missile tests are carried out in accordance to a specific, per-determined plan and are not linked with such issues.”
Enhancing missile power
Since the signing of the nuclear agreement almost two years ago, Iran has put increased emphasis on its missile program and has test-fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles. Since President Donald Trump took office in January, the Iranian missile activity has been a major source of tension between Tehran and Washington. After Iran launched a new ballistic missile in late January, the Treasury Department imposed new sanctions on Iranian entities and individuals associated with Iran’s ballistic missile program or support for terrorism in the region. The Trump administration said the additional sanctions were not in violation of the nuclear accord. Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn also said the Trump administration was “officially putting Iran on notice” – without clarifying what that meant.
But despite the Trump administration’s warnings and additional U.S. sanctions, the Islamic Republic is moving full steam ahead with the missile program. “Iran has increased the range, precision and longevity of its ballistic missiles and will continue to increase its defensive power, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan said in February. And Khamenei reiterated Iran’s resolve to defy pressure and upgrade its missile program in his Wednesday speech.
Difference in style, not substance
The difference between the Rouhani government and the military establishment regarding the missile program is more of style than substance. Rouhani backs the military’s missile work, and he said last month that the Iranian government would seek no one's permission to build missiles and upgrade the country’s defense capabilities. Rouhani’s defense minister, Hossein Dehghan, also revealed earlier this month that the budget to upgrade the country’s defense capabilities under Rouhani’s watch has increased 2.5 percent compared to the previous administration. He also claimed that Iran’s arms production capacity has seen a staggering 100-fold increase in the past four years. But Rouhani urges the I.R.G.C. to refrain from provocative actions – such as threats against the existence of Israel – that may increase international pressure on Tehran.
While the nuclear agreement does not address Iran’s missile program, a subsequent U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 “calls upon 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.” Iranian leaders argue that the country’s missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, but U.S. officials say some of the missiles Iran has tested after the 2015 nuclear deal have been "inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons" and are "in defiance of" the U.N. resolution.