Why are Iran’s hardliners threatening Europe?
Europe has been on the forefront of defending the Iran Deal, better known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), from unraveling under the Trump administration. For months, European diplomats have made dozens of visits to Capitol Hill, and this week is no exception. Europeans are organising a joint team to travel to Washington to pressure the U.S. to stay in the nuclear agreement. So when Brigadier General Hossein Salami, the deputy head of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), warned on November 26 that Tehran would increase its ballistic missile range beyond 2,000 kilometres if threatened by Europe, it came as a surprise.
Inflammatory statements from hardliner Iranian officials are not new. Just last month, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the head of the IRGC, said that Tehran’s missile range didn’t need to be increased since it could cover “most of American interest and forces” within the region. On November 6, the day after Houthi rebels launched a missile at Riyadh, hardline newspaper Kayhan published a controversial headline that said Dubai would be the next target.
Since Iranians first elected pragmatist President Hassan Rouhani in 2013, there has been a vehement push by hardliners to undermine his promise of rapprochement with the West, namely the Iran Deal. Good ties with the West hurt hardliners’ standing in domestic politics, after all, part of the raison d’etre of the Islamic Republic is to oppose Western imperialism. Then there are those, including members of the IRGC, who have financially benefitted through the black market under sanctions.
Hardliners have tried everything to sabotage the JCPOA, from making controversial statements, harassing U.S. naval ships in the Persian Gulf, launching missiles at precarious times, to arresting dual-nationals on espionage charges. Although, there have been times that Tehran has been in the right. U.S. naval ships have entered Iranian waters on at least on one occasion, and its ballistic missile tests do not violate the JCPOA. The International Atomic Energy Agency verifies Iran’s compliance every 90 days, and the country has the most robust inspections in the world. The missile tests are, however, “not consistent with the constructive spirit” of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231, which while lifting some UN sanctions, kept restrictions on Iran’s missile activities. Although if the resolution’s language is read closely, Tehran argues that its ballistic missile testing are not within the restrictions per Resolution 2231.
But why the sudden focus on Europe? It seems France’s President Emmanuel Macron recent comments about Iran’s ballistic missile program has incensed the hardliners. Macron suggested numerous times that there should be future talks on the post-2025 period of the Iran Deal, or the Sunset clause, and the development of ballistic missiles. While visiting Abu Dhabi this month to inaugurate the new Louvre Museum, Macron told U.A.E. state media al-Ittihad newspaper that it is “important for us to remain firm with Iran with regard to its regional activities and its ballistic missile program.”
Macron’s comments have also caught the attention of Ali Akbar Velayati, a senior advisor to the supreme leader, who said in an interview on November 18, “Who is Macron to interfere? If he wants Iranian-French relations to expand, he should not interfere in such matters.” His comment seemed to be a slight at the Total gas agreement, and other French investments. In spite of how the hardliners are responding to the new French president’s stick policy, France continues to defend the nuclear agreement. Macron even said that walking away from the JCPOA “would lead to either immediate war or an absence of control which would inevitably lead to a North Korean-situation, which I could not accept.”
Though the hardliners boast of having capabilities, their focus is on the accuracy of their ballistic missile systems, not increasing range. Israeli sources consider Tehran’s missile strike on ISIS targets in Syria this past June a flop since six of the seven medium-range missiles reportedly failed to hit their targets. The Rouhani administration recognises this is not the time to make empty threats. After Kayhan published its controversial headline, a suspension was issued after the secretariat of the Supreme National Security Council filed a complaint, arguing the headline was contrary to the country’s regional and security policies.
Iranian moderates learned their lesson after abstaining from the 2005 presidential election that helped elect hardliner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The people learned there is no space for hardliners on the election ballot, as demonstrated by the 2016 parliamentary elections and recent landslide reelection of Rouhani in May. The hardliners’ only grasp on power is through saber rattling. The more Europe and Washington react adversely to the hardliners’ empty threats, the more leeway they have to prove their argument all along: that the West cannot be trusted.
President Trump has been a gift to the hardliners with his bellicose rhetoric and lack of understanding of Iranian culture and history. Rather than unify the Iranian people against its government, Trump has only caused them to rally around the flag of nationalism. Europe should take the opposite route. Starve the hardliners of the attention, as they desperately search for relevance. The hardliners are no match for the Iranian youth that makes up two-thirds of Iran’s 80 million population, and who are yearning for integration with the West, and to be a part of the global community.
Holly Dagres is an Iranian-American analyst and commentator specialising on Iran. She is the curator of the weekly newsletter, The Iranist. Holly regularly conducts interviews on radio and television, including ABC News, BBC Radio, Fox News, Global Post, NBC News, NPR, TIME, The Guardian, and Vogue, among others. Her work has appeared in numerous publications including Al Jazeera, Al-Monitor, Atlantic Council, Buzzfeed, Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, and Voice of America. Holly holds a BA in political science and French from UCLA, and a MA in political science from the American University in Cairo. Follow her on Twitter @hdagres.
Another version of this article was published by the Cipher Brief.