Attempts to confine Iran will only increase US isolation

Attempts to confine Iran will only increase US isolation

4 min read
06 Jul, 2017
Comment: The United States government is likely to stand alone in countering Iran's development of missile technology, writes Imad K. Harb
China's interests in Iran are thriving, and it is unlikely to jeopardise this [Getty]

North Korea and Iran present the Trump administration with an immediate challenge over their ballistic missile tests.

The former has just tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that could potentially threaten the State of Alaska. Iran, on the other hand, has been experimenting with long-range ballistic missiles that could endanger Israel.

As the Trump administration looks to counter North Korea, US Representative to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, criticised the UN Security Council for not facing up to Iran's "transgressions". Speaking to the world body, she insisted that the international community should "show Iran that we will not tolerate their egregious flaunting of UN resolutions".

Differing interpretations

For its part, Iran insists on what it calls a sovereign right to develop missiles and defend itself, and rejects all international prohibitions. Indeed, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani last April was blunt in announcing that Iran needs no permission from anyone to build its missiles.

The American-Iranian standoff thus hangs on different interpretations to serve specific policy objectives. In this instance, the confusion relates to stipulations of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concerning Iran's nuclear programme, and UNSC Resolution 2231 which codified the agreement, but retained existing limitations on Iran's missile development.

During the past 18 months, Iran has benefited from the lifting of most international nuclear-related sanctions

A recent report by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on implementation of Resolution 2231 lauded Iran's adherence to the JCPOA. On the other hand, the report saw as troubling Iran's continued violations of resolution stipulations regarding an arms embargo on it and prohibitions on missile testing.

Complicating this, is which sanctions on Iran might be lifted, and how. During the past 18 months, Iran has benefited from the lifting of most international nuclear-related sanctions. However, it is still hobbled by American sanctions that will take years to be fully lifted; if the Trump administration wants them lifted at all.

Opposing interests

In addition to the above disagreement, are the associated political considerations of Security Council members. Indeed, Ms Haley's most difficult challenge is overcoming disparate interests and interpretations among world powers, primarily Russia and China.

Russia has struck an alliance of convenience with Iran in Syria, although the two may have some policy differences there. It has also sold weapons to Tehran and finds that it can use Iran's influence in Iraq to facilitate Russian interests. This is in addition to possible cooperation on natural gas strategies as Moscow tackles with Europe in that field.

  Read more: Iran seeks closer ties with North Korea after missile test

China's energy relations with Iran are thriving. So are its investments in Iran's economic sectors. With US firms still prohibited from entering the Iranian market, China sees a golden opportunity that it would not want to jeopardise by towing the American line on punishing Iran for missile tests.

Finally, both are aware of American weakness under President Donald Trump's stewardship. They also know that Nikki Haley's lamentations are likely more an expression of sycophantic repetitions of Republican pro-Israel slogans against Iran, than actual policy recommendations. 

Then there are the others

Others on the UN Security Council and in Europe and Asia may not want to adhere to the American hardline either.

France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan, South Korea, India and others are anxious to welcome Iran as a "normal" country. Those who have strident economic relations with Tehran - such as the Asian countries - see opportunities set to expand after the lifting of sanctions.

Others in Europe are already racing to establish lucrative investments and trade deals with Iran

Others in Europe are already racing to establish lucrative investments and trade deals with the Mullah-led Islamic Republic. They do not much care to participate in re-imposing sanctions on Iran or strengthening existing ones.

Additionally, all believe it would be folly not to support President Rouhani's moderate foreign policy. They continue to think - like the former Obama administration - that lessening the pressure on the Iranian president sustains his position vis-a-vis hardliners bent on opposing him.

The US will stand alone

The United States government is thus likely to stand alone in countering Iran's development of missile technology, unless it decides to face it militarily; a doubtful prospect. Its promised fresh and comprehensive review of its stance on Iran is likely to only affirm this lonely position.

The question that remains relates to the fate of the JCPOA in light of the dispute over missile testing. Thus far, the administration has agreed with the international community that Iran is complying with the agreement. It, therefore, risks international opprobrium were it to now withdraw from the JCPOA.

In the end, the international community will continue to believe that upholding or withdrawing from the JCPOA should remain separate from Iran's missiles. But where they will stand on the latter will be a function of their economic interests vis-a-vis Iran.



Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC.

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab