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Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 14 December 2018

Tehran's missile roll-out suggests new round of strategic posturing

Recent developments strongly indicate Iran has no intention of curbing its regional ambitions

The Iranian defence ministry issued images of its new Sayyad-3 air defence missiles earlier this month.  EPA
The Iranian defence ministry issued images of its new Sayyad-3 air defence missiles earlier this month. EPA

Last Saturday, Iranian state media hailed the launch of a new missile production line. According to Iran’s defence minister Hossein Dehghan, the newly-produced Sayyad 3 missile can reach an altitude of 27 kilometres and travel up to 120km. This means that today Tehran has missiles that can be aimed at planes, cruise missiles, drones and across Iran’s borders. The development of these and similar missiles point to the Iranian regime adopting a policy of escalation. In just the last few weeks, Iran has fired several ballistic missiles into Syria, announced its intention to work more closely with North Korea and said it is working with Russia to develop armed drones.

Iran’s announcement came days after the United States introduced new sanctions targeting individuals and entities supporting Tehran’s "malign activities in the Middle East", including the continued development of its ballistic missile programme. From reports of orchestrating cyberattacks to its persistent militarisation of regional policies, Iran’s posturing is that of a nation preparing for a confrontation.

In a statement on July 18 unveiling a new round of sanctions against Tehran, the US state department said "the United States remains deeply concerned about Iran’s malign activities across the Middle East which undermine regional stability, security, and prosperity". That is a sentiment shared in many parts of the region.

In Lebanon, Iraq and Syria, Iran is developing a network of armed groups that pledge their allegiance to Tehran, even at the cost of undermining their own governments. The continued expansion of Iran’s military capabilities, bolstered by hundreds of millions of dollars of sanction relief, come at a time when it is testing regional powers and the American administration. Six months after the inauguration of Donald Trump, the Iranian regime is testing the boundaries of what will be acceptable in Washington.

However, Iran’s latest moves cannot simply be seen as part of an effort to "flex muscles" or send signals to Washington. Instead, they represent a clear policy of expanding military might that has increased since the signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) two years ago.

Under the agreement, Iran’s nuclear policy is restrained and monitored for a decade. Thus far, Iran has spent the two years since the implementation of the nuclear deal developing its ballistic missile technology and indicating its intention to grow its military might. It is not hard to imagine what it plans to do in the next eight years. What is clear is that Tehran has no intention of curbing its ambitions. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, praised Iran’s missile attack inside Syrian territory as "an act of worship", urging the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp to "keep working on missiles as much as you can", during a meeting with its leaders, as reported by Tasnim news agency.

There are some who would argue that Iran is not alone in seeking to bolster its military capabilities in the Middle East. That is a fact. From the UAE to Saudi Arabia to Turkey, there are significant military powers in the region. However, there are three important differences that make Iran stand out as a threat to the region.

First, unlike its Arab neighbours, Iran has recently pursued a clandestine nuclear programme, which its missiles could be developed to deliver. It developed this programme and contravened international nuclear agreements.

Second, Iran is the only one among these countries that continues to have United Nations Security Council resolutions set against its missile programme. Developing and testing its ballistic missiles is in direct defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231.

Third, Iran is the only country in this region whose publicly stated position is to "export" its theocratic "revolution" since 1979. Under this banner, it has openly supported armed groups that work directly to undermine state structures. Iran supports armed non-state actors in various conflict zones in the region, leading to the weakening of state structures and heightened concerns about its role in the region.

Of course, Iran is not alone in undermining the region’s stability. ISIL and Al Qaeda pose significant threats, however they are not legitimate nation states. On the other hand, Israel too poses a significant threat to the region, not least to Palestine, which Iran has long used as an excuse to build up its forces without providing any real solutions to its people’s plight.

While Iranian leaders continue to use political slogans and rhetoric, their recent military build-up raises questions as to Tehran’s intentions in a region that cannot be subjected to yet more threats.