Iran’s missile launch tests Europe’s nuclear deal patience

Iran’s missile launch tests Europe’s nuclear deal patience
A missile launch during a testing exercise conducted in Iran's semi-desert Makran coastal strip two years ago, according to the country's semi-official Fars News Agency.
By bne IntelliNews December 4, 2018

Iran's latest missile test provoked a rare display of unity between the US and Europe on policy towards the Islamic Republic, with the Trump administration as well as France and the UK saying it may have been in violation of a security council resolution.

France described the weekend test of what the US said was a medium-range multi-warhead missile capable of reaching Europe as "provocative and destabilising". It did not "conform" with UN Resolution 2231, passed in 2015 as part of the multilateral nuclear deal between Tehran and six major powers, it said. However, experts on the matter, including Trita Parsi, the president of the National Iranian American Council, pointed out that the language of the resolution “calls on” rather than “forbids” Iran from testing its missiles.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt called the test "provocative, threatening, and inconsistent" with the resolution.

‘Not for nuclear payloads’
The UN Security Council on December 4 met behind closed doors to discuss the missile test.

Iran maintains that its ballistic missile development programme is defensive and is not aiming at building a missile capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

On December 3, the US special representative for Iran, Brian Hook, urged the European Union to impose new sanctions on Iran. He described the missile programme as a "grave and escalating threat."

The US withdrew from the nuclear deal in May and has since reimposed heavy sanctions on Iran. France, Germany, the UK, China and Russia have stuck with the accord, which was drawn up to shield Iran from crippling sanctions in return for compliance with measures designed to prevent Tehran from pursuing the development of a nuclear weapon. They argue that Iran has to date complied with all of the deal’s provisions. The argument made by all the signatories to the nuclear deal apart from the US for sticking with the pact could begin to splinter if the European powers continue to demand a de-escalation of the Iranian missile programme.

There has lately been some talk from the US of what might provoke military action against Iran.

The Hill on November 29 reported the Trump administration as saying military action against Iran could be possible should the US sanctions against the country fail to curb Tehran from delivering weapons to hostile groups in the Middle East.

"We have been very clear with the Iranian regime that we will not hesitate to use military force when our interests are threatened. I think they understand that. I think they understand that very clearly," Brian Hook, the State Department special representative on Iran, was quoted as saying.

"I think right now, while we have the military option on the table, our preference is to use all of the tools that are at our disposal diplomatically," he added.

In his latest attack on the US sanctions regime, which he has described as placing Iran in an “economic war” situation, President Hassan Rouhani on December 4 repeated Iranian threats to close the Strait of Hormuz to all oil shipments if the US pushes ahead with its plan to drive Iran’s oil exports down to zero, Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The move would potentially play havoc with world oil supplies and prices given that the 21-mile-wide passageway between the Persian Gulf and Indian Ocean is used in the shipping of around one-third of all oil traded by sea.

Something of a breather
After announcing its heavy sanctions against Iran’s oil, gas and petrochemical exports on November 5, Washington then gave Tehran and the oil markets something of a breather from the full impact of the move by granting 180-day waivers allowing eight countries—China, India, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Greece and Italy—to continue importing Iranian oil without fear of secondary sanctions. However, those eight countries are supposed to gradually get with the plan to gradually squeeze Iranian oil imports to nil. How much cooperation the US will receive from the various countries remains open to question, but Rouhani has again essentially warned the Americans to watch their step when it comes to targeting Iran’s lifeline oil consignments.

“America should know... it is not capable of preventing the export of Iran's oil," Rouhani said at a televised rally in Semnan province.

"If it ever tries to do so... no oil will be exported from the Persian Gulf," he added.

Since the 1980s, Iran has repeatedly said it would blockade the Gulf in response to international pressure but it has never carried out the threat.

Rouhani previously threatened to close the Persian Gulf to all exports in July when he warned the US that it “should not play with the lion’s tail”.

Blockade threat welcomed
Rouhani's blockade threat has been welcomed by Iranian hardliners like General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the powerful Quds Force for operations abroad within the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

US special representative for Iran Hook dismissed Rouhani's threat to the Hormuz chokepoint, saying that Tehran did not control the Strait of Hormuz. "The strait is an international waterway. The United States will continue to work with our partners to ensure freedom of navigation and the free flow of commerce in international waterways," Hook said, according to The Associated Press.

The president, meanwhile, reiterated previous statements, essentially saying—despite, for instance, the IMF assertion that Iran has lately fallen back into recession—that the US sanctions were having little effect on the Iranian economy.

"No hyperinflation, no massive unemployment will threaten us. People should stop saying such things in the newspapers," he told the crowd.

Despite Rouhani’s upbeat attitude, the Central Bank of Iran (CBI) and Statistical Centre of Iran said that in the ninth Persian calendar month (ended November 21) the country’s consumer price index inflation stood substantially higher than 30%.

On November 13, the IMF predicted that inflation in Iran would grow to more than 40% by the end of this year. In a report on Middle Eastern economies, the Fund also repeated a previous forecast released in its latest World Economic Outlook on October 8 that the ultra-aggressive US sanctions regime would push Iran's economic output down by 1.5% this year and 3.6% next year.