The latest series of test missiles launched by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in the northern part of the Persian Gulf and the eastern Hormuz Strait has fueled new concerns over a military conflict in the region. Despite apparent diplomatic progress between Tehran and six world powers in recent weeks, the report of missile tests has added a renewed sense of uneasiness over the fate of negotiations about Iran’s controversial nuclear program. A specter of conflict now haunts the region, with the Iranian, Israeli, and American militaries making serious preparations for a possible military conflict.
The military strategy behind the display of high-tech missiles by Tehran is the same as it has been in the past: to exhibit the regime’s progress in producing advanced conventional military technology as a way to deter what it perceives as American aggression. But the recent spectacle also shows Tehran’s immediate readiness for military confrontation. As a response to recent reports of Israeli naval training missions over the Mediterranean and planned U.S.-led war games in the Persian Gulf, the Revolutionary Guard is eager to demonstrate its determination to strike back at American forces and Israel, with Haifa as one of the targets of the newly improved Shahab missiles.
In many ways, Iran’s decision to test the missiles is closely connected with the recent restructuring of the command units within the Revolutionary Guard leadership as well as the appointments of Mohammad Hejazi as head of the Sarallah division, a military unit in the IRGC, and Hussein Hamedani as the vice commander of the Basij Corps. Both are major hard-liners who share a long record of military experience and enjoy close relations with Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The changes in the Guard’s command structure may only be a routine operational procedure, but they also reflect a new organizational tactic of appoint new leadership in order to eliminate the possibility of espionage and to maintain readiness in case of confrontation.
In light of rising tensions, the view inside Iran is alarmist. Among the public, fear of an American attack remains high in the busy streets of Tehran. On the state level, U.S.-led efforts to isolate Iran through sanctions and calls for military action by a number of American and Israeli politicians have reinforced the perception that Washington is blindly determined to undermine the Islamic Republic and thwart the country’s regional influence, which has grown since the fall of the Saddam Hussein’s regime in 2003. The government believes that one of the best ways to counteract perceived American aggression, backed by predominantly hostile Sunni Arab states in the Persian Gulf, where the U.S. maintains large bases, is to establish a prominent military force equipped with high-tech weaponry.
The main source of conflict lies in the standoff over the terms of preconditions set out in the nuclear negotiations by the five Security Council states, plus Germany (5+1). The provision requires Iran to suspend its enrichment of uranium in exchange for a freeze on sanctions and economic and technological benefits included in an incentive package originally offered in 2006. However, the latest meeting in Geneva, which for the first time in 30 years brought together American and Iranian high-ranking diplomats to the negotiations table, reveals the fundamental flaw in the logic of enrichment suspension, both on a short- and long-term basis. By advancing the "freeze-for-freeze" proposal that obliges Iran to halt its enrichment of uranium for the immediate freeze of additional sanctions for a six-week period, the six powers have, once again, helped the hard-liners to reinforce the view in Iran that the West, meaning Washington, aims to keep the country backward, an affront to an independent nation seeking to become a symbol of a non-Western form of modernity. In a country with competing centers of power, the hard-liners, who wield major political influence on foreign affairs, have been able to successfully depict the ongoing nuclear negotiations as a form of Western paternalism and stalling them as a way of resisting foreign aggression.
What the six powers continue to ignore is Tehran’s main objective for continuing the talks: to display strength and, with increased pressure, to maintain political hegemony on the domestic front. The nuclear talks also serve as a stage to resolve Washington’s Iran policy, not to reach a technical diplomatic compromise over the procedural production of uranium. What the freeze-for-freeze proposal has failed to include is a comprehensive response to Iranian concerns over the U.S. policy of economic and political pressure, which has only made Tehran’s hard-liners more assertive in both domestic and foreign affairs.
By adopting a rigid position on Iran’s nuclear program, the 5+1 has injected a prerequisite into the negotiation that has fed the conspiratorial fantasies of the ideologues, who use such paranoia to bolster their political legitimacy in domestic debates. Recalling how Washington set aside $75 million in 2006 to inspire regime change, the hard-liners are using the current precondition to make the claim that the West hides sinister intentions behind the negotiations, and thus Iran must expand its military. Iran’s latest missile display therefore serves to demonstrate what may happen in case diplomacy fails: an arms race that may end in open conflict.
In many ways, the push to make Iran accept the suspension of its uranium-enrichment program plays right into the hands of the hard-liners. The preconditional logic of the negotiations provides a way for the hard-liners to exploit the talks to their advantage. In turn, the neoconservatives in the Bush administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney, who has had considerable control over Iran policy since 2005, point to the stalemate as evidence of Iran’s stubbornness about its nuclear development and, accordingly, to justify the use of force.
A common narrative in Washington is that additional pressure on Tehran would ultimately bring Iran to its knees, gradually leading to a total change of its political order. What this view fails to grasp, however, is that increased pressure only encourages the Islamic Republic to stiffen its position, beef up its military, and hasten the development of its nuclear program for possible non-civilian purposes in order to curb a perceived military threat. Meanwhile, attempts to directly engage with the Iranian regime are a step forward, as is the realization that an effective diplomatic stance includes reconsidering sanctions and the presence of American troops in neighboring countries.
The ultimate challenge for Washington is not resolving the nuclear issue, but designing a new Iran policy with the aim of normalizing relations. This would stir debate in Iran’s public sphere and cause major ideological problems for the reactionary ideologues, who thrive on foreign threats. A new policy could enable ordinary Iranians to demand changes in Iran’s domestic and foreign policy.