During the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam Hussein’s missiles and bombs lit up the skies over Tehran, Esfahan, Shiraz, Tabriz, and various frontier towns. It was a blitzkrieg of a campaign, initiated by Baghdad with the intent of inflicting mass civilian casualties.
Since that war, the Islamic Republic of Iran has sought to avoid a similar conflict while building up its ballistic missile program to deter persistent threats of Western-imposed regime change, proliferation of US bases in the Persian Gulf states and billions of dollars in US weapons sales to Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Iranian rivals.
While the US has responded by imposing more sanctions on Iran tied to the missile program, a better way to rein in that program may be to alleviate Iran’s sense of vulnerability.
There is a popular belief in the West that Iran’s leadership does not adhere to realpolitik. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini’s concept of the “guardianship of the jurist” and Iran’s constitution are based on the notion that until the return of Shi’a Islam’s twelfth Imam, Iran should be led by a qualified cleric. For this reason, some analysts believe that the system of government in Iran is apocalyptic in nature.
Additionally, the West often perceives Iranian culture to be driven by a suicidal zealotry even though most Iranians are religious moderates or inclined towards secularism. This false narrative is partly rooted in a misunderstanding of Shi’ism. Martyrdom does play a significant role in Shi’a theology. Grief over the murder of Hussein at Karbala is perhaps the most notable feature of Shi’a worship. But these events should be primarily interpreted as commemorative of the struggle against injustice rather than a call to violence. Furthermore, in Iran, a moderating syncretism exists between Shi’ism and Persian culture. For example, the decadent verses of the humanist Persian poet Omar Khayyam’s Rubai’yyat, beloved in Iran, are contrasted but not overshadowed by the somberness of Shi’ism. Most Iranians do not dream of martyrdom or want war with their neighbors but only desire the means for self-defense.
Indeed, the Islamic Republic has generally chosen pragmatism over ideology in its 38-year history. Examples include accepting a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war that left Saddam in power, rolling back support for anti-government Shi’a movements in Pakistan and Saudi Arabia in exchange for improved diplomatic relations, cooperation with the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000s, and of course the nuclear agreement of 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
Given its decision to disavow nuclear weapons, Iran insists on its right to conventional military arms. It also notes that the JCPOA does not forbid missile development (although a UN Security Council resolution “calls on” Iran not to test missiles capable of carrying nuclear weapons).
“Our people do not forget the fact that when they were being bombarded, everybody was providing assistance to the aggressor and no one, absolutely no one, gave us even the rudimentary means of defense,” said Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif during a recent BBC interview.
The S-300 missile defense system was one of Iran’s first post-JCPOA purchases. Iran has continued to test ballistic missiles, including a launch that took place right after Donald Trump’s inauguration and that triggered new sanctions.
Unlike many other government initiatives, the missile program enjoys wide support across the Iranian political and socioeconomic spectrum. Many Iranians see a strong missile capability as the only thing preventing a repeat of the Iran-Iraq war. Therefore, sanctioning Iran’s missile program is unlikely to produce desired results. The primary goal of such sanctions is to create an opportunity cost for Tehran that outweighs the perceived benefit of the missile program. But if the program’s perceived benefit is the continued existence of the Islamic Republic, even the most robust sanctions will prove impotent.
The secondary goal of sanctions is to hurt civilian enterprises such as banks and universities in order to foment unrest. But even the staunchest critics of Tehran inside Iran will likely view these sanctions as an unfair affront to Iran’s right of self-defense.
Of course, if Iran wants the ability to develop its conventional military without facing new sanctions, there are certain steps it could take, such as working to resolve its rift with Saudi Arabia and eschewing threats against the existence of Israel. Iran could also adopt a consistent message regarding its military intentions. Zarif’s assurances that Iran only seeks defensive capabilities are undermined by Iran’s military involvement in myriad Arab civil wars.
Army parades, Basij military drills on a paper mache Jerusalem outside Qom, and the production of movies that depict a war with the US Navy are eagerly consumed by Western media and often mentioned during Congressional hearings. Most damaging is the slogan of “Death to America,” which has had a profoundly negative impact on Iran’s image in America and is consistently used by Iran’s adversaries as a justification for containment of Iran or even a US military attack. Senior figures in Tehran have routinely insisted that the slogan is figurative and refers only to what is seen as a negative US foreign policy. If this is true, then the slogan should be replaced with substantive criticism.
On the other hand, if the US is truly interested in limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program, it must treat Iran as a rational actor and mitigate the threats that the program was designed to counter. First and foremost, the Trump administration should unequivocally state its intention to uphold the nuclear agreement as written. The administration should also work to reopen a new channel of diplomatic communication with Iran’s foreign ministry and look for opportunities to cooperate in the fight against ISIS. A navalhotline could also be established in the Straits of Hormuz to avoid incidents at sea.
Most importantly, the US should encourage détente between Iran and the nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In that light, it is encouraging that the GCC appears to be contemplating a new security dialogue with Iran.
These measures will not end Iran’s ballistic missile program but over time such reassurances might persuade Tehran to spend more revenues elsewhere. If the US treads the old road of tough talk, sanctions, and threats, Tehran will likely respond with more missile tests and place the program in the fast lane.
Adam Weinstein is a veteran of the Marine Corps where he served in Afghanistan. He is a policy intern at the National Iranian American Council and has contributed to Foreign Policy, The Diplomat, Newsweek, and regularly writes for the London School of Economics Middle East Centre blog.