Trump Administration Sets Scene for Iran Showdown Following Tough Reaction to Iranian MRBM Test

We are, seemingly, headed for a showdown in the Persian Gulf, with potentially far reaching consequences.

On January 29 Iran tested a medium range missile, widely reported to be the Khorramshahr Medium Range Ballistic Missile. The missile exploded 1,010 km in flight, and before the Reentry Vehicle deployed. So far as we are aware, that is based on public source data, the Khorramshahr is Iran’s land variant of the SS-N-26 Soviet “Serb” SLBM (NATO designation, R-27 “Zyb” Soviet designation).

The Musudan is North Korea’s.

The R-27 or SS-N-26 is fast becoming the most notorious Serb since Slobodan Milosevic.

The Trump administration, hereafter referred to as the Trumpets, has reacted to the Iranian test in a vigorous fashion. Michael Flynn, Trump’s National Security Advisor, has put Iran “on notice.”

What this means is anyone’s guess, but it is rather ominous given that the Iranian test did not, by any means, come out of the blue as it were.

On September 2016 the Iranian defence minister, General Hossein Deqhan, stated that by the end of the year (Persian ie March 20, 2017) Iran would test three missiles, including the Khorramshahr and the Sejil MRBM.

The Sejil is a solid fuelled road mobile MRBM with a reported range of 2,000 km.

Iran is committed to a further missile test. The United States has put Iran “on notice.” Anything can happen, especially when the Trumpets blow wildly.

A key premise underpinning the Trumpet position is that Iran’s missile programme is a violation of UN Resolution 2231, which implemented the JCPOA on Iran’s nuclear programme. The JCPOA is as good a nuclear non-proliferation agreement as you can get. On the Trumpet interpretation Iran’s missile development programme violates UN 2231 because the Resolution prohibits Iran from developing nuclear capable missiles.

The missile tests are not a violation of the Resolution, which states

Paragraph 3 of Annex B of resolution 2231 (2015) calls upon Iran not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.

There are two key phrases here that being “calls upon” and “designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”

Quite clearly “calls upon” is not the same as a prohibition. So, should Iran quite deliberately develop a missile designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear weapon that would not be a violation of 2231.

Now, on the second phrase, much resides on what is meant by capable. If throw weight is the only criteria then the Khorramshahr, going on the Musudan (500-1200Kg) and the SS-N-6 (650kg), is designed “to be capable” of delivering a nuclear weapon.

However, if by “designed to be capable” we mean designed specifically to deliver an RV for a nuclear warhead the matter becomes more complicated. On this metric Iran’s MRBM missile programme does not fit the designation unless we have specific data regarding the RV that tells us so.

The first interpretation is the interpretation of the Trump administration. The second interpretation is Iran’s interpretation.

I think that the latter is the better interpretation. If we adopt the first interpretation then practically any ballistic missile programme with sufficient throw weight qualifies, which is too elastic. Also, context matters. North Korea is testing the Musudan and it has refired the Yongbyon plutonium production reactor, but, given the JCPOA, that dual context does not apply in Iran’s case.

At any rate, as noted, 2231 “calls upon” it does not “prohibit.”

We might ask; why, other than for nuclear contingencies, does Iran need MRBMs?

It Is quite feasible that Iran has an MRBM programme because it seeks to acquire the capability of striking the long range stand off strike assets of the US, which could be used to devastating effect against Iran. Iran’s MRBM programme could be a part of what the US calls Anti Access/Area Denial (A2/AD), thus a part of its conventional deterrence posture.

Put simply Iran’s Khorramshahr test is not a violation of UN 2231 or the JCPOA.

The Trump administration might use Iran’s missile programme as a pretext to scuttle the JCPOA, which candidate Trump railed against during the election campaign.

The most important remarks by Flynn were not regarding the missile test. His remarks were divided into two parts, one on the missile test, and two on Iran’s alleged destabilisation of the region. The second part is the most important part.

We should recall that no place on Earth has done a finer job of destabilising the region than Washington DC. By destabilisation Flynn means, following standard foreign policy discourse, that Iran refuses to reconcile itself to a Middle East characterised by US hegemony, and refuses to acquiesce to US plans for the region.

In the Middle East, as elsewhere but especially there, only the US is allowed to have interests and to the extent that a state has interests they are permissible only when sanctioned by the US.

It is not that the JCPOA is a bad deal. It is not that Iran is in violation of the JCPOA or UN 2231.

Iran continues not to follow orders.