Nuclear Deal in Place, Iran Is Testing New Missiles and Doubling Down in Syria

Tehran is wagering the Obama administration is so committed to the nuclear pact that it will look the other way.


During festivities this month marking the anniversary of Iran’s 1979 revolution, officials publicly displayed a mock-up of the country’s latest rocket, the Simorgh. Designed to launch a satellite into space, it bears a striking resemblance to the rocket North Korea just used for its own satellite launch, reinforcing concerns that Tehran is working with Pyongyang to develop advanced ballistic missiles capable of hitting Israel and parts of Europe.

Iran’s unabashed pursuit of missile technology is the latest example of how the country is asserting itself in the aftermath of the landmark nuclear deal that Tehran signed in July with the United States and five other major powers. While U.S. officials say Iran has so far abided by the nuclear accord, Tehran in recent months has been flouting separate international restrictions on ballistic missiles and arms imports while expanding its support for militants in the region.

Iran has recently conducted two ballistic missile tests despite a U.N. ban and appears poised to launch its new Simorgh rocket. Western intelligence agencies fear Iran is working its way to building an intercontinental ballistic missile, which could eventually be outfitted with an atomic warhead — if Tehran were to opt out of the nuclear agreement.

And across the region, Iran is waging war through proxies and even its own military units to shore up the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad, undermine Israel, and support Shiite Houthis against Saudi-backed forces in Yemen. Working with Russian warplanes, Iran’s special forces — along with fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah militia — have helped the Assad regime clear out rebels from strategically important territories like the long contested districts around the city of Aleppo.

The moves are raising concerns in Middle Eastern capitals and in the U.S. Congress, including among some of President Barack Obama’s fellow Democrats who backed the nuclear agreement but are worried the administration could cede too much ground to Tehran.

Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), who voted in favor of the nuclear deal, said he wanted to see the agreement succeed but that it was time to get “tougher” with Iran. “We’re going to have to be clear that we’re not going to tolerate their bad behavior, and we’re willing to punish Iran,” Coons told Foreign Policy.

Coons and some Democratic lawmakers took a significant political risk in endorsing the nuclear accord, which was opposed by every Republican member of Congress as well as by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups. The support from Democrats followed an elaborate lobbying campaign by the White House, with senior officials offering repeated assurances that the administration would adopt a strict line on Iran’s activities that fall outside the accord.

Now those Democrats “are questioning whether the administration has their backs,” said one Senate Democratic staffer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

White House officials say they will remain vigilant against any actions taken by Iran that threaten its neighbors. Even with the nuclear agreement in place, “which ensures that our partners will not be faced with an Iran armed with a nuclear weapon, we’re still going to confront Iran’s destabilizing activities,” said a senior administration official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

But while Congress is pushing the administration to take steps to check Iran, Secretary of State John Kerry appealed to lawmakers on Thursday to hold off for the moment on renewing the long-standing Iran Sanctions Act — which maintains a broad range of financial and other penalties on Tehran that are unrelated to the nuclear program.

“I wouldn’t advise that for a number of reasons,” Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee, saying Congress should wait to see how Iran complies with the nuclear agreement and that sanctions could quickly be adopted if Tehran violated the deal.

Both Kerry and James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, told lawmakers Thursday that Iran has fulfilled its commitments under the agreement so far, though the implementation of the deal is still at an early stage. Experts say the acid test will come later when international inspectors ask Tehran for access to sensitive sites with possible links to Iran’s military.

In the meantime, Coons and some lawmakers are urging the United States and other major powers to prepare contingency plans for more minor violations of the nuclear agreement that would not be serious enough to trigger a resumption of international economic sanctions. These plans could involve unilateral penalties by the United States or measures coordinated with European governments.

“We need to have an agreed-upon menu of options that shows we won’t tolerate excursions outside of the limits on the deal,” Coons said in an interview with FP.

The nuclear agreement imposed an array of limits on Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions, freeing up to $100 billion in frozen assets. In the final stage of negotiations, the United States and other powers bowed to Tehran’s demand to ease the terms of the embargoes on arms purchases and ballistic missile development, which were imposed to penalize Iran over its nuclear work. The arms embargo is due to expire in five years, and the ballistic missile restrictions will run out in eight years — pending Iran’s compliance with the nuclear accord.

But Russia, which was one of the parties to the deal, has since announced plans to sell sophisticated S-300 anti-aircraft missiles to Iran, as well as Sukhoi Su-30SM fighter jets. Iran has long sought the S-300 missiles, which have a range of about 100 miles and could make it much more difficult for Israeli or U.S. aircraft to stage an air attack on Iran’s nuclear sites. The missile sale does not violate the terms of the U.N. arms embargo that is still in place, but the proposed deal for Sukhoi warplanes would broach the ban.

The United States also maintains sanctions on Iran over its human rights record and as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” a designation dating back to the 1980s. In 2011, Obama issued an executive order introducing new sanctions on a high-ranking Iranian paramilitary group and other entities linked to the repression of Syrians. In the months since the nuclear deal was unveiled, Iran has bolstered its military presence in Syria with the deployment of additional special forces units along with Tehran-backed proxies from Hezbollah and other Shiite foreign fighters. The Iranian allies are paying a steep price: A new report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy estimates that Hezbollah has lost at least 865 fighters in Syria between Sept. 30, 2012, and Feb. 16, 2016.

Iran raised alarms in Washington recently after test-firing a rocket in the Persian Gulf within 1,500 yards of a U.S. aircraft carrier and after capturing 10 U.S. Navy sailors whose vessels had strayed into Iranian waters. Iran released the sailors promptly after a flurry of phone calls between Kerry and his Iranian counterpart, Mohammad Javad Zarif. But before the sailors were freed, Iran released embarrassing video footage of the boat crews kneeling with their hands behind their heads, images of one sailor crying, and an interview with one officer who apologized for the navigation mishap.

Those aren’t the only incidents raising hackles in Washington. Iran carried out a ballistic missile test last October and another in November, despite a U.N. prohibition. The United States imposed sanctions over the tests in January, but the move was delayed while Washington negotiated the release of Americans detained in Iran in exchange for Iranians held in the United States.

Early next week, Iran will likely test its Simorgh rocket. That space-launch vehicle is named for a “mythical bird of Persia, so old it has seen the destruction of the Universe three times over,” as Brenda Rosen writes in The Mythical Creatures Bible. “An immense creature the shape of a peacock with spectacular plumage, it has the claws of a lion and is large enough to carry off an elephant or whale.”

If successful, its launch would represent a major achievement for a missile program that has made remarkable strides in recent years with the help of North Korea. Satellite imagery obtained by scholars at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey shows Iran preparing a launch site, and the country has issued a notice to airline pilots that it will conduct a launch between March 1 and 2.

That launch will inevitably be met with international condemnation, even if the rocket is for the peaceful purpose of putting a satellite in space. Experts who have analyzed the Simorgh rocket say it is explicitly designed for space launches, but Iran will gain data and experience from the launch that will be useful in developing longer-range rockets.

When North Korea put a satellite into space earlier this month, it did so with a rocket that appeared to be what it calls an Unha, which is roughly the same size — and uses the same engines in places — as the Simorgh. Both of the missiles’ first stages use engines from a North Korean medium-range missile, the No-Dong. The Simorgh and Unha also both use a Cold War-era steering engine from a Soviet submarine-launched ballistic missile, the SS-N-6. It is unclear exactly how Iran obtained these engines, but it is likely they were supplied by North Korea, which had, in turn, obtained them in the 1990s from Russia, according to Michael Elleman, a consulting senior fellow for regional security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Missile cooperation between Iran and North Korea began during the Iran-Iraq War, when Tehran found itself desperate for a ballistic missile capable of striking Iraqi targets far beyond the front lines. Iran first turned to Libya and Syria, purchasing limited quantities of Scud missiles. It eventually turned to North Korea for help. Pyongyang, in turn, supplied Iran with large numbers of Scud missiles, laying the basis for more than two decades of cooperation that will culminate with the likely launch of the Simorgh.

As with all things concerning North Korea, the full extent of cooperation between Tehran and Pyongyang remains shrouded in mystery. But last month, the U.S. Treasury Department revealed that “Iranian missile technicians” from Iran’s liquid-fueled missile manufacturing group had traveled to Pyongyang “within the past several years” in order “to work on an 80-ton rocket booster being developed by the North Korean government.”

The U.S. government has refused to provide additional details on that booster, and arms control experts have puzzled over the revelation, which was contained in a sanctions designation on 11 entities and individuals associated with the country’s ballistic missile program. Elleman said that booster could be part of the Unha. But David Wright, co-director of the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said an 80-ton booster would be too large for the North Korean rocket.

Still, Wright agreed that the allegations leveled at North Korea and Iran by the U.S. government — and the shared characteristics and components of their space-launch vehicles — point to a clear conclusion. “Iran and North Korea are working collaboratively to solve the developmental challenges of putting things into space,” Wright said.

While North Korea supplied Iran with the basis for its missile program in the 1980s and 1990s, there’s reason to believe Tehran has now far surpassed Pyongyang. The Simorgh is larger and more powerful than the Unha, and Elleman said Iran now has better design and engineering capacities than North Korea. “A number of folks who follow this would say that the student has passed the teacher,” Elleman said.

Photo credit: BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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