Iran missile tests: domestic and geopolitical probes and the key to disarm it

Recently, Iran has publicly stated that it launched two ballistic missiles with medium-range capability at least months three months after the fact. This perhaps to break the silence about the experiment in, literally, untested Indian Ocean waters, which was contrary to in-house desert test in Iran. Had the rest of the world not noticed this unusual break with tradition? Iran’s military technological aspirations have long been ignored in the West where confidence in the tight international sanctions reigns supreme. Abolghasem Bayyenat notes this characteristic skepticism in his July 6th piece “The politics of Iran’s space program” published by Foreign Policy in Focus.

As Bayyenat notes, Iran’s technological progress cannot be ignored. With regard to its recent military exercises, these couldn’t have gone unnoticed by US spy planes operating in the region, but they were not acknowledged publicly by American authorities. But not the British though: William Hague, the British Foreign Secretary told parliament two weeks ago that these tests included testing missiles capable of delivering a nuclear payload. This, he said, was in contravention of U.N (Security Council) resolution 1929 that enshrines a number of sanctions, which among other things ban Iran from such ballistic missile tests. As such, this announcement that came close on the heels of a ten-day military exercise of the elite Guards was a denial of British accusations about nuclear capability experiments.

Military fetes – a domestic politics diversionary tactic?

What this means is that Iran is playing a whole different, multiple hands ball game. On the one hand, it hopes to distract the West from the real story in Iran. That is, the simmering dissatisfaction with the government there since the 2009-2010 elections. There is no doubt that both the launch of what President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called “the ambassador of death” – a long-range bomber drone – in August 2010 and the missile tests between January and February 2011 were calculated to drown the groundswell of disgruntled Iranians. At the same time, Iranian leaders faced with domestic turmoil are harking to that old foreign policy ploy of attempting to create diversion through these military fetes. Tehran streets, however, did not bite the bait hence the series of protest, which began on February 14 that dovetailed with the general surge of citizen demonstrations in most parts of North Africa and the Middle East around the same time. Diversionary military showmanship having failed and faced with rabid heat from the streets, the government turned to mass arrests including those of the two main leaders of the Iranian political reform, Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi, which has temporarily fixed the problem. This security-enforced lull in the streets has emboldened the powers that be to up the stakes through more sabre rattling the latest one coming at the end of June.

By jove, the Americans are er…tired

If the US isn’t keeping tabs on the Iranian public, Tehran’s thumb is on the former’s public pulse. It may have been a coincidence but the latest round of missile tests came seven days after the outgoing US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates acknowledged that Americans were “tired of a decade of war.” This came a day before President Barack Obama announced plans to withdraw troops from Afghanistan amid concerns about the cost of the war – on the economy and casualties. In addition, Tehran must have also plucked some extra courage from US engagement with NATO in Libya since March, thus aware of how stretched the American military is at this time. Tehran is aware that the US cannot afford, logistically and economically, to continue policing the world, promote democracy or secure its interests abroad militarily. This reality’s an invitation for Iran to play even where it hasn’t ventured. Analysts see the launch of missiles from northern Iran into the mouth of the Indian Ocean as a demonstration of being able to attack US interests in the Middle East or its bases in East Africa. While appreciating the danger posed by nuclear proliferation in Iran, there is need to pursue nonproliferation less hawkishly. If there’s any lesson that can be drawn from the miracle of the Arab Spring, it is the need for American alertness with regard to the state of domestic democracy around the world and to foster it through peaceful change.

Leading by example

For this to happen, the US must lead by example: this will entail promoting forces of democracy through more acceptable tools such as cultural and educational channels as Miriam Pemberton of the Institute for Policy Studies argues in her News Eagle piece of March 2011. As such, there ought to be less emphasis on military spending, which is currently fiscally hemorrhaging the US. Disarming Iran literally will entail much more than the threat of a military intervention. This, instead, must involve allying itself with democratic forces that have demonstrated the quest for change and have paid the price in the process.

Nicholas Kariuki Githuku is an intern at Foreign Policy in Focus.

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