North Korea is in the international news spotlight because of its mutual saber-rattling with Donald Trump, and the widely publicized test of a long-range ballistic missile. But it is critical to point out that these events are equally significant in relation to Iran and the threat it poses to peace and stability.
Iran is North Korea’s major partner in the sale, transfer and proliferation of ballistic missile technology. Iran’s missiles are copies of North Korea’s. Both countries flout international law, sponsor terrorism and employ military hardware such as ballistic missiles to threaten the security and interests of other nations.
Tehran already has long-range ballistic missiles that can hit any country in the Middle East and US bases in the region. Iran’s generals have frequently boasted about these capabilities and have test-fired missiles carrying provocative messages such as “Death to Israel.”
But Iran is not satisfied with what it has. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), which oversees the program, is aggressively pursuing technology that could lead to the development of an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korean engineers are in Iran helping the IRGC to advance its ballistic missile arsenal and develop nuclear warheads.
With ICBMs, Iran would have the ability to strike anywhere in the world, and a major reason for acquiring them is as a delivery tool for nuclear weapons. In addition, an Iranian ICBM could easily fall into the hands of Tehran’s militias and proxies across the region, a significant threat to peace and security.
Iran recently launched another missile on the pretext of advancing its “space and satellite program.” The launch received scant attention because the eyes off the world are on North Korea, but the US and three of its European allies nevertheless described the test as provocative and urged Iran to stop all its ballistic missile activity.
A joint statement by Britain, France, Germany and the US said Iran’s ballistic missile program was inconsistent with a UN security council resolution and had a destabilizing effect in the region. “We call on Iran not to conduct any further ballistic missile launches and related activities … We condemn this action,” the four countries said.
Supporters of Iran’s clerical establishment and of the July 2015 nuclear deal, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action Agreement (JCPOA) between six world powers and Iran, justify Tehran’s ballistic missile program on the grounds that it is defensive and aimed at deterrence.
While the world is transfixed by Pyongyang’s duel with the US, another regime’s missile program also threatens global security and stability.
Dr. Majid Rafizadeh
This argument has already been debunked, since Iran has used ballistic missiles offensively outside its borders. In the latest incident, a missile launch into Syria violated international law and the sovereignty of the Syrian state.
Iran’s so-called moderates and hard-liners both support advancing Tehran’s ballistic missile program. President Hassan Rouhani has said Iran “will have a new ballistic missile test in the near future that will be a thorn in the eyes of our enemies.”
Iran’s cheerleaders also try to persuade the world that in pursuing ballistic missile capabilities, Tehran is not violating any legal framework. This argument is misleading, unsophisticated and simplistic. Iran is not only in clear breach of UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which prohibits ballistic missile activity until eight years after nuclear deal adoption day in October 2015, but is also violating the spirit of the nuclear deal itself.
The Trump administration should lead a much more robust effort in response to Iran’s aggressive ballistic missile proliferation. This could include condemnation, as well as economic and political sanctions on the Iranian government and non-US entities that deal with Tehran. Since regional countries and EU nations are on the same page as Washington with regard to Tehran’s aggressive ballistic missile activities, the US should seek the assistance of the EU and regional powers.
A coalition of regional nations, such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), should also condemn, pressure, isolate or sanction Tehran economically and politically if needed. This can be more efficiently accomplished with a united front between the US and Arab nations.
Inaction from the Trump administration, the international community and regional powers will be seen by Tehran as weakness and a continuation of Barack Obama’s appeasement policies. Iran will be further emboldened, and will ratchet up its unlawful activities.
An Iranian ICBM armed with a nuclear warhead would be one of the most serious threats to the stability of the region and the world.
• Dr. Majid Rafizadeh is a Harvard-educated, Iranian-American political scientist. He is a leading expert on Iran and US foreign policy, a businessman and president of the International American Council. He serves on the boards of the Harvard International Review, the Harvard International Relations Council and the US-Middle East Chamber for Commerce and Business. He can be reached on Twitter @Dr_Rafizadeh