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The ‘other Islamic state’ may soon have nuclear missiles

Let’s turn the clock back to 14 July 2015, when the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action between Iran and the Permanent Members of the Security Council and the European Union was announced. The agreement sought to contain Iran’s nuclear program by forcing closure of many of the country’s enrichment facilities and vastly reducing its uranium stockpile. In return, the international community would lift a crippling sanctions regime on the economy, freeing up billions of dollars in oil and frozen assets.

At the time, President Obama trumpeted the agreement as a feat of diplomacy; that it "demonstrates that American diplomacy can bring about real and meaningful change". He said that, under the agreement, Iran had no possibility to achieve a rapid nuclear weapons ‘breakout’ for at least the next decade; that "Every pathway to a nuclear weapon is cut off". EU leaders similarly echoed the President’s remarks. Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi visited Iran, signing a series of bilateral agreements. French President François Hollande welcomed his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani to the French presidential palace, declaring it to be a "new chapter of our relationship". Even German Chancellor Angela Merkel, usually restrained with any multilateral agreement, urged for a unified approach to the removal of sanctions against Iran.

Yet, one year on and with the ink barely dry, suspicions are re-emerging. As we learnt this week from a 317-page report released by German’s domestic security agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz, Iran has attempted to purchase illegal nuclear technologies in direct contravention of the agreement. "This was particularly the case for merchandise that could be deployed in the field of nuclear technology", the report said.

What the report also indicates is that there has been a continuation of Iranian attempts to enhance its missile technology. It notes there has been "a further increase in the already considerable procurement efforts in connection with Iran’s ambitious missile technology program which could among other things potentially serve to deliver nuclear weapons. Against this backdrop it is safe to expect that Iran will continue its intensive procurement activities".

All this was enough to prompt Merkel to argue a few days ago that such weapons-related development and testing could be viewed as contrary to the Security Council’s rulings on missile development. "Iran continued unabated to develop its rocket program in conflict with the relevant provisions of the UN Security Council", she said in an address to the Bundestag. Merkel also told lawmakers NATO’s anti-missile system, including a shield in Romania and one planned for Poland, was "developed purely for defense" in an indication of how seriously the alliance considers Iran’s illegal actions and clear ambitions.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has followed Merkel’s lead in condemning Iran’s actions, stating that they "are not consistent with the constructive spirit demonstrated by the signing of the [deal]". In a report to be delivered to the 15-member Security Council to be discussed by the body on 18 July, Ban Ki moon calls "upon Iran to refrain from conducting such ballistic missile launches since they have the potential to increase tensions in the region".

Despite the report, President Obama says that Iran is honouring the nuclear deal. He promised "snapback" sanctions in the event of the very violations Merkel has pointed out, as well as "unprecedented" inspections. Inspections aren’t technically permitted on sites where uranium was found, and by the end of the 24-day notice for inspections, there’s a good chance evidence of any violations would be scrubbed. As French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said, "A lot of things can disappear" in 24 days. UNSC resolution 2231 imposes an eight-year ban on Iran testing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons. But as Merkel stressed in the Bundestag and as Germany’s domestic intelligence agency outlines, Iran has violated that ban repeatedly. Mild verbal pushback from the West, unsurprisingly, is not deterring the regime from its resolute nuclear focus.

Should we be surprised at all this? No. After all, history tells us that a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons can seldom be dissuaded from doing so. Iran has certainly lived up to this record. Indeed, even if an agreement was to be effective, there could be unintended non-nuclear consequences, not least empowering Iran as a regional player through its terrorist-group surrogates Hezbollah and Hamas. This begs the question of the alternative: to confront the reality that the region is likely to feature an Iran with a robust nuclear infrastructure. Through clever multilateral diplomacy and a combination of carrots and sticks, it is perhaps possible to prevent Iran from crossing the nuclear threshold. Given Iran's inclinations towards the United States, Israel and others such as Saudi Arabia, however, the notion of a complete abandonment of its nuclear program is unlikely. It is also doubtful the Israelis would ever let Iran become a nuclear threat; it bombed Iraq in 1981 and Syria in 2007 to maintain its regional nuclear hegemony. Given long-standing bipartisan policy, it is also unlikely the US would allow a nuclear-armed Iran.

Noting the failure of the agreement and recent comments in June from Iran’s Supreme Leader casting doubt over future cooperation with the West, the Security Council must consider reinstituting the sanctions that have so far been removed. While sanctions have not deterred Iran in the past, they would certainly impede future efforts. Continued cheating and violations would also bolster the case and garner the international support needed for greater economic sanctions, embargoes or limited military intervention of one kind or another in time to come.

Paul Grandoni is completing a Master of National Security Policy (Advanced) at the Australian National University National Security College.

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Image credit: Prachatai (Flickr: Creative Commons)

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