At a time when regional tensions are running hot, Iran has taken the unusual step of displaying its missiles that are stored in a vast underground complex.
The footage on Iranian television this week shows the speaker of Iran’s Parliament, Ali Larijani, visiting the subterranean compound. There appear to be long-range ballistic missiles, which United Nations experts say are capable of carrying nuclear warheads. The location of the site was not disclosed.
Iran’s nuclear deal with six world powers, reached last July, is still in its early stages, but appears to be on track so far. Iran could soon meet a number of key obligations and sanctions could be lifted soon, a milestone known as “implementation day.”
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said Thursday that there have been “very significant results,” citing Iran’s shipment of its enriched uranium to Russia, among other moves. “We are days away from implementation if all goes well,” Kerry said.
However, Iran has also conducted two ballistic missile tests in recent months, saying this is outside the scope of the nuclear deal.
The U.N. announced that this violated a separate U.N. Security Council resolution and Washington said it was preparing new sanctions.
Iran has responded with defiance.
President Hassan Rouhani, a supporter of the nuclear deal, ordered the military to accelerate planning for more missile production. And Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) invited the Iranian media to see one of its underground “missile cities.”
Western and regional concerns over Iran’s missile program were raised frequently by critics of last summer’s nuclear agreement between Iran and world powers that included the U.S., Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
One recurring question is whether the U.N. or the world powers might hesitate to sanction Iran for missile violations out of fear of endangering the nuclear deal?
According to a U.N. panel of experts, a violation took place in October, and while Washington says new sanctions are under review, it’s not clear when or if they will be announced.
Iran’s defiant stance on the missile program comes as it races to implement the nuclear deal in order to gain the lifting of financial and banking sanctions and to receive billions of dollars in frozen assets from overseas accounts.
In another development, Iran and Saudi Arabia have cut diplomatic relations and have been trading recriminations in recent days. Saudi Arabia executed a prominent Shiite cleric on Saturday on terrorism charges. In Iran, which regards itself as the defender of Shiites everywhere, a mob ransacked and set alight the Saudi embassy and a consulate.
However, Iran’s Rouhani, seen as a pragmatist, has condemned the ransacking of diplomatic missions. Senior military and police officials in Iran have also distanced themselves from such behavior.
Vali Nasr, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, told NPR that Shiite Iran likes to push its influence in the region but is wary of out-and-out sectarian conflict with Sunni Muslim powers such as Saudi Arabia.
“Iran doesn’t benefit, necessarily, from a sectarian confrontation in the region because its sect of Islam is the minority sect,” Nasr says.
“(Iran) likes to gain influence on the back of secular issues like opposition to Israel or opposition to the U.S. It is the Saudis who see emphasizing Sunni identity as a way of limiting Iran’s ability to sway the Arab population in the region,” he adds.