Iranian missile tests carried out on March 9 unsettled outside observers and the Iranian political scene alike. Now, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has weighed in to settle some political scores. Speaking to a gathering on March 30, he hit out at anyone who opposed the tests. “To say that the world of tomorrow is the world of negotiations and not the world of missiles comes either out of ignorance or, if not out of ignorance, then it is treasonous.”
According to his website, Khamenei compared such statements with those of members of the Islamic Republic’s early Interim Government of 1979. Some of those men, he recalled, had said that Iran should return F-14 fighters it had purchased from the US during the Shah’s rule “because they are of no use to us.”
Khamenei’s sharp criticism is a clear response to a tweet by former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, who wrote on March 24, “the world of tomorrow is the world of discourse and not of missiles.”
Over the past few days, hardliners have lined up to denounce Rafsanjani’s tweet.
“I suggest that [Rafsanjani] be sent immediately to the north of Aleppo so that he can destroy ISIS and Al-Nusra Front through negotiations,” wrote Mehdi Mohammadi, who was a member of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's nuclear negotiations team.
“Such ideas are suggested by the Western powers, and especially by the United States, so that [we] would neglect foreign conspiracies and pave the way for their victory when an aggression takes place,” former diplomat Mohammad Hossein Ghadiri told the Nasim news agency.
Another reaction came from General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, commander of the Revolutionary Guards’ Aerospace Force. “My feeling is that in the past two years we did not publish the news about our maneuvers, and this might have made the Americans a little too aggressive,” he said in a March 28 TV interview. “Over the past 10 years, we published the news of our maneuvers every year. But this year, because of the two-year gap, they might have become greedier. Had we not made such a mistake, perhaps they would not have become so demanding.”
Hesamodin Ashna, an advisor to President Hassan Rouhani, objected to the general’s comments. “Aren’t military commanders banned from such interviews?” he wrote. “Do military commanders act based on their feelings, or based on their orders? Was publishing news about the missile tests a mistake, or [was it based on] a directive that they received?”
A Reaction to Election Results?
Khamenei himself faced criticism on social media. “First,” wrote a commenter on Hesamodin Ashna’s Google+ page, “we must ask the Exalted Supreme Leader: Is not making public a confidential report by the foreign minister about bypassing a few red lines in the [nuclear] negotiations against national security?” He was referring to Khamenei’s speech on the occasion of the Iranian New Year. "The honorable commander is publicly blackmailing the government and the parliament."
Such comments abound. One widespread perception is that the defeat of many of the hardline candidates most loyal to Khamenei in last month’s elections for parliament and the Assembly of Experts has made those groups' supporters angry and that they are now trying to compensate with a storm of harsh words and actions.
Now, it seems, the supreme leader is supporting them.
The Threat of New Sanctions
Meanwhile, on March 29, the US and its western allies—Britain, France and Germany—submitted a letter to the UN Security Council saying that, by launching nuclear-capable missiles, Iran had defied a United Nations Security Council resolution that endorsed last year's nuclear agreement. They asked that the Security Council discuss "appropriate responses" to Tehran's failure to comply with its obligations.
Iran has repeatedly claimed that its missile tests do not violate the Security Council Resolution 2231, which was adopted last July. Russia and China support Iran in the matter, so it appears that there is little chance the Security Council will impose new sanctions on Iran. The tests could, however, create an important obstacle to further implementation of the nuclear agreement. They also make it more likely that the US will impose unilateral sanctions on Iran as happened in January when the US Treasury imposed sanctions on eleven entities and individuals for supporting Iran’s ballistic missile program.
But this might be exactly what the hardliners are after. They want to regain control of the political atmosphere in Iran following the nuclear agreement and the 2016 elections, and they have often looked in the past to an escalation of tensions in foreign relations as a tool by which to radicalize the domestic political scene.