There is not much of a “missile gap” between Iran’s oft-described reformists and hardliners. Ever since Iran carried out a series of controversial missile tests last month, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has been defending Iran’s missile program to his English-speaking audiences. Addressing the New Zealand Institute of Foreign Affairs in Wellington on March 14, Zarif responded with apparent emotion to a Japanese journalist who asked why Iran was pursuing missile tests just as investors were beginning to explore possible opportunities in Iran. Zarif stood up with a sarcastic smile and, wagging his finger, invoked the era of fear and isolation Iranians lived through during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War.

Zarif’s main talking points were that Iran had been “showered with missiles carrying chemical warheads” and couldn’t retaliate; that other countries had refused Iran military assistance; that the international community had not denounced Saddam Hussein for attacking Iran, but only for attacking the Kurds; that Iran’s missiles are now intended for self-defense “to prevent another Saddam Hussein around the corner from attacking us with chemical weapons”; and that today, no one would “have the guts” to attack Iran again. His message proved immensely popular with Iranians, many of whom have recently shared the video on social media, and heaped praise on Zarif.

At issue since Iran’s March missile tests are the true intentions behind Iran’s missile program and whether the tests violate UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorses last year’s nuclear deal. Following the tests, the US, Britain, France, and Germany said the missiles were capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and therefore violated the resolution, which calls on Iran “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology,” until eight years after the nuclear deal’s “Adoption Day” on October 18, 2015.

While the tests don’t violate the nuclear deal itself, they could lead to further western sanctions. Iran’s regional rivals, notably Israel and the US-allied Arab Gulf States, also see them as a threat. One of the missiles launched in March reportedly bore the slogan “Israel must be wiped out” in Hebrew, which suggests the launches were, at a minimum, designed to goad Israel, the US and Europe, and promote the agenda of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, which fired the missiles. Zarif’s triumph has been to sell at least the military side of that agenda to an Iranian public so often wary of “hardliners.”

For all Zarif’s popularity with Iranian reformers and western Iran-watchers, he is the defender of an Iranian military doctrine controlled by more conservative forces. “Everyone in the Iranian leadership says almost the same thing,” says Matthew McInnis, a defense analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. “Whether you call them moderates or hardliners, it doesn't matter. The missile program is absolutely essential for Iran and they are not going to budge on this.” Iran’s conventional military, McInnis says, is not particularly strong, which means Iran relies on its ability to deter its rivals through the threat of retaliation, be it through missiles, support for terrorist groups, or proxy warfare.

Nor was Zarif’s appeal to emotional memories of the Iran-Iraq War purely rhetorical. The military doctrine for which he stands was indeed formed by the trauma of Iran's war with Iraq. “The Iran-Iraq war solidified that thinking with the Iranians a long time ago,” McInnis says. “The legacy of the Iran-Iraq war still drives their thinking and their threat perception. They didn't actively invest a lot in their missile program until Saddam started raining missiles down on them in the Iran-Iraq War. This is one of the reasons they see missiles as an existential issue for them. The Iranian missile program is essential for their deterrence against Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, and, to a lesser degree, us.”

For all the divisions in Iranian politics, both official and subterranean, the Iran-Iraq War was a trauma all Iranians shared, and one still little understood by outsiders. “You have a whole generation who remember missiles raining down on Tehran,” says Hooman Majd, an Iranian-American journalist closely acquainted with Zarif. “You also have a generation of younger people, some of whom weren't born then, but their parents certainly were. And then you have a generation of mid-aged people, maybe in their 30s and 40s, and they remember being children and having missiles rain down, and turning off lights and hearing explosions go off.” Iran’s deterrence strategy, Majd says, is popular with Iranians.

The West’s apparent indifference to Iranians’ fate during the Iran-Iraq War remains a source o resentment Iranian officials draw upon to great effect. Whereas officials may have failed to convince Iranians that 2009 pro-democracy protests were part of a Western plot, Majd says, many Iranians still remember a time when their lives seemed to count for little in the eyes of the West. He cites the accidental shooting down of a civilian flight, Iran Air flight 655, by the USS Vincennes in 1988, as another example. “If you look at images from state TV, and bodies of children floating in the Persian Gulf, that's powerful shit, even if it was entirely an accident, which most Iranians simply cannot believe. After that, President George H.W. Bush said, ‘I will never apologize for the US.’ The narrative that the US did that on purpose was the narrative that was bought.”

But even if Zarif’s comments ring true for Iranians, they do not tell the whole story. While Iran had difficulties procuring arms during the Iran-Iraq War, says military analyst Tous Tahmasebi, Iran was able to acquire missiles from several states, including North Korea, Libya, Syria, and China. Iran even acquired a small number of missiles and anti-tank rockets from the US, via Israel, as part of the Reagan Administration’s secret, illegal dealings over US hostages in Lebanon, which became known as the Iran-Contra scandal. Iran’s supreme leader at the time, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, said that targeting civilians with missiles was against Islamic law. Even so, Iran retaliated against Iraqi missile attacks by firing North Korean scuds at Baghdad.  

International human rights lawyer Mani Mostofi recently responded to Zarif's statement on Facebook. While he agreed with Zarif’s central point, he found ample room for critique. “Don't tell a Japanese journalist that the Japanese don't know what it is like to be bombed and they do not know about asymmetry in warfare,” he wrote. Mostofi also took on Zarif’s complaints about the indifference of the international community. “If you think the international community has failed to safeguard humanitarian law, then take the lead in Syria. [Iran] can do so by demanding adherence to the Geneva Conventions by the Syrian military. That would be real leadership and my applause for Zarif would be much louder.”

And even if Zarif has pulled off a PR coup for Iran’s missile program, Majd says Iran’s reformists may have a few misgivings. “The question really becomes, ‘Why test a missile within days of the implementation of a nuclear accord which you hope will also lead to some normalization of relations with the West?’” While reformists back missile tests, he says, differences probably come down to style. “‘Do we need to make a big deal out of it? Do we need to televise it? Do we need to announce it to the world? Or can we do these things a bit more quietly?’ That is where you would probably find a difference although they would not admit it.”

McInnis cautions that, in any case, Iran’s missile program is fundamentally unlike its nuclear program. “I have argued that we should not be treating the missile program the same way we did the nuclear program, with the idea that pressure and sanctions are likely to change Iran's calculus," he says. "They are going to pursue their missile program pretty much regardless of what we do.” Rather, he says, the US should focus on its own deterrence and counter-targeting, while Israel and the Gulf States should take care that Iran’s missile capabilities don’t overwhelm their defensive capabilities.

Zarif’s fans, and other observers for that matter, may take heart that the Revolutionary Guards are partly or even mainly launching missiles in response to Zarif's diplomatic successes. “They need to demonstrate that after the diplomatic breakthrough of the nuclear deal, this doesn't mean that Iran is weak now, or that Iran is conceding to the US,” McInnis says. “So there is allowance within the political system to let the IRGC do some fairly provocative missile tests to reassure the elites and tell the rest of the world that Iran is not changing its fundamental military posture just because of the nuclear deal.”

 

Aida Ghajar contributed reporting on Iran’s wartime arms trade for this article.

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