Iran blasted a rocket carrying a satellite into space on Tuesday, but failed to get it into orbit, following criticism by the United States that the Islamic Republic is continuing to build its ballistic missile program.
The missile likely crashed somewhere in the Indian Ocean, according to the Associated Press, having failed in the third stage of its launch, would would have pushed it out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Iran said the satellite — one of two it planned on sending into space, called Payam (message) and Doosti (friendship) — did not have a military purpose, and that launching it was within its rights to carry out such tests. It has launched satellites into space in the past.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Iran earlier this month that the United States will not accept these tests, arguing that the launch of these missiles violates a U.N. Security Council resolution linked to the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal.
“The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” said Pompeo. “We advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.”
“Why does the United States of America feel like it has the singular responsibility in the world to tell other people they can’t do what the United States and its allies do — to include putting satellites in space?” asked retired Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, former chief of staff to Secretary of State Colin Powell.
He told ThinkProgress that Secretary Pompeo likely doesn’t understand the sophisticated satellite systems in question. It’s unclear what kind of satellite was even in play, or if it could have been used, at some point, to track missiles.
“There are 20 people in the United States of America — and I will back this up to the hilt — … outside the specialists at Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and other places, that know satellite capacity,” said Wilkerson, who is currently an advisory board member for Foreign Policy for America.
He added, “No one has said anything of consequence [about what kind of satellite Iran was trying to launch], including Bolton or Pompeo or anyone else.”
President Donald Trump, who violated the 2015 nuclear deal agreed upon by the Obama administration, Iran, the United Kingdom, France, Russia, China, and Germany, has long insisted that Iran’s ballistic missile program should be covered by the deal.
These events are taking place against the backdrop of an increasingly flammable diplomatic situation.
Iran has also taken other steps the Trump administration has viewed as provocative — from saying it will increase its nuclear fuel enrichment capabilities to detaining another U.S. citizen.
“Iran and the United States are locked in a death spiral in their relations,” said Nicholas Heras, fellow at the Center for a New American Security, who works in the Middle East Security Program.
“The Iranians are trying to stand up to the Americans and reaffirm Iran’s sovereignty, while the Trump team is trying to force Iran to stand down globally,” he said.
Wilkerson warns that some of what we see out of Iran is about different factions — such as the hardliners against the slightly less conservative administration of President Hassan Rouhani — getting back at each other, rather than a unified message to the West.
“It always appalls me that we attribute to Iran some kind of incredible unanimity that we couldn’t attribute to ourselves, especially right now. There are factions, and the factions battle each other all the time … and that’s usually, say, why someone gets whisked off the street and put into the jail,” he said.
Secretary Pompeo and National Security Adviser John Bolton were both in the Middle East last week, reiterating U.S. commitments in Syria and trying to rally allies in a regional coalition against Iran. This, despite the president’s promise last month to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria, before saying weeks later that Iran “can do what they want” there.
Pompeo will also lead a summit set for February in Poland that will focus on what he said was regional security and “making sure that Iran is not a destabilizing influence.”
Bolton, meanwhile, asked the Pentagon last year about America’s military options against Iran. The New York Times reported that Pentagon officials are increasingly worried that Bolton’s hawkish stance will increase the odds of a clash with Iran, which would likely be catastrophic for the region.
“Everything that the Trump team is trying to do — maximum diplomatic and sanctions pressure — is aiming to push the Islamic Republic into the abyss of internal collapse and popular revolution against the Supreme Leader and his system,” said Heras.
Wilkerson said that it should go without question that the Pentagon had a war plan for Iran — it probably has a number of options for virtually every country. Having known Bolton and worked alongside him for years, he figures that this is all part of Bolton trying to pressure Trump into including a military option against Iran, if necessary.
“If sanctions do not cause the regime in Tehran to collapse … then he [Bolton] is perfectly willing to bomb Iran,” said Wilkerson.
It’s important to note that as national security adviser, Bolton is a staff officer and does not have any such authority. He’s not even in the chain of command, which runs from the president to the secretary of defense through the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to the warfighter in the field.
If Bolton does manage to talk Trump into ordering the use of force against Iran, Wilkerson said that would result in “a disaster” and won’t accomplish anything in terms of eliminating Iran as the threat Secretary Pompeo claims it is.
And in this atmosphere, things that ought to be extremely unlikely suddenly seem less so.
“The Islamic Republic knows that the Trump administration has declared open season on it, and is trying to frustrate American efforts aggressively, while building up the military infrastructure needed to threaten what it views as American client states in Israel and Saudi Arabia,” said Heras, adding, “These are dangerous times.”
The Middle East will bear the brunt of this danger, because with Iran under attack Saudi Arabia might be strengthened. And the greatest threat to regional stability, said Wilkerson, is Saudi Arabia and the United States’ relationship with it.
But the Gulf Arab nation’s oil, investments in the United States, and access to U.S. national security elite binds it to the United States in remarkable ways.
“As [former Secretary of Defense] Bob Gates said, so eloquently, Saudi Arabia will fight Iran to the last dead American,” said Wilkerson.