Testing Iran

Yesterday the Iranian press reported that the Islamic Republic “successfully test-fired a new generation of long range surface-to-surface missiles with a range of 1,200 miles.”

Some weapons experts have disputed whether this was, in fact, a new missile. Andrew Brookes of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies told The London Times, “I think the Iranians just keeping on rejigging the same missile and putting a new logo on it. It’s basically the Shahab 3 with a different name, and the purpose of the test firing is to tell the world, ‘don’t forget us’, we have missiles that can reach 2,000 kilometers.”

The White House responded with the requisite denunciation, with spokesman Gordon Johndroe saying “Iran’s development of ballistic missiles is contrary to United Nations Security Council resolutions and completely inconsistent with Iran’s obligations to the world.”

Iran’s missile test should be considered in light of the fact that Iran’s economy, which had been kept afloat on high oil revenues, is collapsing. The high price of oil — which was partly a consequence of the Iraq war — had enabled Iran to sidestep economic sanctions, but with the recent drop in oil prices Iran is in serious trouble. They’ve got double-digit unemployment, double-digit inflation, there’s a whole generation of young Iranians whose future prospects are very dim. And they are very, very unhappy with their government right now.


The missile test should be therefore viewed less as an attempt to “test” the new president-elect, more as an attempt by hardliners to rally Iranians round the flag, as they have done consistently over the past few years, by provoking a crisis to draw attention away from their failure to manage the economy.

So Western condemnation is, I think, precisely what Iranian hardliners are looking for here, and the Bush administration and its conservative outriders have been happy to oblige for the last eight years. The Bush administration’s approach to diplomacy has always been to say “stop doing what you’re doing, then we’ll talk.” This sort of unreasonable and imperious approach to diplomacy has always worked to the advantage of Iranian hardliners trying to cast the US as unreasonable and imperious.

Now that this could change, with President-elect Obama having promised to talk to Iran without preconditions, some of Iran’s leaders are backing away from their previous offers to talk:

“People who put on a mask of friendship, but with the objective of betrayal, and who enter from the angle of negotiations without preconditions, are more dangerous,” Hossein Taeb, deputy commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, said Wednesday, according to the semiofficial Mehr News Agency.

“The power holders in the new American government are trying to regain their lost influence with a tactical change in their foreign diplomacy. They are shifting from a hard conflict to a soft attack,” Taeb said.

For Iran’s leaders, the only state of affairs worse than poor relations with the United States may be improved relations.

Center for American Progress analyst Andrew Grotto wrote in May, “talking to the Iranian government would clarify the choice being presented to the Iranian nation by the international community: the poverty and isolation that extremism brings, or the prosperity and global respect that Iran would enjoy if it adopted a more constructive foreign policy.” Iran’s conservatives would very much prefer that that choice not be clarified. Depriving them of the ability to cast the U.S. as the recalcitrant party would remove one of their most treasured propaganda tools.