Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani’s latest remark on the country’s missile program has aroused the ire of the military establishment. In the second presidential debate aired on Iran’s state-run TV, Rouhani, who is seeking a second term in May 19 elections, accused the powerful Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (I.R.G.C.) of trying to sabotage the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action – the nuclear deal Iran signed with world powers in July 2015. “What did they do in order to undermine the J.C.P.O.A.?” Rouhani asked, referring to the I.R.G.C. “They wrote slogans on a missile so that we cannot use the J.C.P.O.A.,” he added, pointing to the I.R.G.C. test-launch of a ballistic missile in March 2016 which had “Israel should be wiped off the Earth” inscribed on it in Hebrew.
On Monday, the chief of staff of the Iranian Armed Forces criticized Rouhani and reiterated that the country’s missile program is not covered under the nuclear agreement. “It is not appropriate for a candidate and official to relate the projection of the nation’s missile power – which has been attained through the blessing of the blood of martyrs and has deterred enemies’ threats – to a trivial matter such as J.C.P.O.A,” said Major General Mohammad Hossein Bagheri.
The Chief of Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces had previously warned the six presidential candidates in an official letter not to express views on the country’s military and defense matters during the campaign season.
Separately, Brigadier General Gholamhossein Ghaib-Parvar, who was appointed by Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei the new head of the Basij Organization in December, also blasted the president’s comment. “Is the slogan of death to Israel on a missile a bad thing? In principle, the annihilation of Israel is one of our goals,” he emphasized.
Comment: Since the signing of the nuclear agreement almost two years ago, Iran has put increased emphasis on its missile program and has test-fired more than a dozen ballistic missiles. The Iranian missile program has also been a major source of tension between Tehran and Washington since President Donald Trump took office in January. But despite the Trump administration’s warnings and additional U.S. sanctions on Iranian individuals and entities involved in the missile activity, the Islamic Republic is moving full steam ahead with the missile program. “Iran has increased the range, precision and longevity of its ballistic missiles and will continue to increase its defensive power, Iranian Defense Minister Brigadier General Hossein Dehghan said in February.
The differences between the Rouhani government and the military establishment regarding the missile program are more about style than substance. While Rouhani backs the military’s missile work and has increased the defense budget, it urges the I.R.G.C. to refrain from provocative actions – such as threats against the existence of Israel – that may increase international pressure on Tehran. Indeed, Rouhani said last month that the Iranian government will seek no one's permission to build missiles and upgrade the country’s defense capabilities.
While the nuclear agreement does not address Iran’s missile program, a subsequent U.N. Security Council Resolution 2231 calls upon Iran “to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Iranian officials argue that the country’s missiles are not designed to carry nuclear warheads, but U.S. officials say some of the missiles Iran has tested after the 2015 nuclear deal have been "inherently capable of delivering nuclear weapons" and are "in defiance of" the U.N. resolution.