The United States and the Threat of Military Action against Iran

15 February 2017 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme


Iran announced on 1 February that it had tested a new ballistic missile on 29 January, bringing swift condemnation from President Trump’s ex-National Security Adviser, Michael Flynn, who stated from the White House, ‘As of today, we are officially putting Iran on notice.’ While he did not elaborate on the threat, other senior officials in the Trump Administration revealed that they were considering a range of options, including economic measures, as a punishment. They, too, did not elaborate on whether those measures included the use of force. Iran’s Defence Minister, Hossein Deghan, claimed, however, that the missile test did not breach Iran’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) agreement with the members of the United Nations Security Council (albeit not in that capacity) and Germany or UN Resolution 2231 of 2015. He defiantly stated that ‘The recent test was in line with our plans and we will not allow foreigners to interfere in our defence affairs’, adding that ‘The test did not violate the nuclear deal or Resolution 2231.’


The Iranian missile was launched from Semnan, approximately 140 miles east of Tehran. According to US officials, he Khorramshahr medium-range ballistic missile flew for approximately one thousand kilometres before exploding as a consequence of a failed attempt at re-entry vehicle, they claimed. The test of the ballistic missile was, interestingly, not Iran’s first since it entered into the JCPOA with the six world powers in 2015 but was its first since Donald Trump assumed office. It is very likely that Tehran would have wanted to test the newly-appointed President’s determination to keep his campaign promise to put an end to Iran’s missile tests. Flynn alleged, in the process contradicting Deghan’s claim to the contrary, that the missile test defied Resolution 2231 that called on Iran not to undertake work on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

The opposing claims aside, it is the wording of the Resolution that emphasises the document’s vagaries. Paragraph 3 of Appendix B of the Resolution states in part, ‘Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear  weapons….’ (This may be found on Page 99 of the Resolution.) Critics of the wording and some Iranian analysts point out that being “called upon” does not necessarily imply a strict adherence to the Resolution. This, they claim, leave Iran with the option of complying with the Resolution or ignoring it altogether. It is likely that this ambiguity is a reason for the Trump Administration’s promise to stop to Iran’s missile tests and to revoke the JCPOA.

Be that as it may, Trump’s stance against the missile test won him support from both sides of Congress. He accused Iran of ‘playing with fire’. He went on to tweet that Iran did not appreciate how “kind” the US had been to them and added that he would not be as kind. Shortly after making that Tweet, ran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, tweeted in turn that ‘Iran [is] unmoved by threats as we derive security from our people. W[e w]ill never initiate war, but we can only rely on our own means of defence.’

It is precisely this confluence of hardened attitudes that poses the greatest risk to regional peace and stability. President Trump, by making a public threat against a state, has few options now that Tehran has refused to apologise for the test or to curtail its testing programme, let alone renounce it altogether. In the wake of what is commonly seen as another humiliating back-down, this time against China and his apparent acquiescence in having to abandon his campaign promise that “everything is negotiable”, including the US’s one China policy, Mr Trump may feel that has to demonstrate his determination to hold Iran accountable for its missile test. This, he may feel, is the only (or perhaps the best) way he could show his supporters who elected him to office that he is not turning away from his campaign promises and that he is remains worthy of their trust. He definitely will not wish to be have his back-down compared to his predecessor’s, President Obama’s, humiliation at not being able to do anything about Syria’s violation of his (Obama’s) red line against Bashir al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria’s on-going Civil War.

Given its antecedents, it is very difficult to predict what course of action the Trump Administration may take to “remedy” this situation. The use of military force is one option that, unfortunately, cannot be dismissed easily.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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