Israel or Iranian Liberals: Who are the Real Targets of Iran’s Missile Tests?

17 March 2016 Lindsay Hughes, Research Analyst, Indian Ocean Research Programme Download PDF

Key Points

  • Tensions are building between Iranian conservative leaders and their more liberal counterparts.
  • President Hassan Rouhani is seen by the conservatives as a danger to the status quo and their hold on power. They wish to destroy his credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the West.
  • One way of doing that is to carry out missile tests that contravene previous agreements.


The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) announced on 8 March 2016 that it had carried out a ballistic missile test to demonstrate its ‘full readiness to confront all kinds of threats against the Revolution, establishment and territorial integrity.’ The test attracted the attention – and disapproval – of the United States. State Department Spokesman Mark Toner stated that ‘there are strong indications (this) test is inconsistent with UN Security Council 2231’ and added that, ‘If confirmed, we intend to raise the matter in the UN Security Council.’ An official in the Obama Administration downplayed the test, remarking that the missile in question was a medium-range weapon and did not have the long range to which the Iranian news reports alluded.

It soon became apparent that Iran was not overly concerned by those statements. It followed that test with the launch of two more missiles the very next day – this time with missiles that had ranges of 1,700 kilometres and 2,000 kilometres, respectively. Israeli authorities were quick to note that these missiles brought all of Israel within their strike envelope. They also stated that, adding insult to the fact of the launch, the missiles were painted with the statement in Hebrew, “Israel must be wiped off the Earth”, a reference to a speech by the leader of the Iranian revolution, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

US officials stated this time around that the launch of the two missiles did not constitute a breach of the nuclear agreement that Iran signed with the members of the United Nations Security Council and Germany (the P5+1), the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), because they were not fitted with nuclear warheads. They did state, however, that Iran had, in all probability, violated the terms of a United Nations resolution that required Iran not to conduct ballistic missile tests. Former Secretary of State and now a Democratic Party candidate for the Presidency, Hillary Clinton, called for sanctions against Iran after it brushed off Washington’s concerns. Recording her deep concerns about the test, Clinton said that, ‘Iran should face sanctions for these activities and the international community must demonstrate that Iran’s threats toward Israel will not be tolerated.’

An IRGC Brigadier-General, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, noting that Iran’s ballistic missiles are designed to be able to strike targets in Israel, said, ‘The reason we designed our missiles with a range of 2,000 km (1,200 miles) is to be able to hit our enemy, the Zionist regime, from a safe distance.’ If true, it would appear that Israel is the primary target of Iran’s ballistic missiles.


It is, perhaps, telling that the missile tests occurred soon after Iranians went to the polls on 26 February. While an election is generally viewed as democracy in action, it is not quite so in Iran, where “elections” are dictated by the edicts of the conservative clerics of the Guardian Council, a body that vets candidates who stand for political office and which consists of six clerics and six sharia judges. This body vetted the twelve thousand individuals who applied to contest the 290 parliamentary seats and approved 6,229, including 586 women. This process by itself gives rise to speculation that conservatives alone can be elected to parliament and critics of the government, or those who are seen to be reformists, disqualified.

Despite the obstacles to a free and democratic election, however, an estimated 72 per cent of the fifty million or so citizens who are eligible to vote took part in it. It is, again, a statement of their aspiration towards real change that the so-called “moderates” won all thirty of the seats from Tehran. The Ministry of the Interior, which oversaw the election, later announced the names of 222 candidates who had won seats. It also announced that a second round of voting would be conducted for 68 seats, spread over several constituencies, in April. Not announced, however, was whether the winning candidates were conservatives or moderates. Media attempts at making a determination indicate that the moderates and reformists appear to have garnered between eighty and ninety seats in the parliament, or Majlis. Adding to the obfuscation, however, the Kayhan newspaper, commonly perceived to be a mouthpiece for the conservative faction of the Majlis, called such speculation “The Big Lie”.

The moderates/reformists combined also did well in their showing for election to the Assembly of Experts, a body of 88 clerics who are required to appoint the next Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei’s successor. They reputedly won fifteen of sixteen seats reserved for the Tehran area. Two prominent conservatives who lost their places in the Assembly were the Assembly Chair, Mohammad Yazdi, and Mohammad Mesbah Yazdi, the mentor of former hard-line President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Any increase in the number of moderates in the Majlis or Assembly, however, poses a direct threat to Iran’s Supreme Leader and head of the conservatives, Khamenei. It was, therefore, no surprise that he described the loss of these two officials as ‘an organised attempt by foreigners’. A main objective of the conservatives is to continue the spread of Khomeini’s Islamic Revolution. In their view, the Arab Spring was an extension of this revolution and, while currently dormant, has not been nullified. They depend on the IRGC to ensure the survival of the regime.

The IRGC was established by Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution to enforce his idea of an Islamic state that would be governed by a Velayat-e faqih or Guardianship of Jurists. Ever since it eliminated initial opposition to Khomeini’s ideas, such as the Mujahedin-e Khalq, a leftist organisation that initially backed the revolution but later split from the theocrats, and then fought Saddam Hussein’s invasion to a standstill, the IRGC has become the country’s primary security agent and commands air-, land- and sea-based forces that are independent of the country’s Artesh, or conventional forces. This is systemically analogous to the concurrent existence and operation of the SS and the Wehrmacht in Nazi Germany. As one analysis alleges, if Iran were to acquire a nuclear weapon it is likely that the IRGC would have control over it.

The IRGC, moreover, has evolved into an economic force. It gained much of its economic power during the presidency of Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani from 1989 to 1997. His economic priority was to rebuild Iran’s economy, which had been battered by almost ten years of war with Iraq. He reasoned that the IRGC could assist in the redevelopment of the country and, in order to retain the loyalty of the Corps and to reward it for its role in the war, provide it with economic opportunity. The IRGC leaders took full advantage of the opportunity presented to them. The Corps is now a major player in Iran’s auto-manufacturing, banking and finance, construction, energy and telecommunications sectors. It is, additionally, linked to many (some analyses have linked it to hundreds) of ostensibly private organisations that are managed by veteran officers of the IRGC. In this way, the IRGC’s economic power extends well beyond that of any single organisation and comprises a network of companies and businesses that it influences. In this it reflects closely the economic power of China’s People’s Liberation Army.

This economic power has led an organisation that was created with a view to supporting and guarding the Iranian Revolution’s Guardianship of Jurists to become a political force to be respected. When a Turkish company was awarded the contract to build Tehran’s Imam Khomeini International Airport in 2004, the IRGC blocked the deal on the grounds of national security. Similarly, the IRGC took over the Telecommunications Company of Iran in 2009 on the grounds of national security, through a consortium that was affiliated to it. In this instance, however, the takeover occurred at the time of the civil unrest in Tehran and other parts of the country, which could give it a semblance of validity. In 1999, however, the IRGC took a strong-handed approach to the reformist Mohammed Khatami, threatening him with a coup d’état if he did not bring the student demonstrations under control. In 2005, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of the IRGC, was elected as President, allegedly due to the support of the IRGC, which was accused of vote-rigging to ensure his victory. He, unsurprisingly, rewarded the IRGC with more economic opportunities. Similarly, in 2009, the IRGC demonstrated its opposition to the more centrist Mir Hussein Mousavi who, as Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989, had frequently clashed with then-President Khamenei.

It is likely that the IRGC also benefitted from the US-led sanctions on Iran. Given the spread of its economic interests and the political power that enabled it to access state funds to the tune of billions of dollars, the Corps was awarded government contracts (without competing bids) by ex-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Khamenei. This drew the IRGC even closer to the ruling conservative leaders, making that nexus even more symbiotic and making the Corps all the more determined to ensure the conservative regime and to preserve the status quo.

This politico-economic edifice is now threatened by the JCPOA that was signed by the P5+1 and Iran in regard to the latter’s nuclear programme. The moderate Iranian President, Hassan Rouhani, and the Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, appear to wish to open Iran to the West, in general, and the US, in particular. They recognise that the younger Iranian demographic is tired of authoritarian rule by theocrats. This demographic seeks to have the freedoms that their counterparts in the West enjoy. Rouhani and Zarif are, therefore, trying to make Iran’s political system more open and inclusive.

The IRGC and Khamenei are opposed to this goal. While they undoubtedly wish to have the sanctions regime terminated once and for all, they are chary of opening up Iran to the outside world. They fear that the normalisation of economic and political relations with the US would be a refutation of the Islamic Revolution and, by extension, a refutation of Khomeinism and their hold on power. For the IRGC, this would imply a loss of their raison d’être, their political power and their economic benefits. The situation for both the IRGC and the Velayat-e faqih is clearly untenable. From their perspective, Rouhani, who has the backing of the Iranian people, must be stopped.

Khamenei, interestingly, appeared to support Rouhani in his goal. In a speech on 9 April 2015, for instance, he appeared to be willing to countenance a shift in relations with the US, saying, ‘If the other side [the United States] sets aside its bad behaviour, this will become a new experience for us, one that will tell us that, well, we can also negotiate with them about other issues.’ Any hopes of normalisation were soon dashed, however, when, in the aftermath of Zarif’s meeting with President Obama on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, he declared that he had banned any negotiations with the US on any issue other than the nuclear deal. He accused the US of seeking to gain influence in Iran, saying, ‘Negotiations with the United States open the gates to its economic, cultural, political and security influence. Even during the nuclear negotiations, they tried to harm our national interests.’ Berating Rouhani and the Iranian negotiators (‘Our negotiators were vigilant, but the Americans took advantage of a few chances’), he accused the US of being untrustworthy, saying, ‘We are pessimistic towards the Americans and do not put any trust in them. The American Government is untrustworthy, supercilious and unreasonable, and breaks its promises.’

He appears to have the backing of his conservative colleagues. In a press conference on 11 October, Gholamhossein Mohseni Eje’i, the hardline deputy judiciary chief, repeated the accusations of allowing greater influence in Iran. Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the IRGC chief, accused Rouhani of seeking to transform Iran to a normal, non-revolutionary state, saying that the IRGC ‘will never allow that.’ Gholam-Ali Haddad Adel, a senior adviser to Khamenei and father-in-law of his son Mojtaba, alleged on 15 October that ‘we are concerned about some officials opening the way for US influence in Iran’. Perhaps most directly threatening of all, during a debate in the Majlis on 10 October, Ruhollah Hosseinian, a Tehran MP and former official of the Intelligence Ministry, referring to Iran’s obligation to remove the reactor core and fill the hole with concrete, stated that ‘If the nuclear agreement is approved by the Majlis, we will murder you, bury you in the Arak [heavy-water nuclear] reactor and pour cement on you.’

The conservative-ruled judiciary has also played its role in backing Khamenei and his followers. Reformist and liberal poets have been sentenced to imprisonment for allegedly insulting Iranian society, liberals who were imprisoned left to die because they were refused medical treatment, other prisoners denied their liberty after serving their sentences, scientists imprisoned because they refused to work on Iran’s military projects and journalists imprisoned on false charges.

The conservatives fear that improved relations with the West can lead to economic opportunities for the general population, which could erode their grip on power and, instead, hand the reformists more influence. The IRGC knows that improved relations with the West could destroy its economic elitism and the very reason for its existence. They both understand that Rouhani and the other reformists must be allowed to push the nuclear deal through but also that they must be stopped from developing further ties with the West. The best way of doing so, in their minds, would be to undermine his authority and demonstrate his ineffectiveness or, better still, to show him to be a leader who cannot be trusted by either the West or the Iranian people. A good start to doing that, it would appear, would be to carry out missile tests in defiance of previous agreements and sanctions.

Iran’s ballistic missile tests may well have been an exercise in threatening Israel but could also have been part of a plan to undermine the reformists and liberals. The conservatives may admit to the first but hardly to the latter. Nevertheless, it is the liberals who are firmly in the sights of the missiles.

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

Published by Future Directions International Pty Ltd.
Suite 5, 202 Hampden Road, Nedlands WA 6009, Australia.