Is Iran’s enhanced ballistic missile capability a calculated move?

As the North Korea nuclear standoff and the future of Iran’s nuclear deal has absorbed an all-too enormous amount of international attention, a more important prism on Iran’s regional hostility must not go neglected.

During the United Nations General Assembly the controversial nuclear pact, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), took center stage once again. All the while Tehran has throughout the years overtly and covertly pursued a massive campaign hinging on meddling and extending its lethal ideology of Islamic fundamentalism across the Middle East.

The rendered atrocities can be witnessed across the region, especially in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Lebanon. This threatens the very fabric of the Middle East populace and bears the potential of plunging this flashpoint region into an abyss of proxy wars resulting in nothing but infernos of carnage.

Broken promises

As the Obama administration sought to sell the JCPOA to the American people, US allies and the international community, they claimed a different Iran would emerge as a responsible member of the global neighborhood and the Middle East would be the first region to enjoy the boasted outcome. Some even claimed Iran would become this region’s Japan.

“Regrettably, since the agreement was confirmed, we have seen anything but a more peaceful, stable region,” US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on the sidelines of his UNGA meetings. While Iran has enjoyed a rift between Europe and the US, Berlin made remarks sinking deep into the minds of those sitting on the throne in Tehran.

“The Americans are right: Iran is still not playing a constructive role in the Middle East, be it in Yemen or Lebanon,” said German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel in a statement. The Green Continent has also welcomed the idea of cooperating with Washington with the aim of containing Iran’s Middle East thirst, especially considering growing concerns over Iran’s dangerous role in Damascus, Baghdad, Sanaa and Beirut.

This train of thought also bears backing amongst Middle East states. “Two years have passed since Iran’s nuclear agreement with no sign of change in its hostile behavior; it continues to develop its nuclear program and violates the letter and spirit of that agreement,” UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahayan said during his UN General Assembly speech.

Yemen: The strategic state

Despite being a very poor country, the geostrategic importance of Yemen is undeniable. This is the very reason why al-Qaeda sought to establish a major foothold in Saudi Arabia’s back yard and now Iran vehemently continues its support of the Houthis in destabilizing this country and the vital international waters adjacent to its shores.

Tehran is continuing its efforts of smuggling illicit weapons and technology to prolong the Houthis’ campaign, according to Vice Admiral Kevin M. Donegan, the top US Navy commander in the Middle East. These measures stoke civil strife in Yemen and enable the Houthis to launch more precise and longer ranged missiles into its northern neighbor.

The Houthis are also receiving an “increasingly potent arsenal of anti-ship and ballistic missiles, deadly sea mines and even explosive boats that have attacked allied ships in the Red Sea or Saudi territory across Yemen’s northern border,” reported The New York Times citing Donegan’s remarks.

While there has been significant success in the initiative against Iran’s meddling in Yemen, the continuing crisis resembles the lethal potential of Tehran’s influence across the Middle East and its current focus on strategic junctures, such as this country’s influence over imperative shipping lines.

A ballistic missile is launched and tested in an undisclosed location, Iran, March 9, 2016. (Reuters)

Iran’s growing reach

Further grounds of Iran not changing habits following the JCPOA signing are found in its violation of a related accord, the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, by continuing to test launch a range of ballistic missiles.

As recently as Friday Iran unveiled a new ballistic missile as Rouhani increased his rhetoric against Washington through repeating the claim of this regime only seeking its defensive interests. In an even more provocative measure, the medium-range Khorramshahr missile was successfully test launched on Saturday. As claimed by the semiofficial Tasnim news agency, this new weapon has a range of 2,000 kilometers (nearly 1,250 miles) and enjoys the capability of carrying multiple warheads.

This raised strong responses across the board, including US President Donald Trump questioning the JCPOA altogether and accusing Tehran of colluding with Pyongyang. In line with such concerns, Francealso called on the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to deliver a full report on the recent missile test.

Rouhani’s emphasis on seeking to boost Iran’s ballistic missile capability is a completely calculated move. All the while it needs understanding that such rhetoric from senior Iranian officials are aimed at maintaining a straight face back home, and not appearing to give in to pressures raised by the international community.

Iran is also busy exporting weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah and a slate of other terrorist and proxy groups. This conglomerate of violations reached the point of Team Obama alumni Samantha Power, former US envoy to the UN, felt obligated to highlight the cases. This is probably Rouhani’s definition of being a “moderate.”

Electing vetted candidates

Of course, this is the same individual who back in May, after reaching a second term through a process dubbed as an “election” carried out amongst vetted candidates said, “We are proud of our armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), the Basij and the security forces.”

The IRGC is the godfather of Iran’s nuclear and ballistic missile drive, in charge of quelling all forms of domestic dissent, and exporting the regime’s so-called “Islamic Revolution” abroad. For this very purpose, Iran has for decades fostered the rise of proxy offspring armies including the likes of the Lebanese Hezbollah.

Obama’s JCPOA and windfall of billions also provided Iran the opportunity to continue fueling terrorist groups across the region and even marshalling foot-soldiers from as far as Afghanistan and Pakistan to Syria to help maintain Syrian dictator Bashar Assad remain on his throne.

As a train of thought has remained intact from Obama’s flawed policies, there are voices who have gone as far as describing Iran being a “major diplomatic, military, and economic player throughout the Middle East and even into Central and Southwest Asia.” Unfortunately, this plays into Tehran’s hands and upgrades the dogma practiced vis-à-vis Tehran for the past four decades, rendering nothing but escalating death and destruction.

If Iran enjoys “considerable influence” in countries across the region it is not due to its righteous cause. Tehran, in fact, owes a great deal of gratitude to West for its tireless policy of rapprochement. Iran must be isolated, and this is not tantamount to a call for a new Middle East war. Imagining this regime can be a party to be constructively reckoned with is in fact naïve.

Broken promises

It has become crystal clear that the JCPOA has not lived up to its promises. The Middle East has evolved into a mess due to Iran’s meddling, leading to Europe leaning toward US’ position of pressuring Tehran to bring an end to its regional carnage.

For far too long Iran has taken advantage of its nuclear program and ambitions to advance its Middle East influence. This must come to an end, parallel to increasing international pressures on its nuclear/ballistic missile drive, support for terrorism and human rights violations at home.

For nearly four decades Tehran has utilized the engagement approach by the West based on the mistaken perspective on playing “nice” with Iran to encourage change. This has resulted in a Middle East engulfed in war, death and destruction, cloaked by the international brouhaha Iran has launched through its nuclear program.

All of the Iranian regime’s animosities deserve due attention in parallel fashion. Its regional meddling and support for terrorism should be top priority. One such solution was recently provided by Walid Phares, former Trump foreign policy advisor, for Washington to use the Arab coalition and Iranian opposition as means against Tehran.

New Light On Iran’s Human Rights Violations

Two of the major crises the international community is currently engaged with are terrorism and nuclear proliferation. Iran, in particular, is negatively involved in both fields, being known as the central banker of international terrorism, and suspicious for its own controversial nuclear program at home parallel to its nuclear/missile collaboration with North Korea.

As these subjects are of significant importance and deserve even more attributed attention, what must not go neglected is the fact that Iran is taking advantage of such circumstances to continue an equally important campaign of belligerence against its own people. The scope of human rights violations carried out by Tehran is continuously on the rise, with the ruling regime interpreting the mentioned international crises as windows of opportunity to extend its domestic crackdown.

And yet, a promising report issued from the United Nations has shed very necessary light on a specific dossier Iran has gone the limits throughout the past three decades to cloak. In 1988 the Iranian regime carried out an atrocious massacre sending tens of thousands of political prisoners to the gallows. Unfortunately, the world has until recently remained silent in this regard.

Twenty nine years after the atrocious carnage, Asma Jahangir, the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Iran, issued a report on September 2nd for the first time referring to the massacre of over 30,000 political prisoners, mostly members and supporters of the Iranian opposition People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK).

This document, coupled with a note by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and presented to the UN General Assembly, has for the first time specifically attributed a number of articles to the 1988 massacre. Thousands of men, women and juveniles were sent to the gallows, and buried in mass, unmarked graves, all according to a fatwa, or decree, issued by the deceased Iranian regime founder Ayatollah Khomeini.

Raising the stakes to a level Tehran has sought to avoid through the years, this damning UN report has called for an independent and thorough inquiry into these crimes to unearth the truth of the atrocities carried out in the summer of 1988.

Activists and the Iranian Diaspora have for 29 years focused their measures on presenting evidence of the killings. This has finally been acknowledged in this UN report.

“Between July and August 1988, thousands of political prisoners, men, women and teen-agers, were reportedly executed pursuant to a fatwa issued by the then Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khomeini. A three-man commission was reportedly created with a view to determining who should be executed. The bodies of the victims were reportedly buried in unmarked graves and their families never informed of their whereabouts. These events, known as the 1988 massacres, have never been officially acknowledged. In January 1989, the Special Representative of the Commission on Human Rights on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Reynaldo Galindo Pohl, expressed concern over the “global denial” of the executions and called on Iranian authorities to conduct an investigation. Such an investigation has yet to be undertaken.”

The atrocities, of such grave nature, rendered a major rift amongst the regime’s leadership and highest authorities. The late Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then Khomeini’s designated successor, expressed his opposition to the killings and the massacre came back to haunt a presidential hopeful in the most recent such election held back in May.

“In August 2016, an audio recording of a meeting held in 1988 between high-level State officials and clerics was published. The recording revealed the names of the officials who had carried out and defended the executions, including the current Minister of Justice, a current high court judge, and the head of one of the largest religious foundations in the country and candidate in the May presidential elections. Following the publication of the audio recording, some clerical authorities and the chief of the judiciary admitted that the executions had taken place and, in some instances, defended them.”

The mentioned “head of one of the largest religious foundations” is none other than conservative cleric Ebrahim Raisi, said to be groomed by Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei to replace the incumbent Hassan Rouhani as president. Khamenei, battling with cancer, sought this as a launching pad in Raisi’s rise to succeed him as the regime’s leader.

However, a nationwide campaign led by the network of PMOI/MEK-associated activists inside Iran exposed Raisi’s past and raised immense emotions and opposition amongst the Iranian population. This development left Khamenei no choice but to place his blueprints aside and allow another term for Rouhani as his regime’s president.

The UN report also refers to Raisi’s candidacy in May’s election.

“During the period of candidate registration, a total of 1,636 individuals, including 137 women, submitted their names as candidates for president. However, in April, the Guardian Council, a body of six clerics appointed by the Supreme Leader that oversees the electoral process and vets the candidates, announced that the candidatures of only six men (0.37 per cent of the applicants) had been approved. Among them was Ebrahim Raisi, who reportedly had served on a committee that had ordered the extrajudicial executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988.”

The 1988 massacre victims’ families have throughout these years desperately sought to find the final resting places of their loved ones. All have been provided next to no information by the regime’s authorities and left to search and grieve amongst the dozens of mass graves sites checkered across the country.

“In March, families who visited a mass grave located in the city of Mashhad, Razavi Khorasan Province, where up to 170 political prisoners are believed to be buried, reportedly discovered that the previously flat area had been covered with soil to create a raised mound over the grave. In mid-May, bulldozers were reportedly seen working on a construction project directly alongside the mass grave site at Ahvaz, located on a barren piece of land 3 km east of Behesht Abad Cemetery, where the remains of at least 44 people killed during the summer of 1988 are believed to be located. The plan is reportedly to ultimately raze the concrete block marking the grave site and build a “green space” or commercial development over the site.”

After decades of endless efforts by Tehran to keep a lid on the 1988 massacre, this UN reports demands dignity for the victims and their families.

“Over the years, a high number of reports have been issued about the [1988] massacres. If the number of persons who disappeared and were executed can be disputed, overwhelming evidence shows that thousands of persons were summarily killed. Recently, these killings have been acknowledged by some at the highest levels of the State. The families of the victims have a right to know the truth about these events and the fate of their loved ones without risking reprisal. They have the right to a remedy, which includes the right to an effective investigation of the facts and public disclosure of the truth; and the right to reparation. The Special Rapporteur therefore calls on the Government to ensure that a thorough and independent investigation into these events is carried out.”

The Iranian regime has considered the international community turning its back on this crime against humanity as a green light to continue its rampage of domestic crackdown and human rights violations.

The so-called “moderate” Rouhani has a dismal report card of over 3,000 executions during his first tenure, over 100 executions in July and at least 55 such cases in the month of August, according to reports.

The regime also has no tolerance for even the slightest protest by political prisoners in its own jails. Nearly two dozen such inmates in Raja’i Shahr (Gohardasht) prison of Karaj, a town west of Tehran, are continuing their hunger strike for well over a month. They are protesting their illegal transfer to a section of the facility placed under 24/7 audio and visual surveillance, even in bathrooms and showers.

As Iran’s other bellicosity have rightfully raised international concerns in recent years, it is vital to understand that human rights violations are this regime’s chink in the armor. No matter what their position, all ranks and files of the Iranian regime involved in the 1988 massacre must be held accountable in an international tribunal and face justice.