Iran’s Missile Test: Optics Are Everything

Context: under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and reduce by about two-thirds the number of its centrifuges for at least fifteen years. For the next fifteen years, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67%. Iran also agreed not to build any new uranium-enriching or heavy-water facilities over the same period. Uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges for ten years. Other facilities will be converted to avoid proliferation risks. To monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities. The agreement provides that in return for verifiably abiding by its commitments, Iran will receive relief from U.S., European Union, and United Nations Security Council nuclear-related sanctions. (Source:

On October 10th Iran tested a nuclear capable missile called the Emad (or “pillar”). The Emad is an intermediate-range ballistic missile and is a huge leap forward for Iran’s military in terms of accuracy—the weapon can be guided to avoid anti-missile technologies right until it reaches its target. The test is controversial for a couple reasons: firstly, Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia rightly views the action as a threat; and secondly, the test’s timing is strange considering it could derail or jeopardize an agreement reached between Iran and the United States, Russia, France, Britain, China and Germany.

Iran-map-jpgThe agreement, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), was a measure undertaken to end the nuclear threat posed by Iran; it was tentatively agreed to by all parties in July of 2015. The JCPA was not received well by certain segments of Iranian or American society (not surprising considering the tension between the two countries since the Iranian Revolution in 1979).

The agreement was not particularly well received by Iran’s Supreme Leader the Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Khamenei, Iran’s most powerful religious leader, felt the JCPA required Iran to give up too much sovereignty; from the Iranian point of view the agreement arguably makes the country look weak to its regional rivals; nonetheless, liberal elements in Iran—and they do exist—support the deal because of the benefits conferred upon the country if and when economic sanctions are lifted. In the United States, some critics of the JCPA argue the deal does not go far enough to end Iran as a possible nuclear threat. The funny thing is no agreement, no matter how strict, could entirely remove the threat of Iran developing a nuclear weapon; nonetheless, there’s a lot riding on this agreement, i.e. if it isn’t ratified by both Iran and the United States’ legislative assemblies it’s likely the Iranians will return to developing atomic energy for “peaceful purposes.”

So why would Iran potentially jeopardize the JCPA by conducting a missile test on October 10th? Mark Twain observed history doesn’t repeat but it sure does rhyme. As such the motivations of the Iranians aren’t so hard to understand when using history as our guide and combining it with one of science’s most powerful tools of discernment: logical conjecture.

A positive image is as important to a government as to any corporation. The image a government presents allows it to justify taking certain types of actions. No matter what a regime wants to accomplish, it is a priority—regardless if we’re talking dictatorships or democracies—for a regime to at least appear to be acting with the color of right. For example, one country might justify attacking another by insisting “we are simply making the world safe for democracy” or “fighting terrorism” while really they were just using these as excuses to “guarantee my country’s privileged access to your country’s oil.” In the case of Iran’s nuclear aspirations, they certainly wouldn’t come right out and say “we are developing atomic weapons to wipe Israel off the map.” Instead, they’ll claim they are just developing an energy program—in one of the most oil rich regions on the planet—for peaceful purposes. In order to justify its plan to invade Poland in 1939, Nazi Germany actually attacked itself: dressing up its own soldiers in Polish uniforms and attacking a radar station in Germany; the Germans even left dead “Polish” soldiers behind at the radar station as proof of the “invasion.” Cynical as it might sound, it’s a high priority for regimes not to appear imperialistic while being imperialistic or to appear like they’re doing right while doing wrong. Whether we are talking democratic governments or dictatorships, optics or appearances matter.

So, we can agree, optics—or perception (how an event appears)—frequently differs from reality (or what’s actually going on). As interesting as Iran’s nuclear program, American imperialism, and German theatrics are, we turn to Cuba for a better understanding of what might actually be behind Iran’s recent missile test.

In 1962, the Soviet Union began constructing a series of missile silos on the island nation of Cuba. Anmissile-launch-site-in-cuba American spy plane discovered the silos setting off a chain of events which threatened to bring the world to the brink of nuclear war. In order to prevent the silos from being completed, American President John F. Kennedy avoided open war with the Soviet Union by establishing a naval blockade of Cuba. For their part the Cubans hoped a nuclear deterrent would deter the United States from invading. This is, logically speaking, the same reason Iran established a nuclear program in 2003 (coincidentally the same year neighboring Iraq was invaded by an American-led coalition).

The pressure placed on both President Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev by their respective militaries not to back down was significant. From a propaganda standpoint the stakes were enormous: neither side could back down without losing significant prestige with their allies. Khrushchev, in particular, was pressured by his generals to break the American blockade by force (see Vasili Arkhipov’s heroic action to countermand an order to fire a nuclear tipped torpedo against an American ship). In so far as Soviet leaders go Khrushchev was neither brutal like Stalin nor a militarist like Brezhnev; for this reason he bypassed the Soviet general staff by using secret diplomatic channels to communicate secretly with Kennedy. Through these secret messages Khrushchev asserted America must give him something in exchange for removal of Soviet weapons in Cuba.

The Kennedy administration did not like the optics of giving the Soviets something in exchange for removing the silos; it would set a terrible precedent and weaken the faith America’s allies had in them. Nonetheless, to de-escalate the situation and help Khrushchev save face with the Soviet general staff, Kennedy agreed to remove NATO’s Jupiter missiles in Turkey where were pointing at the Soviet Union. Kennedy, however, had one condition: the Soviets could not publicly state that the Americans removed the Jupiters in exchange for the Soviets dismantling the Cuban silos. This enabled the Americas to preserve their reputation among their NATO allies. According to McGeorge Bundy in his book Danger and Survival the Americans were planning on removing the Jupiter missiles anyways because they were obsolete. Khrushchev, likewise, was able to save face. However, the Russian premier only managed to hold on to power for one more year (removed by high ranking members of the Communist Party for weakness and “erratic” behavior).

So what does the Cuban Missile Crisis have to do with Iran’s controversial missile test on October 10th? Governments frequently make secret agreements with one another and/or use bluster and symbolic gestures to say “we cannot be bullied.” In 2007, for example, China blew up one of its own satellites. One nuke, strategically detonated in space, could send an EMP destroying billions of dollars worth of defense satellites. In terms of optics, the Chinese were telling the United States “your technological superiority does not make you invulnerable.”

In the case of Iran, consider what the Minister of Defense, General Hossein Dehqan, asserted immediately following the controversial test, “To follow our defense programs, we don’t ask permission from anyone.” On the one hand, Dehqan sounds as though he’s defying the international community; on the other hand, the test was likely undertaken less to impress the Americans and more to impress the Iranian people themselves, i.e. “We are equal partners in the agreement reached with the United States. We are still powerful, too.” Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s position, just like Khrushchev’s back in 1962, depends heavily upon his ability to convince powerful elements within Iran to accept the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with the West. If the JCPA fails Rouhani’s resignation will not be far behind; ironically, for the JCPA to ultimately be ratified by Iran’s legislative assembly, the Rouhani administration has to appear strong; this is why they conducted the missile test when they did. In other words, Rouhani isn’t trying to jeopardize the JCPA with a test; he’s actually trying to salvage the deal; and the only way to do this was if Iran didn’t look like it was backing down to American pressure. Eight days after the “controversial” missile test Ayatollah Khamenei, and Iran’s Islamic Consultative Assembly, ratified the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

To be honest I really wouldn’t be surprised if the Iranians actually forewarned the Americans of the planned test on October 10. Timing is everything. If Iran tested the missile during the July negotiations they could not make the argument—which they continue to make—they were developing nuclear power for peaceful purposes; however, after the tentative agreement was reached, Iran’s negotiators were confronted with the job of actually getting the JCPA ratified. The best possible prospects for ratification of the JCPA was through one last symbolic act of defiance against the so-called “Great Satan” known as America; it would appear the missile test was to tell the Americans and perhaps the Saudi’s “we are not weak” but it is more likely the test, again, was a calculated move on the part of the Rouhani administration to bolster its position at home.

The biggest question is how the Congress will react. The JCPA doesn’t have universal support by any means; and now with the Iranian test the hawks in Washington can argue Iran is even less trustworthy than previously thought. Obama, however, can make the argument that the success of the JCPA doesn’t depend upon trust but upon verification, i.e. according to the agreement inspectors will ensure Iran complies with the details of the deal. Nonetheless, some American leaders continue to oppose the deal; Obama has promised to use his presidential veto if the Congress doesn’t ratify the plan; however, the presidential veto can be over-ridden by a super-majority in the Senate (if 67 senators, out of the available 100, reject the deal the agreement would be killed).

If the Iranian missile test has a lesson to impart it is this: we should be careful not to take a government’s or a leader’s actions at face value.