February 10, 2015

Iran Tracker Blog: Fajr Launch Highlights Missile Component of Iran Nuclear Negotiations


Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s comments about the nuclear talks over the weekend did not reveal any shifts in Iran’s negotiating position, nor did they indicate a decline in Khamenei’s suspicions of US intentions towards Tehran. Khamenei may be hinting that the framework of an emerging agreement could be acceptable, however, provided his concerns about immediate sanctions relief are addressed. He may be preparing the rhetorical and political justifications of a potential deal for domestic audiences. The Supreme Leader’s reaffirmation of President Hassan Rouhani and his team’s negotiation efforts indicates the regime remains unified in support of the nuclear dialogue, and that the recent criticisms of Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s handling of the negotiations and his apparent close relationship with US Secretary of State John Kerry are not significant.

The effect of Iran’s Fajr satellite launch last week on the talks is uncertain, but it should bring Tehran’s ballistic missile program and its potential capability to deliver a nuclear payload back on the agenda for the P5+1 negotiators. Fajr is Iran’s first attempt to launch a satellite since the current nuclear talks began in November 2013, and Iran has been publicly adamant that its ballistic missile program would never be part of any eventual deal. Tehran may have needed to test or demonstrate some improved capabilities before offering concessions on the missile program, such as an informal moratorium on launches.

In Yemen, Iran is coping with the unexpected power grab of its al Houthi allies following their de facto coup d’état last week in Sana’a. Tehran recognizes the rebel group is not yet strong enough—politically, financially or militarily—to run the government and keep Yemen from unmanageable destabilization. Tehran now faces an unpleasant dilemma whether to fund an al Houthi-led regime to the tune of billions of dollars each year, or watch its multi-year investment in Yemen collapse.

The Supreme Leader sees a deal?

Addressing an audience of Iranian Air Force Commanders on February 8, Supreme Leader Khamenei reiterated opposition to any kind of nuclear agreement that threatens Iran’s dignity. Khamenei did express, however, that he supports continuing negotiations under President Rouhani and Foreign Minister Zarif in order to reach a deal that supports Iran’s national interests. Zarif stressed that a new extension is not in anyone’s interest, but also noted that failing to reach an agreement before the June 30 deadline would not be “the end of the world.” These comments come amid reports last week of a possible compromise on Iran’s uranium enrichment capacity.

Tehran launches a satellite in the midst of negotiations:

Iran launched its Fajr satellite on February 2 during ceremonies marking the anniversary of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. This is reportedly Iran’s fourth satellite to achieve orbit since 2009 and the first successful satellite launch since 2012. The US and its allies have long feared Iran’s space program will be used as cover to develop a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear weapon to Israel, Saudi Arabia, Europe, or even the United States. The US State Department condemned the launch and said Iran’s ballistic missile program is being discussed in the nuclear negotiations, a point that Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi strongly denied.

Iran’s Yemen strategy at an impasse:

The Iranian-backed al Houthi rebels dissolved the Yemeni parliament and announced a Revolutionary Committee to oversee the formation of a new interim assembly and government in a surprise move on February 6. The Gulf Cooperation Council declared the action a coup, and Yemen’s main political parties have rejected the al Houthis’ appointment. Saudi Arabia regards the al Houthis as an Iranian proxy and is unlikely to resume bankrolling the Yemeni government in the current political situation, leaving the rebel’s new government without any evident source of funding. Tehran appears uncertain about its next steps in Yemen as the internal crisis escalates. Iran supported the al Houthis’ previous campaigns to solidify a preeminent political and military position in the country within a larger power-sharing framework and peace deal signed under the former Yemeni president. The al Houthis’ recent actions stray far from that path, leaving Iranian policy at a crossroads.

J. Matthew McInnis is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This report was produced in cooperation with the Iran Team of the Critical Threats Project. It analyzes the most important Iran news events of the past week and provides an outlook of the regime’s strategic calculus.