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The paper examines the non-nuclear aspect of the political confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran. The main non-nuclear components of U.S.-Iranian relations are highlighted as issues related to the Iranian missile programme and Iranian support for various groups throughout the Middle East. As a result of the analysis, it was revealed that the failure of the parties to achieve a reduction in tensions in bilateral relations is caused by the US desire to link these issues to the solution of the Iranian nuclear problem, which is unacceptable to Iran.

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The confrontation between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran has been going on for over 40 years now and it has waxed and waned. The most important stumbling block in bilateral relations has long been the issue of Iran's nuclear programme and the parties' commitment to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Beyond this issue, however, there are a number of other important issues that complicate relations between the countries. These include Iran's support for what the US considers terrorist organisations across the Middle East (in Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and a number of other countries), as well as Iran's missile programme directly targeting Israel, a key US ally in the region. These issues, along with Iran's nuclear programme, are the main issues driving the US-Iran nuclear standoff. It is these that the report focuses on.

Constant tension with neighbours in the region and the existence of its own nuclear programme has conditioned the establishment and development of the Iranian missile programme, which in particular includes the construction and development of ballistic missiles. According to estimates by the US-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies, Iran now possesses the largest and most diverse missile arsenal in the Middle East, with thousands of ballistic and cruise missiles, some of which could strike Israel and countries in South-Eastern Europe. Over the last decade, Iran has invested heavily in developing its missile capabilities. Iran's missile force has become a real threat to the armed forces of the United States and its allies in the region. Although Iran does not currently possess a missile capable of striking the US itself, development of the programme to increase its range continues [1].

Although the 2015 JCPOA contained Iran's nuclear ambitions, the missile programme as well as other issues were not addressed in it. Security Council Resolution 2231, which endorsed the nuclear deal, only called on Iran "not to undertake any activities related to the development and construction of ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons" [2]. This loophole allowed Iran to focus on testing and developing medium- and long-range missiles. Currently, the longest radius within which Iranian missiles can hit a target is 2,000 kilometres [3, p.2].

The United States is reacting very painfully to Iran's development of its missile program. But despite this, towards the end of Barack Obama's presidency, with the "thaw" associated with the JCPOA, the United States' rhetoric softened somewhat in relation to Iran's missile tests, and the countermeasures were taken with a long delay. However, with Donald Trump's victory in the presidential election, Washington's rhetoric has tightened dramatically. The first test of a new Iranian missile took place within 10 days of Trump's inauguration: Iran tested a new ballistic missile with a range of 3000-4000 km, capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. The US response was swift and harsh - the president's national security adviser Michael Flynn said that the United States "will no longer turn a blind eye to Iran's provocations". After that, sanctions were imposed on 25 entities and individuals "involved in Iran's ballistic missile programme and terrorist activities" [4, p. 25-26].

The new administration's tougher approach towards Iran, in addition to the US withdrawal from the JCPOA, was reflected in Washington's demand that Iran's "regional activities" and missile programme be placed on the agenda of any potential talks between the two countries. Such an approach by Trump found no support in Tehran or among European NATO allies [5, p. 160-167].

The return of the Democrats to the White House had been expected to give the United States and Iran a chance to reach a quick agreement and return to the nuclear deal, but Joseph Biden's administration adopted a position closer to that of his predecessor, continuing to insist that Tehran's "regional activities" and missile program should also be included in the agreement. Linking the missile program clause to the nuclear deal significantly complicates negotiations and does not lead to progress on either issue.

A number of experts believe that Iran's leaders, in turn, consider the missile programme an important part of the country's defence strategy to provide deterrence. From Iran's perspective, while decades of international arms embargoes have prevented Tehran from modernising its military capabilities, especially in the area of air defence, other states in the region have significantly improved their armed forces with the help of Western countries. Under these circumstances, the Iranian missile programme is seen as an important element of deterrence. It would be unacceptable for the Iranians to negotiate on missiles without paying attention to the extensive military capabilities of their rivals. While Iran's own rivals, such as Israel, are not prepared to discuss their missile programs [6].

The second important part of the non-nuclear aspect of the US-Iran standoff is Iran's notorious "regional activity. There are organizations scattered all over the Middle East with close ties to Iran that are in direct or indirect confrontation with the United States itself or its allies in the region. Key Iranian 'proxies' include Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine, the Houthi movement in Yemen and a number of smaller groups in Syria.

In the first months after the JCPOA, as noted earlier, there was a slight détente between the US and Iran that did not last long. Over the next year and a half, Iran, according to US experts, increased its military presence in Syria, increased arms deliveries to Hezbollah through Syria in violation of UNSCR 1701. Iran actively intervened in the civil war in Yemen, armed and trained Shiite rebels in Bahrain and regularly initiated clashes with US ships in the Persian Gulf. The Obama administration, according to its critics, preferred to turn a blind eye to Tehran's provocative actions, emphasizing the importance of the JCPOA and Iran's compliance with the treaty, which, in their view, only encouraged "destructive behavior" [4, p. 23-24].

The Trump administration, for its part, has responded harsher. On 19 April 2017, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson issued a statement in which he stated that the administration had revised its policy towards Iran. Tillerson drew attention to Iran's "troubling ongoing" provocations and stressed that, as a "major sponsor of terrorism in the region", Iran was interfering in regional conflicts by undermining US interests in Syria, Yemen, Iraq and Lebanon and supporting attacks against Israel [7]. The tone of the statement was conflictual and made it clear that the Iranian "nuclear threat" was inseparable from Iran's missile program and "regional activities".

However, the hardening of US rhetoric towards Tehran was not understood by US European allies who sought to continue non-confrontational relations with the Islamic Republic. Left without the support of other P5+1 members and international organizations, such as the UN and IAEA, on the policy towards Iran, the United States quickly launched a so-called "maximum pressure" campaign, the ideologues of which were Presidential National Security Adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. The latter, in a speech at the non-governmental Heritage Foundation, put forward 12 demands to Iran, which were in fact ultimatums, a large part of which were demands to stop supporting the Iranian proxies in the Middle East [8].

The current U.S. President Joseph Biden's attitude towards Iranian proxies rather continues that of the Trump administration. It took Biden just over a month of his presidency before ordering his first bombing campaign. (It took Trump four months to do the same). The targets were facilities in eastern Syria, used, according to Washington, by Iranian-backed militants in retaliation for the rocket attacks on US troops in Iraq earlier this month [9]. The new Administration's abrupt move went against Biden's "diplomacy is back!" statements. In addition, in a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Joseph Biden said that the US was determined to counter "Iran's destructive activities and support for terrorist proxies" [10].

Thus, the key problem for Washington now is that to ask Iran to abandon not only its nuclear and missile programmes, but also its support for its proxies and other regional activities, is to ask it to completely abandon its national security strategy and revolutionary ideology ("export of the Islamic revolution", a principle enshrined in Iran's constitution), and it is hard to imagine that there are any incentives that would convince the current leadership in Tehran to do so.

Whereas under Obama the US preferred to "turn a blind eye" and focus on the positive aspects of the relationship, Washington's bellicose rhetoric under Trump has dramatically complicated things and now the United States cannot without losses (ranging from financial to reputational) return to the post-ICPA state of relations with Iran. Consequently, the US-Iran confrontation cannot be expected to weaken in the short term.


About the authors

Альберт Андреевич Новиков

Author for correspondence.


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