Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered his defense minister on Thursday to expand Iran’s missile program, in defiance of Tehran’s deal with the West and a U.S. threat to impose sanctions over a ballistic missile test Iran carried out in October.
Under the landmark agreement it clinched with world powers in July, Iran is scaling back a nuclear program that the West feared was aimed at acquiring atomic weapons, in return for an easing of international sanctions. It hopes to see these lifted early in the new year.
But sources familiar with the situation said on Wednesday that Washington was preparing new sanctions against international companies and individuals over Iran’s testing of a medium-range Emad rocket on Oct. 10.
The escalating dispute centers on the types of missile that the Islamic republic is allowed to develop and whether they are capable of, or designed to, carry nuclear warheads.
“As the U.S. government is clearly still pursuing its hostile policies and illegal meddling,” Rouhani wrote in a letter to Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan, published by the Islamic Republic News Agency, “the armed forces need to quickly and significantly increase their missile capability.”
“The Defense Ministry, with the support of the armed forces, is tasked with putting in place new programs by all available means to increase the country’s missile capability,” he added.
U.S. officials have said that under the nuclear deal, the Treasury Department retains a right to blacklist Iranian entities suspected of involvement in missile development.
Iranian officials have said Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei would view such penalties as violating the nuclear accord.
Earlier Thursday, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hossein Jaber Ansari condemned the U.S. plans to impose additional sanctions as “arbitrary and illegal.”
In a recent report, a team of U.N. sanctions monitors said that the Emad rocket tested by Iran was a ballistic missile capable of delivering a nuclear warhead, making its test fire a violation of a U.N. Security Council resolution.
Ballistic tests by Iran are banned under Security Council resolution 1929, which was enacted in 2010 and remains valid until the July nuclear deal between Iran and world powers goes into effect. Once it does, Iran will still be “called upon” not to undertake any ballistic missiles work designed to deliver nuclear weapons for a period of up to eight years, according to a Security Council resolution adopted in July, right after the nuclear agreement was reached.
Iran says the resolution would ban only missiles “designed” to carry a nuclear warhead, not “capable of” carrying one, so it would not affect its military program as Tehran does not pursue nuclear weapons. Iran has called Emad a conventional missile.
In his letter to Dehghan, Rouhani said Iran’s missile program had nothing to do with its nuclear program and that the missiles have “not been designed to carry nuclear warheads.”
The Iranian missiles under development boast much improved accuracy over the current generation, which experts say is likely to improve their effectiveness with conventional warheads.
Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that the White House has delayed the decision to impose new financial sanctions on Iran over its ballistic missile program.
Citing U.S. officials, the report said the Obama administration was preparing to sanction nearly a dozen companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong and the United Arab Emirates for their role in developing Iran’s ballistic missile program.
The U.S. sanctions were expected to be formally announced this week, the newspaper said.
The Obama administration is committed to combating Iran’s missile program and the sanctions being developed by the U.S. Treasury Department remain on the table, the report said, citing officials privy to the issue.
But U.S. officials offered no definitive timeline for when the sanctions would be imposed, the newspaper said. At one point, they were scheduled to be announced on Wednesday morning in Washington, according to a notification the White House sent to Congress, the Journal reported.
Imposing such penalties would be legal under the nuclear agreement with Iran, officials said.