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The Speaker of Iran’s Parliament Just Toured an Underground Bunker Filled With Missiles

The video is the latest sign that, despite the signing of a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last summer, the conventional arms race in the Middle East is continuing at pace.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Jan 5 2016, 11:05pm

Photo via Tasnim News Agency

Iranian state TV released footage on Tuesday that showed Ali Larijani, the head of the country's parliament, strolling down a long underground corridor beside a long chain of trucks — each one loaded with a large missile. It's the latest PR move by Iran touting its new stock of Emad medium-range missiles, ballistic surface-to-surface weapons that General Hossein Dehghan, Iran's defense minister, has bragged can hit targets with "high precision."

The video is another sign that, despite the signing of a landmark nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last summer, the conventional arms race in the Middle East is continuing at pace.

After Iran tested the Emad missile in October, the UN Security Council's panel of experts declared Iran in violation of resolution 1929, adopted in 2010. It prohibits the launching of any missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead, and remains valid until the July nuclear deal between Iran and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the US, UK, Russia, China, and France — plus Germany goes into full effect. That won't happen until Iran has fulfilled all of its obligations to scale back its program under the agreement, at which point Iran will be "called upon" by the Security Council to cease any missile testing for a period of eight years.

The October test was quickly followed by the unveiling on Iranian media of an underground missile facility that is said to be one of many that are spread throughout the country, with Iran acknowledging and publicizing their existence for the first time.

The most recent video comes just a week after Iranian President Hassan Rouhani ordered the military to redouble its efforts to improve missile technology. 

"The armed forces need to quickly and significantly increase their missile capability," Rouhani wrote in a letter to Dehghan that was published by the state news agency, IRNA. "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."

The missile program is not covered by the nuclear deal. Iran has always insisted its missile program is defensive in nature and unrelated to the nuclear issue. 

"We don't ask for anyone's permission for boosting our defense and missile power; we resolutely continue our defense programs, specially in the missile field," Deghan said. 

In his letter ordering the missile buildup, Rouhani explicitly ordered that the missiles "not been designed to carry nuclear warheads."

But weapons experts note that this distinction isn't really all that important. 

"There's no meaningful distinction between a nuclear and a conventional missile," explained Anthony H. Cordesman, an expert on Iranian military technology at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "Once a missile design is complete you can always change the warhead."

Any missile that can travel at least 1,000 km (620 miles) and deliver a payload of at least 1,000 kg (2,204 lbs.) violates the Security Council resolution. Iran's tests passed that threshold in 2012 and 2013, and the nation doesn't show any sign of letting up.

Related: Iran Broadcasts Footage of Underground Ballistic Missile Facility for the First Time

"Iran is testing the resolve of the international community," said Emily Landau, the head of the arms control and regional security program at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies and a harsh critic of the nuclear deal. She thinks that by not including Iran's missile program in the initial agreement, negotiators made a critical mistake.

"We have a bizarre situation where we have a nuclear deal, and then we have a Security Council resolution that says something else. They aren't in sync," she said.

But Cordesman said that Iran's missile program should not take anyone by surprise. 

"Everyone knew they were developing more advanced liquid fuel rockets, precision guidance capabilities," he said. "And no one thought Iran would honor these missile sanctions."

In December, Obama administration officials disclosed to the Wall Street Journal that they were preparing a new round of sanctions against Iran in response to the missile test. The US is reportedly preparing to target 12 companies and individuals in Iran, Hong Kong, and the United Arab Emirates who are suspected of helping Iran build out its missile capacity. Iran has said that any new penalties would violate the nuclear deal — which was supposed to put a pause on economic sanctions.

The disagreement stems from a fundamental divide between US and Iranian policy makers. While the US and its allies are interested in curtailing Iranian military might, Iran insists that only its nuclear program is on the table.

The expansion of missile technology, Cordesman explained, is part of a regional arms race and will be difficult to contain than Iran's nuclear capabilities. 

"There's a massive arms race in that region, and it's dominated by the Gulf states," he said, referring to Iran's regional rival Saudi Arabia and the kingdom's allies among the Gulf monarchies, which purchase tens of billions of dollars in arms — mostly from the US — each year.

Over the past five years, the US has sold Saudi Arabia over $100 billion in arms. In November, Saudi Arabia purchased over a billion dollars' worth of advanced air-to-surface munitions such as laser-guided bombs, bunker buster bombs, and MK84 general purpose bombs. On top of that, the Saudis have a formidable air force that flies American-made F-15s. 

The Iranians have very little airpower, Cordesman explained, and their missile program is one way they try to compensate. 

"None of their aircraft are competitive regionally," he said. "Iran looks around and it sees its neighbors amassing huge arsenals. But they have to do most of their arms buildup in-house."

With Iran engaged in a series of regional proxy wars with Saudi Arabia, tensions between them are running high. Just this past week, the two countries broke off diplomatic ties after a mass execution in Saudi Arabia that included a prominent Shia cleric. 

As long as that dynamic persists, Iran is unlikely to stop building up missiles.

Follow Avi Asher-Schapiro on Twitter: @AASchapiro

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