Iran spurns Kerry bid for ‘new arrangement’ on missile tests

FM Zarif dismisses US counterpart’s suggestion of negotiations on ballistic rockets as ‘baseless’; Tehran defense minister calls plan ‘nonsense’

US Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on July 1, 2015, in Vienna, Austria (State Department photo)
US Secretary of State John Kerry sits across from Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif on July 1, 2015, in Vienna, Austria (State Department photo)

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif on Sunday rebuffed US Secretary of State John Kerry’s proposal Thursday to negotiate a “new arrangement” for Tehran’s ballistic missile program.

Speaking at a joint press conference in Tehran with Estonia’s foreign minister, Zarif said that Iran’s missile and defense programs are nonnegotiable, echoing similar statements by other Iranian officials over the weekend.

Washington has denounced Iran’s ballistic missiles program, including a March 9 test of two ballistic missiles, as a violation of a United Nations ban. Iran maintains they not covered by the UN ban, which is linked to last year’s landmark nuclear agreement.

Kerry said the US and its partners were telling Iran that they were “prepared to work on a new arrangement to find a peaceful solution,” but that Iran first had to “make it clear to everybody that they are prepared to cease these kinds of activities that raise questions about credibility and questions about intentions.”

Zarif retorted Sunday saying Kerry’s comments were “baseless.” He said that if the US were serious about the issue, it should stop selling weapons “which are used for killing innocent Yemenis or used by the Zionist regime against civilians,” the Iranian Students’ News Agency reported.

He said there would be no possibility of a deal covering Iran’s military hardware along the lines of the nuclear deal.

On Saturday, Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan also dismissed Kerry’s comments as “nonsense.”

“Dehqan reacted angrily to the comments by John Kerry about Tehran’s missile program, saying the top US diplomat had better think for a couple of minutes to avoid such absurd remarks and erroneous analyses,” reported the Tasnim news agency, considered close to hard-liners in Tehran.

The missile tests, including one on March 9 with the words “Israel must be wiped off the earth” in Hebrew and Persian reportedly emblazoned on one rocket, raised hackles in the US and Israel. An Iranian official said after the March 9 test that the rockets were meant to show that Tehran can hit Israel.

Earlier this month, the US, France, Britain and Germany called on the UN Security Council to formulate an “appropriate response” to the ballistic missile tests which they say were carried out in defiance of a UN resolution.

US Secretary of State John Kerry sits in front of a map of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf during a joint press conference with Saudi Arabia's foreign minister in the Bahraini capital of Manama, on April 7, 2016. (AFP/Jonathan Ernst/Pool)
US Secretary of State John Kerry sits in front of a map of Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf during a joint press conference with Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister in the Bahraini capital of Manama, on April 7, 2016. (AFP/Jonathan Ernst/Pool)

The administration, under pressure to react to the missile tests, last week sanctioned two entities involved in launching the missiles, an industrial group and the Revolutionary Guard Corps missile command. Such sanctions make it harder for the entities to trade in dollars or for individuals attached to the entities to travel.

The nuclear agreement, passed in July 2015 and implemented in January, lifted punishing economic sanctions and has allowed Iran to forge fresh economic and diplomatic ties with the West. In return Iran agreed to dismantle the weapons-capable aspects of its nuclear program.

Iran maintains that because it cannot develop nuclear weapons under the deal, no missile is capable of carrying a nuclear weapon.

Kerry made the comments about seeking a new arrangements while meeting Thursday with the foreign ministers of the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council to advance a series of proposals aimed at easing Arabs’ concerns about last year’s Iran nuclear deal and the warming of ties between the US and Iran.

These include providing new counterterrorism, conventional military, missile defense and cybersecurity capabilities, and come ahead of US President Barack Obama’s summit with regional leaders in Saudi Arabia later this month,

Since the nuclear deal, which opened up Iran to the West after decades of frozen ties, Kerry and Zarif have shown the ability to talk their way through delicate situations, including the release of US soldiers captured in Iranian waters last year.

As the deal has come into effect, Republican lawmakers and some Democrats have continued to push for tougher penalties on Iran. Some are seeking new congressional sanctions to target the missile program. Two of the Republican presidential candidates, Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, have cited the tests as reason for the United States to abrogate the nuclear deal with Tehran and reimpose sanctions.

In the meeting with Kerry, Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir spoke of the threat posed by Iran as a most pressing concern.

“If Iran wants to have normal relations,” al-Jubeir said through an interpreter, “it has to change its policies.” He said that includes no more weapons smuggling to countries at peace or war on the Arabian Peninsula, and no more interference in others’ internal affairs.

“If Iran continues its aggressive policy,” al-Jubeir added, “it will be difficult to deal with Iran.”

Kerry highlighted the role of Western interdictions of Iranian weapons shipments. Four have been stopped in the last six months, with the US, Britain and France seizing anti-tank munitions, sniper rifles, machine guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.

All were believed intended for Yemen’s Shiite rebels battling Saudi Arabia, helping reinforce fears among the Sunni kingdoms that Iran is threatening their stability.

While Kerry vowed to “push back” against such Iranian provocations, he also emphasized the Islamic republic’s capacity to contribute to peace. He cited Iran’s assistance in securing a truce in Syria between the Iranian-backed government and rebels supported by Western and Arab countries. And he called on Tehran to act similarly in Yemen.

The setting of the meeting in Bahrain underscored Arab concerns. The Sunni-ruled, Shiite-majority country is particularly sensitive to Tehran’s actions and rhetoric, given its geography just across the Gulf, its demographics and the occasional statements of Iranian officials calling for the country’s annexation. Iran is a Shiite power.

At a news conference with Kerry earlier in the day, Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said Iran must work as hard on restoring relations in the region as it did on securing the nuclear accord. He decried Iran’s “hegemonic interventions,” yet promised that his country would take two steps toward rapprochement for every step by the Iranians.

In a ceremony to mark Iran’s National Day of Nuclear Technology, the Islamic Republic on Thursday announced the unveiling of twelve new, self-developed nuclear products in several different fields, ranging from fuel and laser technology to power plants and reactors.

Among the products unveiled at the ceremony, which was attended by Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, were new centrifuge systems and fuel rod complexes for testing reactors, according to the Iranian Fars news.

The report quoted a spokesman for the Iranian Atomic Energy Organization referring to “new nuclear achievements” in “fuel, laser, power plants and health fields.”

During Thursday’s event, Rouhani also announced the establishment of the Pasman Gor nuclear site in Anarak region, as well as the publication of three books related to nuclear technology and the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program.

On Wednesday, Dehqan said the country intends to produce the powerful explosive Octogen for use in the warheads of its missiles to improve their “destructive and penetration power.”

Octogen is used as an explosive in penetrating missile warheads and as a solid rocket fuel — but is also employed as part of the detonator in an atomic bomb.

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