U.S. Remains Iran's 'Enemy' Amid Nuclear Stand Off, Missile Commander Says

Iran's armed forces are maintaining a belligerent tone towards the U.S. despite the change in administration and Tehran's efforts to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) nuclear deal.

The Iranian regime, led by moderate President Hassan Rouhani, is calling on President Joe Biden to lift American sanctions on Iran—imposed by former President Donald Trump after withdrawal from the JCPOA in 2018—and revive the landmark nuclear deal signed in 2015.

So far, the Biden administration has refused, calling on Iran to first scale back its nuclear program to meet JCPOA limits. Rouhani and his government are also facing pressure from inside the country, with skeptical conservatives—influential military figures among them—keen to undermine the deal.

The influential and hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps has maintained a steady drumbeat of threats throughout Biden's first month in office. On Monday, the commander of the body's aerospace and missile forces said that America remains an enemy regardless of the change in leadership.

Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh told reporters: "We should admit that the U.S. is our enemy and is after preventing our capabilities and progress," according to the state-run Fars News Agency.

Iran's ballistic missile program is a key grievance of JCPOA critics, who dismiss the deal as unfit for purpose given it does not curb Tehran's missile research nor its use of regional proxy forces. Trump repeatedly said he wanted to renegotiate the JCPOA to include missiles, but Iranian officials rebuffed the proposals.

Biden's team has sought to allay fears that his return to the JCPOA would be short-sighted, describing the agreement as the foundation for a "longer and stronger" agreement that would include ballistic missiles, proxy forces and other malign Iranian activities.

American sanctions are partially designed to undermine Iran's ballistic missile program. But Tehran has been able to make significant advances in recent years, according to experts with the help of North Korean technology. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last month that Tehran's missile capabilities have "advanced dramatically."

Also last month, Iran tested a new satellite launcher that observers said could help advance its ballistic missile program. The rocket used a solid-fuel engine capable of sending satellites weighing 485 pounds into orbit 310 miles above the Earth.

Solid-fuel engines are a key component of intercontinental ballistic missiles, and an upgrade on liquid-fuelled engines that are less stable and less reliable.

IRGC commander Major General Hossein Salami said Sunday that Iran's armed forces are modernizing despite American sanctions. "Our nation is progressing and we are cutting all dependencies," Salami told reporters. "In our view, sanctions are one of the major historical opportunities for Iran, not an opportunity for just a period of time."

Salami, Hajizadeh and other regime leaders publicly dismissed the impact of American sanctions following Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's appeal to nullify the measures, rather than simply push the U.S. to lift them.

But the fact remains that the sanctions have devastated an Iranian economy already struggling under the pressure of the coronavirus pandemic. Exports have dwindled, living standards have been suppressed and citizens have experienced shortages of fuel and other vital goods. The regime has had to suppress protests and industrial action, sometimes violently.

Still, officials are refusing to be pushed to curtail the nation's nuclear program to secure sanctions relief, arguing that the U.S.—as the party that first violated the deal—should take the first steps to revive it.

Khamenei said this weekend that Tehran is waiting for Biden to act. "Iran has fulfilled all its obligations under the deal, not the United States and the three European countries...If they want Iran to return to its commitments, the United States must in practice...lift all sanctions," state TV quoted the Iranian leader as saying.

"Then, after verifying whether all sanctions have been lifted correctly, we will return to full compliance," he added. "It is the irreversible and final decision and all Iranian officials have consensus over it."

IRGC's Amir Ali Hajizadeh soeaks in Tehran
Major General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the IRGC aerospace division, speaks at Tehran's Islamic Revolution and Holy Defence museum in Tehran on September 21, 2019. ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images/Getty