Iran votes to raise spending for ballistic missile program, foreign operations

A handout picture released by Iran's Defence Ministry on July 22, 2017, shows newly-upgraded Sayyad-3 air defence missiles on display during an inauguration of its production line at an undisclosed location in Iran.
A handout picture released by Iran's Defence Ministry on July 22, 2017, shows newly-upgraded Sayyad-3 air defence missiles on display during an inauguration of its production line at an undisclosed location in Iran. PHOTO: AFP

TEHERAN (NYTIMES) - Iranian lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to increase the country's budget for its ballistic missile programme and foreign operations by the Revolutionary Guards, a direct challenge to new United States sanctions against the Islamic republic.

Some lawmakers shouted "Death to America" after the outlines of the Bill "to counter America's terrorist and adventurist actions" were passed by an overwhelming number of votes in Parliament on Sunday (Aug 13), state television reported.

The increase in the military budget and other measures came in retaliation to legislation passed by the US Congress and reluctantly signed by President Donald Trump this month to impose new sanctions on Iran over its missile programme.

Mr Trump has repeatedly threatened to leave the nuclear agreement, which was struck by the US, Iran and other world powers in 2016. That has led to rising frustration in Iran, where the agreement was hailed by ordinary citizens as a fresh start after years of sanctions. It was also seen as a counterweight to hardline forces in the country.

The Parliament Bill obliged the new government of President Hassan Rouhani to prepare a strategic plan for confronting the "threats, malicious, hegemonic and divisive activities of America in the region."

It also seeks to impose sanctions on the entire US administration and all CIA personnel.

Mr Rouhani has been seeking to ease tensions with the US since his first term. The Bill proposed by Parliament needs the approval of an oversight watchdog, but that seems like a technicality, experts said.

Iran's total military budget increase is less than US$800 million (S$1.09 billion), a fraction of the cost of the latest arms purchase by Saudi Arabia, Iran's regional nemesis, from US defence companies. The Saudis ordered US$110 billion worth of US arms in May.

Iran will spend US$260 million on its ballistic missile programme and about US$300 million on activities by the Quds brigade, the international arm of the Revolutionary Guards corps. The rest of the money will go to other military and intelligence projects, state media reported.

The Trump administration has been connecting Iran's missile programme to the nuclear agreement. A UN resolution calls for Iran not to undertake activity related to ballistic missiles designed to have a nuclear warhead.

While the resolution does not prohibit such tests, Iran says it does not want to make nuclear warheads - something the International Atomic Energy Agency verified during continuing inspections.

Members of the Iranian establishment, even hardliners who have criticised the agreement, say they want the deal to stay in place. And they certainly do not want to be blamed for its failure, politicians said.

Responding to the vote, Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi told members of Parliament that the government backed the Bill, which he said "was designed wisely" so that it did not violate the nuclear deal and "provide excuses for opposing sides," state news agency IRNA reported.

Iran's armed forces, controlled by hardliners, has been responding to US pressures with more, not fewer, missile tests - just as North Korea has.

The top commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, Major-General Mohammad Ali Jafari, accused the US on Sunday of actively seeking to weaken Iran's armed forces, ever since the nuclear agreement was signed.

Speaking at a ceremony for an Iranian soldier executed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Mr Jafari said enemies had recently been "seeking to undermine these capabilities, and since the deal, they have been imposing defensive and missile sanctions to weaken the country's armed forces."