Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests, while extremely unhelpful, should not come as a surprise. And although the missile tests violate UN Security Council Resolution 1929, they are not a violation of the soon-to-be-implemented nuclear deal between six world powers and Iran.
There should be consequences for violations of Security Council resolutions. However, U.S. policymakers should put the risks posed by the missile tests in perspective and pursue effective actions that address the violation, but do not undermine progress toward reducing Iran’s nuclear potential.
Despite the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 1929 in 2010, which prohibits Iran from testing nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, Tehran has carried out at least eight tests of medium-range systems in violation of resolution, including the most recent tests on Oct. 10 and Nov. 21. Although Iran has stated its commitment to abiding by the terms of the July 14 nuclear deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran has repeatedly asserted that it does not and will not in the future accept UN Security Council-imposed limits on its ballistic missile program, which it says is necessary for its own self-defense.
Over the years, U.S. and U.N. sanctions have slowed, but not stopped, Iran’s ballistic missile program. Despite the continued tests, experts credit sanctions with helping to stem the development of solid-fueled ballistic missiles in Iran, which would be less vulnerable to pre-emptive strikes. U.S. officials have recently said that while Iran continues to test and develop medium-range ballistic missiles, it is at least a decade away from developing and testing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile.
Nevertheless, Iran’s decision to continue testing ballistic missiles is extremely unhelpful, particularly as Iran and the P5+1 (China, France, Germany, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States) take steps to implement the July 14 nuclear deal. But the missile tests are not a violation of that agreement, and it is important to remember that the missile restrictions were added to Resolution 1929 to pressure Iran to negotiate seriously on its nuclear program, which it did.
Implementation of the nuclear agreement, which is already underway in Iran, dramatically restricts Tehran’s nuclear program and subjects it to intrusive monitoring. Full implementation of the agreement will significantly reduce the threat posed by Iran’s missiles by eliminating their potential to deliver nuclear weapons.
In a Dec. 17 letter to President Barack Obama, a group of 35 Republican senators say the United States should respond to the missile tests by suspending U.S. sanctions relief as called for under the terms of the nuclear deal. Such a move would be counterproductive. It would be a violation of U.S. commitments under the nuclear deal, provide Iran with an excuse to stop implementation of its obligations under the deal, and would in the long-term increase, not reduce the risks posed by Tehran’s ballistic missiles.
A group of 21 Democratic senators in a letter released today are urging the president to take unspecified “unilateral” actions in response to the recent Iranian ballistic missile tests if the UN Security Council does not do so.
Rather than pursuing additional unilateral sanctions at this time or taking the draconian step of suspending the sanctions relief as outlined in the July 14 P5+1 and Iran nuclear agreement, the United States, our allies and partners should consider other effective means to curb Iran’s missile development.
The United States has a variety of effective options, including:
It is also important to keep in mind that Resolution 1929’s days are numbered. When Iran is certified as completing its implementation commitments under the nuclear deal, Resolution 1929 will be lifted and superseded by Resolution 2231. The new resolution, which endorses the nuclear deal, “called upon” Iran not to test any ballistic missiles that are “designed to be nuclear capable.” This language, which is less restrictive than the prohibition on missile testing in 1929, is still unlikely to convince Iran to abandon its short and medium range ballistic missile development efforts.
The United States should not sit by and allow Tehran to flout its international obligations. However, a rush to additional sanctions is not the most effective course of action at this time.
Washington should focus its efforts on strengthening enforcement of the extensive ballistic missile sanctions on the books to continue isolating Tehran’s missile program and pursue region-wide restrictions on ballistic missiles in the Middle East.