Iranian media reported over the weekend that Tehran recently tested a new precision-guided long-range ballistic missile, the Emad, which is capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.
The test is a black-letter violation of United Nations Security Council resolution (UNSCR) 2231, in which “Iran is called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology” for the next eight years [a]. Reuters’s U.N. bureau chief said if the test is confirmed it would be a “blatant violation of UNSC sanctions” [b].
There was initially speculation that in addition to violating UNSCR 2231, the test might also violate the recently-inked Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). UNSCR 2231 took the JCPOA and codified it at the U.N. level, so they’re seen as linked, so there were headlines like the one in the NYT: “Iran Tests Long-Range Missile, Possibly Violating Nuclear Accord” [c]. But the Obama administration, its allies, and the Iranians have a different interpretation: they insist that the nuclear deal does not ban Iran from developing nuclear missiles, even if the UNSCR does. White House validators took to Twitter to declare that the Times suggestion was “imprecise” [d]. Iranian Deputy FM Araqchi asserted today that the Iranians do not consider the test to be a JCPOA violation [e]. State Department officials confirmed to reporters they have the same interpretation [f].
The legal question involves how intertwined the JCPOA is with UNSCR 2231, and the answer is that it’s not clear. The Iranians use opposite theories depending on their needs. Theory 1 says the two are largely separate, and this is what the Iranians say in times like now when they’re violating the UNSCR: under this theory the JCPOA exists independently, and the UNSCR was just a way make U.N. resolutions line up with how the agreement legalized Iran’s nuclear program. Theory 2 says the two are closely linked, and this is what the Iranians say when they brag about locking the U.S. into obligations: last April Iranian FM Zarif declared that the JCPOA would be binding on future American presidents because “there will be a resolution before the UN Security Council… which will be mandatory for all member states” [g]. Sometimes the Iranians embrace both positions in the same breath: last week a report from Iran’s parliament assessed that UNSCR 2231 was “apparently… the JCPOA’s only legal backing” but that Iran would not be bound by portions of the resolution limiting its military work [Persian report: h; translation via the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’s daily Iran Press Review: i] It’s not clear why the Obama administration would allow Tehran to play this double-game, where the two are linked for the U.S. but not for the Iranians.
That said, the legalistic “JCPOA vs. UNSCR” debate isn’t going to be the focus of the next few days. It’s a fairly damning indict of how badly American negotiators got rolled in Vienna, but the immediate question is much more straightforward: the Iranians have definitely advanced their ballistic missile program and have definitely violated a binding United Nations Security Council resolution in the process, and what is the Obama administration going to do about that? There are a few dynamics are in play that will likely increase pressure on the White House to respond:
(1) Military — The Kayhan newspaper – which is closely linked to the office of the Supreme Leader, to the point that SL Khamenei personally appointed the managing editor – reported that the Emad carries a 750kg (1,650 lbs) payload and has an accuracy of 500 meters (1,640 ft) [j]. That’s not a missile designed to carry a conventional warhead: low precision, long-range missiles are valuable only to the extent that they are still guaranteed to work if they get close enough. Reuters noted that the Emad “will be Iran’s first precision-guided weapon with the range to strike its regional arch-enemy Israel” [k]. The test comes a few weeks after Khamenei declared that Israel will not exist in 25 years, after which IRGC Commander-in-Chief Ataollah Salehi declared “we will annihilate Israel for sure” and sooner than 25 years [l][m]. The Iranians are using the immunity provided by the JCPOA to perfect weapons capable of delivering nuclear weapons against Israel. The dynamic is in tension with commitments from the administration to “double down” and “push back” against Iranian military activities that would threaten American allies [n][o][p][q][r][s][t][u].
(2) Political — From the earliest days of Iran negotiations, White House officials promised Congress that they would bring home a deal limiting Iran’s ballistic missile program, if only they were given breathing room (Undersecretary Sherman, Feb 2014: “it is true that in these first six months we have not shut down all of their production of any ballistic missile… that is, indeed, going to be part of something that has to be addressed as part of a comprehensive agreement” [v]). The JCPOA did not address Iran’s ballistic missiles, but the administration told lawmakers that, should they endorse the deal, then this time the Obama administration really would “double down” and “push back” against the threat. President Obama declared in his post-Vienna speech that “restrictions on ballistic missile technology will remain for eight years… we are not taking the pressure off Iran with respect to arms and with respect to ballistic missiles” [w]. Secretary Kerry was asked on Face the Nation why the U.S. was lifting ballistic missile restrictions and snapped back “actually, we’re not… [w]e have to have those. And they add on to additional mechanisms that we have to hold them accountable on arms and missiles” [x]. The Democratic lawmakers who the administration strong-armed used those “push back” promises as public cover in their statements endorsing the deal. If the administration lets Iran get away with developing ballistic missiles without consequence they will have pulled the exact same bait-and-switch on Congress in the exact same way twice: first to get the deal and now to preserve it.
(3) Diplomatic — Not responding would heighten already-pitched concerns that the Obama administration is willing to detonate the U.N.’s credibility in order to preserve the JCPOA. There is already a broad perception that the U.S. sold out the U.N.’s nuclear watchdog, which was more or less neutered by being maneuvered into accepting Iranian self-inspections at the Parchin military base, where the Iranians conducted hydrodynamic experiments relevant to the detonation of nuclear warheads [y]. There’s very little wiggle room here: non-public letters sent by Kerry to Congress stated that a missile test “would be inconsistent with the UNSCR and a serious matter for the Security Council to review” [z].
The administration’s campaign on the Iran deal involved commitments that Iran would not be allowed to: increase its military threat to American allies, make progress on its ballistic missile program, or violate U.N. sanctions. Now Iran has conducted a test that: puts Israel in range of a missile likely designed with a nuclear payload in mind, makes progress on its ballistic missile program, and violates U.N. sanctions.
State Department Spokesman Kirby has already put out a statement declaring that the U.S. will “take appropriate actions at the United Nations if these tests violate any existing UN Security Council resolutions.” It’s not clear what that means. Presumably administration officials will be pressed for specifics at tomorrow’s briefings.