In December, Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN provided evidence of Iranian manufacture for missiles that were fired into Saudi Arabia from Houthi-controlled territory. That evidence was largely corroborated by a UN report this month, leading in turn to the British-authored resolution, which passed by a vote of 11-2, with two abstentions, before being subject to veto by any of the five permanent members. Russia was the only one of these five to vote against the resolution, joined by Bolivia. China, a fellow permanent member and Iran ally, abstained alongside Kazakhstan.
The collapse of this measure led immediately to the resumption of hardline rhetoric from the Trump administration, with Haley threatening unilateral action by the United States, as well as the pursuit of a strategy that involves US allies but utilizes tactics that cannot be single-handedly thwarted by Russia. She did not provide detail of what those tactics might be, however.
According to Reuters, the Russian obstruction was not taken for granted in advance, despite the longstanding collaborative relationship between Moscow and Tehran, which have been jointly supporting the Assad regime throughout Syria’s seven-year civil war. International policy analysts have variously suggested that Russian and Iranian interests might meaningfully diverge even in the context of that war, making Russia a potential tool for reining in the Islamic Republic.
Additionally, Tuesday’s resolution contained language that had been deliberately weakened in hopes of securing Russian support. Rather than explicitly condemning Iran’s violation of arms control resolutions, the text simply made notice of the violation “with particular concern”.
Following rejection of even this weakened language, Haley accused the Russian government of feeding Iran’s sense of impunity in international affairs and reinforcing the message that the Islamic Republic “gets a pass for its dangerous and illegal behavior.” Haley’s commentary also tied the ballistic missile issue to the ongoing disputes over the future of the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. For the Trump administration and many critics of the JCPOA, the nuclear issue is inseparable from the issue of Iran’s missile capacity despite it not being mentioned in the agreement, because long-range ballistic missiles are inherently capable of carrying nuclear warheads.
Despite the Russian veto, Tuesday’s vote showcased the broad agreement among the US and its allies over at least some issues of Iranian misbehavior, at a time when the White House is struggling to convince the JCPOA’s European signatories of the need for action to reinforce key provisions of an agreement that President Donald Trump has decried as the “worst deal ever”.
Recent reports have suggested that European leaders are concerned over Trump’s demands, which focus on eliminating “sunset provisions” in the JCPOA, expanding nuclear inspectors’ access to possible nuclear sites in Iran, and addressing Iran’s regional activities in general and its missile activities in particular. The details of these demands reportedly remain unclear to those who are in a position to establish a new agreement with the US, and there is some concern that Trump might reject any European proposal in favor of simply torpedoing the agreement.
Nevertheless, recent reports also suggest that there has been meaningful progress on at least some elements of the would-be renegotiation. And this perception is reinforced by the various signals that European policymakers share some of the White House’s concerns. This is arguably most evident with regard to the need for constraining Iran’s ballistic missile activities. And the signs of agreement on this issue certainly re-emerged in the wake of the Russian veto.
Reuters reported, for instance, that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian held direct talks with his Russian counterpart and then used a news conference to reiterate French support of the resolution over Iran’s very worrying ballistic missile activities. Le Drian also declared that it was necessary for Western governments to take actions that would prevent that missile program from posing a threat to Iran’s neighbors in the region.
But despite the tentative commitment on this somewhat tangential issue, the White House may still face an uphill battle in connecting strengthened arms control to strengthened provisions of the nuclear agreement itself. Iran’s ballistic missile development is not mentioned in the JCPOA itself, but an associated Security Council resolution “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid work on nuclear-capable weapons. Another parallel agreement would thus be comparatively easy to enforce without risking violation of the nuclear agreement, to which the Europeans generally view as a success and an agreement worth keeping.
For the most part, the Trump administration’s threats to walk away from the deal have been its only means of pressuring Europe to strengthen the restrictions imposed by the JCPOA itself.
ut the persistence of this situation was called into question on Tuesday by a Washington Post report that highlighted complementary pressures coming from within the Middle East region.
Specifically, that report noted that Saudi Arabia, Iran’s main regional rival, had signaled that it might be more willing to voluntarily accept restrictions on its own prospective nuclear program if the Iranian restrictions under the JCPOA were strengthened. This perspective emerged following a trip to Saudi Arabia by US Energy Secretary Rick Perry to discuss an atomic energy agreement that could comprise billions of dollars in Saudi contracts for American companies.
As terms of these contracts, Saudi Arabia would be expected to abide by what’s known as “123 Agreements,” which bar the recipients of American nuclear technology and know-how from personally enriching uranium or reprocessing plutonium. According to the Post, this threatens to create a situation in which “an agreement designed to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon lets it do more than its rivals,” since the JCPOA permitted Iran to keep much of its uranium enrichment infrastructure operational.
The article quotes Mark Dubowitz of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies as highlighting the potential for additional restrictions on Iran to be sold to the international community as a means of preventing dangerous nuclear development not only there but throughout the region. “It’s a critical step in demanding adherence to the ‘gold standard’ as opposed to the Iran standard,” he said, hinting at oft-repeated criticisms of the 2015 agreement as excessively lenient and neglectful of longstanding demands regarding Iranian nuclear activity.
Of course, it remains to be seen whether other US allies will view the recent Saudi commentary as an incentive for further nuclear restrictions or as a sign that a nuclear arms race will be difficult to avoid regardless of the future of the JCPOA. Meanwhile, the danger of the latter scenario is all but certain to appear more prominent as long as the various other tensions between Iran and its regional rivals continue to worsen.
With respect to these broader issues, the expansion of Iran’s regional influence is of particular concern, and it is not clear that there is much agreement among international powers about how to counter that influence and mitigate the anxieties of Saudi Arabia and its partners. In fact, a report that appeared in The Hill on Tuesday suggested that there is not even a great deal of agreement among the American political and military leadership about unilateral US strategy.
That report quoted General Joseph Votel, the head of US Central Command, as telling a congressional panel that “countering Iran is not one of the coalition missions in Syria.” Votel went on to qualify this remark by saying that the US troop presence could certainly contribute to the building or relationships inside Syria and Iraq that help prevent the solidification of communication and transportation corridors leading from Tehran to those countries and beyond. Nevertheless, his characterization of the US mission was seen by some members of the panel as being at odds with early comments by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson suggesting that an American military presence was crucial to preventing Iran from strengthening its position in Syria and exploiting the situation in order to take more aggressive aim at US allies in the region.
The tension between the two men’s positions was scrutinized in the midst of international efforts to secure a 30-day ceasefire in Syria. Tehran accepted those efforts in public statements but also cautioned that its fight against anti-Assad rebels would continue because the Islamic Republic considered those groups to be “terrorists”. Previous ceasefire efforts have already been violated by Iran-backed forces, and these incidents seemingly fueled further speculation about Iran’s possible break with Russia, which has played a leading role in negotiations and has generally abided by the ceasefires.
However, by continue to defend Iran over its missile activities, Russia is effectively encouraging skepticism over its willingness to criticize Iran or counter its position in other regional affairs.