That resolution, number 2231, replaced an earlier resolution on the same topic and in so doing it softened the language so that Iran would now be “called upon” to avoid the testing of weapons “design to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead,” as opposed to being categorically barred from carrying out work on weapons that are capable of carrying such a weapon, full stop. It was never made entirely clear whether this softening was intention, but it seems clear from Sunday’s test launch and its predecessors that Tehran and particularly the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps are taking full advantage of the legal loopholes that implies.
This has certainly not prevented the US from raising concerns over the Iranian regime’s activities, even under the previous US presidential administration, which appeared to be committed to a more conciliatory policy on Iran. Around the time of the implementation of the JCPOA, President Obama even instituted new sanctions on individuals and organizations linked to the Iranian ballistic missile program, apparently in response to one test that had been carried out about three months earlier, after the nuclear agreement had been finalized but before it had been implemented.
But President Donald Trump, in campaigning for office, repeatedly referred to the JCPOA as one of the worst agreements ever negotiated, as well as otherwise questioning the strength and wisdom of Obama administration policy. Consequently, many foreign policy watchers are anticipating a more assertive policy by the Trump administration on the nuclear issue and other matters relevant to US-Iranian relations. And a number of news outlets including Capital Public Radio have presented Sunday’s arguably illicit ballistic missile launch as the first major challenge to the Trump administration’s plans for enforcement of existing and prospective restrictions on the Islamic Republic.
The same outlet points out that sanctions on the sale or transfer of weapons to the Islamic Republic was one of the last issues to be resolved in the nuclear negotiations, and that its resolution essentially consisted of pushing the issue to the side and addressing the ballistic missile issue in a separate agreement that is technically unrelated to the nuclear deal. In light of this, the Iranians have had abundant opportunities to dismiss criticisms over such issues as having no bearing on the July 2015 agreement. At the same time, many of those officials have simultaneously expressed grievances over perceived violations of the “spirit” the agreement, as with the ongoing enforcement of sanctions that were not lifted under the JCPOA.
Furthermore, Iran’s apparent intransigence on the weapons issue underscores the fact that this issue is not resolved, and helps to justify familiar suspicions about Tehran’s intensions. These suspicions and these unresolved tensions were made all the more obvious by the ballistic missile test and the subsequent response. The Washington Free Beacon, although acknowledging that it is not clear what the Trump administration will do or whether the launch was technically a violation of the UN resolution, indicates that the administration made little effort to mince words but declared that it was concerned over the missile test as an example of the larger series of provocations the Iranians have been engaged in.
CBS News reported that the US had followed up on these public statements by requesting an urgent meeting of the UN Security Council. The same report also indicates that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif had responded to the backlash by reiterating Iran’s position that the ballistic missile issue is separate from the nuclear deal and therefore not the legitimate concern of the US or the UN. Zarif would not, however, admit that the test-launch had taken place, although he did not deny it either.
Instead, the Foreign Ministry attempted simultaneously to deflect Western criticisms and to discourage punitive action by way of veiled threats. On one hand, Reuters quoted Foreign Minister Zarif as saying that Iran only intended its ballistic missiles for use with conventional warheads and that they would never be deployed in aggression but were instead part of a legitimate regional defensive strategy.
On the other hand, Agence France Presse reports that Iran had also made public statements warning the US of the possible consequences of “creating new tensions” over the ballistic missile issue. Additionally, Iran’s English-language propaganda network Press TV noted that the Foreign Ministry had accused the US of playing “political games” with the issue. The report also made a point of claiming that there was no significant difference between the current US presidential administration and its predecessor, despite the clear appearance of conflict between them over the appropriate level of assertiveness in Iran policy.
If this latter claim should be seen as dubious, so should the previous claim that Iranian ballistic missiles ought to be viewed solely as tools of legitimate self-defense. If nothing else, this is underscored by the repeated threats that Iran has made against the state of Israeli – a threat that is backed up by well-established and apparently growing relations between the Islamic Republic and a variety of anti-Israeli terrorist groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
The existential threat that Iran poses to Israel is almost certainly a factor in the all-around hard line that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his fellow government officials maintain with regard to Iran. That perspective was clearly manifested in Netanyahu’s commentary on the nuclear agreement, and as a result Mr. Trump’s inauguration as president less than two weeks ago was a probable sign that the special relationship between the two countries would be recovering after substantial discord between Netanyahu and Obama.
Because of this shift, there is a fair chance that Israeli input will have a stronger impression on the Trump White House than it did on the previous administration. And Tel Aviv has weighed in heavily on the ballistic missile issue, with the BBC quoting the Israelis as saying that Sunday’s test launch was a “flagrant violation” of the UN Security Council resolution and of international will more generally. The same report declared that Netanyahu is clearly pushing Trump to take action on Iran, and that this will be high on the agenda when the two leaders meet in mid-February.
Netanyahu himself said that he would urge the expansion of sanctions. But other groups, unrelated to both the Israeli and the US governments, are equally in favor of such measures. The National Council of Resistance of Iran, a coalition of pro-democracy Iranian resistance organizations, has put out a number of statements and editorials suggesting that the Trump administration should ramp-up the enforcement that had grown lax under the Obama administration, and also that it should direct this enforcement in particular against the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
It is IRGC that has been consistently found to be responsible for the illicit ballistic missile sanctions, and there is little reason to think the most recent one will be any different. In addition, the IRGC is one of the main driving forces behind an ongoing domestic crackdown in Iran, which has targeted a number of Western nationals, including Americans.
Sunday’s ballistic missile test gives groups like the NCRI additional fuel in their campaign for the imposition of relevant sanctions; but it also provides that group and others with a new reason for confidence that their efforts may pay off. According to Fox News, Republican Senator Bob Corker, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, issued a written statement on the launch in which he seemed to specifically predict more punitive responses under the leadership of the newly inaugurated president.
“No longer will Iran be given a pass for its repeated ballistic missile violations, continued support of terrorism, human rights abuses and other hostile activities that threaten international peace and security,” the statement said.
Of course, it is easier to make such promises than to keep them, and a part of the reason why Iran has appeared to get a free pass so far is because it has generally had backing from two of the permanent members of the UN Security Council: Russia and China. And indeed, Russia has weighed in on the recent conflict in Iran’s favor, claiming that if Sunday’s test launch took place it would not be a violation of any agreement. The Russians also accused the US of trying to “heat up” the conflict by requesting urgent consultations among the Security Council members.
This is only one piece of evidence to suggest that relations between Iran and Russia are continuing to develop. A look at the world of business provides more such evidence. Reuters reported on Monday that the Russian energy company Lukoil was exploring new opportunities for development projects involving Iranian oil fields. And on Tuesday, Euronews reported that Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was planning to visit Moscow in March.
But in the US, President Trump has repeatedly expressed interest in improving relations with Russia, perhaps while planning to rely on his past business relationships in interests for this purpose. If he successfully pursues this aspect of his prospective foreign policy, it could have knock-on effects on the Middle East by giving the US government new leverage to convince Russia to withdraw some of its support for Iran.