Leading Iranian officials including Defense Minister Hossein Dehqan have explicitly vowed to continue such missile tests as they see fit. Indeed, Tehran does not recognize the legitimacy of UN resolutions in general, but tends to dismiss them as an attempt by Western adversaries to impose their subjective will upon the Islamic Republic. It is thus unlikely that the Iranians will abide by the UN resolution that will replace UNSCR 1929 when the July 14 nuclear agreement is fully implemented. The new resolution outlines similar expectations of a constrained ballistic missile program but allows those bans to expire after eight years.
Despite Tehran’s outright rejection of the resolutions, Western lawmakers tend to view violations as illegal behavior on Iran’s part. Furthermore, critics of the Obama administration’s policies have regularly cited the persistence of those violations as a further reason to be skeptical about Iran’s compliance with the nuclear deal. This sentiment was repeatedly expressed during Thursday’s hearing as Senators urged the White House to strongly respond to the Emad missile test, so as to send a message that Iran cannot flout international norms with impunity.
Reuters quoted Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker as saying of his colleagues, “One area that we all agree on is the need to be tough on any destabilizing or illegal action by Iran.” He then added that the Obama administration’s tepid response to the illegal missile launch has already set a bad precedent regarding enforcement of the broader nuclear agreement.
Democratic Senator Robert Menendez similarly accused the administration of creating a “very permissive environment.” And his is not the only voice from the president’s political party that has contributed to the criticism both before and during the hearing. However, the vast majority of the outcry against perceived permissiveness and neglect has come from the Republican majority.
Thirty-six Senate Republicans signed a letter to the White House on Thursday declaring the missile test an instance of Iran’s “blatant disregard for its international obligations,” according to the Jewish Press. The letter urged the continuation of US-led sanctions that are expected to be removed as early as next month, following Iran’s requisite reconfigurations of its nuclear infrastructure.
The US Congress generally has the authority to renew these sanctions for the coming year and the plan to do so has strong bipartisan support. But the president is capable of suspending those sanctions unilaterally, pending full removal with the congressional consent. In light of recent Iranian violations, this consent may be very difficult to earn. But conversely, the ostensibly limited scope of those violations may make the Obama administration equally difficult to sway from its present course.
It is expected that by the end of the week the administration will certify that Iran has been in compliance with the explicit terms of the nuclear agreement so far. The regime has reportedly taken some measures to dismantle enrichment centrifuges and ship low-enriched uranium out of the country, though Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned some implementation measures until after the International Atomic Energy Agency’s board of governors voted to close the file on the past military dimensions of the Iranian nuclear program.
That closure finally occurred this week, to the consternation of many critics including Senator Menendez, who described the IAEA’s final report as “diluted” and “inconclusive.” Some experts such as former IAEA Deputy Director Olli Heinonen have suggested that unanswered questions and the report’s acknowledgment of limited Iranian compliance may make it more difficult for the IAEA to monitor all aspects of the Iranian nuclear program in the future.
Regardless of these objections, the closure of the PMD file removes one obstacle to full implementation of the nuclear deal, leaving critics with less ammunition for their arguments against sanctions relief. The missile tests have become a major focus of that advocacy, but the Jewish Press acknowledges that that issue is technically separate from the actual text of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, but the same article notes that the UN report on the Emad launch is urgent enough to put serious pressure on the Obama administration.
Still, the window of opportunity is rapidly closing for Congress to use that urgency in an attempt to forestall sanctions relief. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has long been making optimistic projections regarding Iran’s ability to uphold its obligations by the end of the year and secure sanctions relief sometime in January.
Western analysts had previously estimated that Iran’s requisite measures would take as long as six months. In light of this, Rouhani’s projections seemed even more far-fetched after the supreme leader temporarily halted some implementation measures. Nevertheless, IAEA Director General Yukiya Amano claimed on Thursday that Rouhani’s timeline is “not impossible,” according to the Economic Times.
Amano clarified that he does not doubt Iran’s intentions of completing its steps within the next two or three weeks, although other analysts have suggested that such speed would raise questions about whether those measures had truly been completed in full. Amano also noted that the IAEA would need a period of weeks to confirm Iranian compliance even after Tehran declares itself to be finished. This makes Rouhani’s mid-January deadline for sanctions relief an absolute best case scenario for Iran.
If the parties to the nuclear agreement accomplish this outcome, it will likely be a function not only of Iran’s new limits on its nuclear program but also the willingness of Western authorities to give the Rouhani administration the benefit of the doubt. This latter factor has long been in place, as evidenced by the fact that President Obama embraced Rouhani’s 2013 victory as a supposed victory for moderation and has not altered this talking point since then.
But much of the criticism of Obama’s Iran policy has been motivated and supported by the notion that that moderation is illusory and that even under Rouhani the Islamic Republic is likely to act in accordance with its long-standing antagonism. The Tower reiterated this point on Thursday when it described Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif’s mischaracterization of the IAEA report on past military dimensions.
Zarif declared that that report had upheld Iran’s official talking point about the exclusively peaceful nature of the Iranian nuclear program. But in fact, as reported in numerous media outlets over the past week, the report explicitly noted that there had been a coordinated program for nuclear weapons development in Iran at least until 2003. Furthermore, some elements of that program continued at least until 2009, even longer than Western governments had previously suspected.
The Tower went on to conclude of Zarif: “His falsehoods are the latest in a pattern that belies his carefully cultivated image as a moderate.” As other examples of that pattern, the article noted Zarif’s past refusal to answer direct questions about the Holocaust, his defense of an incident earlier this year when Iranian naval forces seized a Marshall Islands-flagged commercial vessel, and his efforts to legitimate the widely-denounced espionage trial and conviction of Washington Post Tehran correspondent Jason Rezaian.
In the wake of the challenging Senate hearing on the Emad test, it seems clear that many American lawmakers and other critics of the Iranian regime will continue to emphasize this alternative understanding of the Rouhani administration and its culpability for problematic Iranian activities. And while it is comparatively unlikely that this will convince the Obama administration and its allies to change tack, those critics have indicated their readiness to take measures to confront Iran along other lines.
Another report by The Tower indicated that one such measure is on the verge of taking effect. In lieu of the retention of all existing sanctions on Iran itself, Congress has legislated more narrowly targeted sanctions against companies that do business with Iran’s terrorist proxy Hezbollah. This bill passed the House of Representatives unanimously on Wednesday after having been passed and slightly modified by the Senate last month. Notwithstanding the differences between the president and Congress over Iran itself, Mr. Obama is expected to sign the bill into law, potentially sending Iran the message that not all of its regional activities will be tolerated.