Calls for US Response Intensify after Second and Third Iranian Ballistic Missile Tests

Tuesday’s singular test launch was reminiscent of two illicit launches that took place in October and November. Not only was the provocative gesture similar in itself, so too was the response. At the time of the prior launches, UN Security Council resolution 1929 remained in place as a result of the July 14 nuclear agreement having not yet been implemented. The resolution banned proliferation or testing of Iranian ballistic missiles capable of carrying a nuclear payload, and as such, US congressmen and other critics of the Iranian regime were quick to demand enforcement measures including new sanctions, to demonstrate that the Islamic Republic would face consequences for such defiance of international will.

While that resolution lapsed with the implementation of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in January, it was immediately replaced with similar but somewhat less strict UN and EU resolutions. CNN reported on Wednesday that the Ghadr missile launches were clear violations of UN resolution 2231. The previous day’s launch quickly prompted members of the US Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee to write to the Obama administration to respond more quickly to the latest provocations than it had done in the case of last year’s incidents.

In that case, the U.S. administration did respond with the imposition of new sanctions on 11 individuals and businesses with ties to the Iranian ballistic missile program. But the action was not taken until after the implementation of the JCPOA and the concurrent prisoner exchange between Iran and the US. In the present case, the White House has indicated that it will raise the issue of the latest tests with the United Nations Security Council, but it remains unclear when that will happen or whether it will lead to immediate action.

It is clear, however, that calls for such action will be amplified in light of the three rapid violations by the IRGC. American legislators, especially members of the Republican Party, have variously expressed concern that a delayed response to such incidents demonstrates weakness or indecision and encourages Iranian regime to further test the limits of Western enforcement.

On the other hand, the, Joe Biden, the US Vice President also said of Tehran, “All their conventional activity outside the deal, which is still beyond the deal, we will and are attempting to act wherever we can find it.” CNN reported, but the meaning of these remarks was unclear and CNN would only say that they were a “possible reference” to the ballistic missile tests.

Meanwhile, some critics of recent Western policy toward the Islamic Republic are apparently worried that the potential effectiveness of sanctions-based enforcement measures is degrading as the nuclear deal remains in place and various countries seek to expand their economic relations with Iran. One of the latest indicators of this expansion came in the form of a Reuters report that pointed out that several commodities traders have begun engaging in barter transactions with Iran, specifically trading Iran’s surplus oil for gas.

Bartering had been used while sanctions were still in full effect in order to evade US-led sanctions. And even now, with nuclear-related sanctions suspended, many international businesses worry that they could fall afoul or renewed or still-extant sanctions in the future if they rush to reestablish traditional economic relations. Barter transactions could help to evade this danger as well, by avoiding US-linked payment processing, thereby limiting the effectiveness of later sanctions that might be imposed in response to ongoing Iranian provocations.