Iranian Defiance Over Ballistic Missiles Spurs More Skepticism About Compliance

Such visits are indicative of the role that Zarif is playing in expanding the Islamic Republic’s engagement with the world in the wake of Iran’s nuclear agreement with the five permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany. This role has also been buttressed by the fact that a number of Western figures regard Zarif and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani as relative moderates within their government.

However both men have defending ballistic missile tests and other activities regarded by international critics as provocations and violations of UN resolutions, and this contributes to objections to their moderate characterization. For instance, the exile resistance group the National Council of Resistance of Iran has repeatedly communicated with the international press to emphasize anti-Western backgrounds for these and other supposedly moderate regime officials.

Indeed, Rouhani and Zarif have made explicit statements against the US and its allies even after the conclusion of nuclear negotiations on July 14. Zarif’s defense of the ballistic missile tests was an example of this. Without commenting upon the anti-Israeli message written on the side of two of those missiles, Zarif accused Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama of both maintaining of an aggressive posture and “threatening to use force against Iran every day.”

The Netanyahu and Obama administrations have notably been at odds over Iran policy since early in the nuclear negotiating process, with Netanyahu accusing Obama of entering into an agreement that “paves the way” to an Iranian nuclear weapon. And Netanyahu’s allies in the US Congress have accused Obama’s overall approach to Iran policy of being based on appeasement or general weakness. These factors indicate that contrary to Zarif’s statements, President Obama has maintained less aggression toward Iran than most of his colleagues and predecessors.

This division within the US government was certainly on display in the wake of the previous Iranian ballistic missile tests, which took place in October and November and were also understood to be violations of UN Security Council Resolutions. Republican and Democratic congressmen urged the White House to take action for several weeks before sanctions were imposed in January upon eleven entities associated with the Iranian ballistic missile program.

Now that those tests have effectively been repeated, various policy analysts have described the January sanctions as “anemic” or ineffectual. They and congressional policymakers have thus begun to press for more serious punitive action. This is something that the international community began considering on Monday, when the UN Security Council gathered to discuss the missile tests at the behest of an American request.

It remains to be seen whether this relatively quick US response will lead to stricter enforcement measures being imposed, but the repetitive nature of the Iranian violations certainly raises the level of pressure for such a response. And the Obama administration has been seriously condemned last week’s launches, with UN ambassador Samantha Power describing them as “provocative and destabilizing,” according to the New York Daily News.

Some members of Congress say that last week’s launch is considered a violation of the nuclear agreement, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. This connection was made even more explicitly by Kevin McCarthy, the Republican Majority Leader of the US House of Representatives on Monday, in an interview on Fox Business Channel. McCarthy urged new economic sanctions as punishment for breaking the agreement, and also expressed the almost universal Republican view that there should never have been an agreement along the lines that the White House outlined in July.

But contrary to McCarthy, most commentary on the ballistic missile tests has not described them as a violation of the nuclear deal, but only as a violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 2231, which governs the implementation of that deal. That resolution replaced UNSCR 1929, which banned Iran’s work on nuclear-capable ballistic missiles up until the point of the nuclear deal’s implementation.

However, various critics of the Iranian regime have suggested that the violation of these resolutions suggests unwillingness to comply with the overall spirit of the nuclear agreement. Some have also suggested that the Obama administration’s pursuit of that agreement has enabled the current situation, giving the impression of a change of policy that is deliberately more permissive of the Islamic Republic.

This criticism was voiced once again on Monday by former Saudi Arabian Intelligence Minister Prince Turki al-Faisal, who was also formerly a Saudi envoy to Washington. Faisal had harshly criticized the Obama administration over its apparent pivot towards Iran, and the associated criticisms of Saudi Arabia, a traditional US ally.

Faisal’s open letter to the Obama administration cited the persistent aggressive rhetoric directed against the US and the rest of the West by Iranian officials. It also said, “You add insult to injury by telling us to share our world with Iran, a country that you describe as a supporter of terrorism.”

For the many Western figures who are concerned about the continuation of this Iranian support for terrorism, last week’s ballistic missile tests are a reminder of the military resources that could be channeled into the hands of terrorist groups if Iran’s internal capabilities continue to grow. And there are early signs that this could be leading to a change in policy among some of those who have recently supported a program or rapprochement with the Islamic Republic.

That is to say, the Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that a number of members of the European Union had responded to the latest Iranian violations by openly considering jointly-enforced sanctions, even though this could imperil their ongoing exploration of renewed trade relations with the Islamic Republic. The Journal notes that this response is distinctly unlike the European response to the October and November ballistic missile tests, suggesting that the ill effects of Iran’s continued defiance may be gradually overriding optimism about its reentry into the international community.

There are even some indications that this has been the case among some of Iran’s traditional allies. For instance, at a time when the delivery of advanced Russian S-300 missiles was supposedly just around the corner, Moscow once again delayed the completion of the transaction this month, apparently in response to Iran’s continued support of terrorist groups like Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shiite paramilitary is fighting alongside the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Syria, thereby supporting Russia’s position in favor of the continued rule of Bashar al-Assad, but also raising the threat posed to Israel, a Russian ally.

Similarly, Iran has traditionally had cooperative relations with Hamas, but the expansion of Iranian influence throughout the region has apparently made Hamas more wary of that cooperation in recent months. 

Nevertheless, Iran’s traditional partners remain obstacles to international cooperation to push back against provocations like last week’s missile launches. Reuters reported on Monday that despite Russia’s disagreements with Iran in certain areas, the Kremlin still opposes sanctions over the ballistic missile issue. Russia, China, and some temporary members of the Security Council seem to accept Iran’s position on the ballistic missile issue – a position expressed Foreign Minister Zarif – that the Iranians are within their rights to simply ignore the expectations expressed by the relevant UN resolution.