NewsMax named Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Lindsey Graham, Kelly Ayotte, and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell as the most prominent participants in the congressional effort that is reportedly aimed at enacting the Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act to hobble “every sector of the Iranian economy that directly and indirectly supports Iran’s ballistic missile program.”
There was initially some expectation that this goal might be accomplished through multilateral action through the UN Security Council, but those expectations seem to have faded, with Russia defending Iran’s position that the missile tests were not and could not be violations of UNSCR 2231, which “calls upon” the Islamic Republic to avoid further development or testing of ballistic missiles “designed to be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.”
This week, the language of that resolution has become the subject of much scrutiny by policymakers and the media. But Reuters reported on Friday that the relative ambiguity of the language, compared to an earlier resolution that said Iran “shall not” conduct such tests, has made it unlikely that the UN will be able to justify or enact new international sanctions.
Reuters noted, however, that even Moscow admitted that last week’s missile tests were not “respectful” of the Security Council or the spirit of the resolution. As of Friday, the Obama administration was continuing to press the issue with the UN, but there appeared to be little hope of eliciting a response befitting an outright violation of Security Council resolutions. According to Reuters, the best that Iran’s critics can realistically expect of the UN is a public reprimand, but without meaningful diplomatic or economic consequences.
If Reuters’ assessment is correct, the US Senate will have even greater traction in its push for unilateral enactment of sanctions. Indeed, many critics of the Islamic Republic will surely argue that such action is made necessary by the lack of recourse to the international body. But many of those critics have also been critical of the Obama administration’s Iran policy, seeing it as weak, conciliatory, or overly optimistic. Such critics can be expected to push for punitive measures on the understanding that the administration is unlikely to undertake them of its own accord.
Doing so – or being forced by a more skeptical Congress to do so – would arguably constitute a significant reversal of US policy toward Iran. And such a reversal would be welcomed not only by congressional Republicans but also by a number of traditional US allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and its major Arab partners. These allies’ leading officials have variously expressed concern about an American pivot toward Iran, which threatened to contribute to an increase in Iranian power in the region. The ballistic missile test has helped to further stoke these concerns, especially given the fact that two of the three tested missiles bore messages on their sides saying, “Israel must be wiped out.”
In an interview with Asharq al-Awsat, Frances Townsend, the former Homeland Security Adviser to President George W. Bush explained, “While the countries in the region feel that they are surrounded and greatly threatened by the Iranians, they see that their historical ally, the United States, has sided with the enemy who Saudi Arabia has warned us of. However, the Obama administration has not adhered to that advice.”
Other critics of the Obama administration’s policies have gone further, suggesting that far from “not adhering to that advice,” the president has actively contravened it in order to offer concessions to Iran at the expense of traditional US alliance and other clear consequences. Both during and after the nuclear negotiations that concluded last July, the Obama administration’s critics have cited a wide variety of decisions as possible examples of those concessions.
One such example was the 1.7 billion dollar payment made to Iran around the time of the January implementation of the nuclear deal. The payment was described as the settlement of legal dispute over payments owed to Iran from before the 1979 Islamic Revolution. But since the settlement of that debt was announced, questions have arisen about how the figure was determined and whether there were strings attached to the settlement.
Some officials with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps have characterized the payment as a sort of ransom for four American-Iranian prisoners who were set free in a separate prisoner swap that also took place around the time of nuclear implementation. Taking this characterization seriously, some members of the US Congress have begun pressuring the White House for more information about the negotiations leading up to the payment.
On Friday, the Washington Free Beacon reported that the US State Department is now being accused of stalling this information, in part by ignoring multiple attempts at contact by Representative Mike Pompeo. The Kansas Republican initially wrote a letter in January grilling the department on whether the 1.7 billion dollars might end up in the hands of Iran-backed terrorists and whether American prisoners had ever come up in discussions of the settlement. Pompeo also wrote, “I fear this payment is the latest incident that is establishing a dangerous precedent that will lead to more Americans being captured abroad.”
This concern was amplified that same month in the aftermath of the capture of 10 American sailors who had strayed into Iranian territorial waters, apparently as a result of a technical failure. The incident was short-lived in the sense that all ten were released within a day, reportedly following some back-and-forth on the telephone between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. As with the prisoner swap, the Obama administration described this release as a triumph of diplomacy and vindication of its foreign policy. But critics seized upon Iran’s behavior during and after the incident as proof of the regime’s continued animosity toward the West, and an indicator of its possible willingness to engage in more such activities in the future.
This perspective was arguably given further support on Friday when the Daily Telegraph reported that Commander Ali Fadavi, the head of the IRGC naval forces had spoken to the Iranian media about plans for the building of a statue commemorating the sailors’ capture. This news came the same week as the IRGC claimed to have obtained 13,000 pages’ worth of documents from electronic devices belonging to the captors. And at the beginning of February, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei awarded the nation’s highest military honors to the Guards involved in the incident.
Each of these follow-ups to the story indicates that the IRGC and the regime as a whole are committed to exploiting the incident as much as possible for propaganda purposes, even if the capture did not lead to any specific concessions from the American government.
What’s more, some in the West appear to feel that the absence of an aggressive response from the US government was itself a sort of concession, at least insofar as it gave the Iranians the impression that they could get away with more such behavior and allowed them to portray the incident as a victory over the “Great Satan.”
This criticism was repeated on Friday in the Patriot Post when it pointed out that US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter had spoken out against Iran’s behavior but had not made any recommendations for actions that could be taken in response to that behavior. In January, Carter said he was “very, very angry” about Iran’s decision to broadcast images and video of the captured sailors. And this week he appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee and said, “As I made clear then, Iran’s actions were outrageous, unprofessional and inconsistent with international law, and nothing we’ve learned about the circumstances of this incident since then changes that fact.”
The Patriot Post dismissed this commentary as ineffectual and concluded that the Obama administration as a whole is “all talk, no action” on issues related to Iran. And this indictment of the administration’s foreign policy seems to closely reflect the criticism that now surrounds its handling of the ballistic missile tests. That is to say, if the issue remains in the hands of the United Nations, the likely outcome will be that the US takes the opportunity to condemn Iran’s activities and express anger over them, but without this anger leading to material consequences for the Islamic Republic.