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Concerns over Missile Tests Imply European Openness to More Sanctions on Iran

Iran has since exploited arguably vague phrasing to continue carrying out ballistic missile activities in the open, arguing that the weapons are defensive in nature and that the relevant provision of Resolution 2231 is optional in any event.

The ongoing development, manufacture, and testing of ballistic missiles was one of the main issues cited by US President Donald Trump to justify withdrawal from the nuclear deal in May of last year. According to his administrations, these activities constitute a violation of the “spirit” of the deal.

But the European signatories – the United Kingdom, France, and Germany – have remained committed to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action while taking for granted the reports from the International Atomic Energy Agency which indicate that the Islamic Republic is living up to its basic obligations.

However, this has not stopped the so-called E3 from loudly protesting Iran’s blatant disregard for international will, as it concerns missile proliferation and other Iranian activities with global implications.

It was these three nations that jointly authored the recent letter, which called upon the UN to prepare a thorough report on Iran’s ballistic missile activity by June. According to Agence France-Presse, the E3 specified that such a report was a necessary step toward addressing a “trend of increased activity” that is inconsistent with Resolution 2231 and includes the unveiling of two new and supposedly advanced ballistic missiles in February.

The AFP report points out that the US made a similar appeal to the UN about a month earlier. And these international efforts are likely to continue for as long as Iran maintains its defiant posture. What’s more, the perceived importance of addressing Iranian missile activities may increase as more emphasis is placed upon the potential impact of those activities beyond Iran’s borders.

These effects are not limited to the prospective deployment of the weapons in any of the regional conflicts where Iran is a direct participant, although the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps did fire a ballistic missile at a purported ISIL position in Iraq last year. Rather, they include the danger of Iranian missiles being delivered into the hands of foreign allies, including non-state actors like Hezbollah. In recent years, Iran has sought to exploit its involvement in the Syrian Civil War to traffic weapons through that war zone to the Lebanese paramilitary group, but those efforts have largely been halted by Israeli strikes on Iranian convoys.

However, the Media Line reported on Tuesday that Tehran merely adjusted its strategy in response, initially by flying weapons directly into Lebanon on cargo planes and later by facilitating the construction of underground missile facilities. The report indicates that a new factory of this kind has just been completed in a populated area of Beirut.

Production at this and other facilities can be expected to reflect the influence of Iran’s own recent missile development, and the Media Line reports that “Tehran has actively been trying to transfer to [Hezbollah] advanced technology that can transform rudimentary projectiles into precision-guided missiles.”

Reports such as this, together with previous public complaints by European governments, may help the US to more effectively justify its strategy of “maximum pressure” on the Islamic Republic, in spite of the European Union’s persistent commitment to the nuclear deal. That additional justification could prove important at a time when progress toward such maximum pressure is evident.
It was announced on Tuesday that the US may impose still more sanctions in May, around the anniversary of Trump’s withdrawal from the JCPOA. According to Reuters, these sanctions would add new sectors of the Iranian economy to those that have already been targeted. This would potentially add to the pressure on that economy more quickly, as the US takes incremental steps toward the promised global isolation of the Iranian oil industry.

Secondary sanctions on buyers of Iranian oil came back into effect last November, but the US provided waivers to the eight largest importers, contingent upon significant reductions in their loadings of the sanctioned resource. Those waivers are set to expire in May, though it has been reported that at least four of them are likely to be renewed for the sake of minimizing the risk of a sharp increase in global petroleum prices. According to Platts, the renewals would also be contingent upon further reductions, by as much as 20 percent.

However, Reuters quoted one senior Trump administration official as saying that the US might take a more aggressive tack by allowing all eight waivers to expire without renewal. “That, I think, is where we’re headed,” the unnamed person stated. The actual viability of such a proposal may depend, to a significant degree, on the extent of the international community’s willingness to comply with the administration’s maximum pressure strategy. And that compliance may be encouraged by the recurring European objections to Iran’s ballistic missile work.

Furthermore, even tacit European endorsement of the US sanctions could have knock-on effects upon some of Iran’s economic partners and allies. So far, the risk of elevated oil prices has been kept in place by an agreement among the nations of OPEC and other petroleum exporting countries, to hold production down and buttress prices in the presence of a fully active market. But an end to that agreement would allow the market to absorb the loss of Iranian oil. And in another sense, it would facilitate the US effort to cut Iran out.

On Monday, Iran’s Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh met with his Russian counterpart and then insisted to reporters that there would be “no difficulty extending the cooperation.” The renewal of the OPEC+ agreement depends in large part on Iranian ally Russia, but also on Iran’s chief regional rival, Saudi Arabia. According to Bloomberg, both countries have recently undermined Zanganeh’s claim, agreeing that more time is needed before a decision is made on the future of the deal.

This wait-and-see approach arguably gives the United States additional time to make the case for large-scale sanctions as a means of containing not only Iran’s nuclear ambitions but also its dangerous ballistic missile activities and arms smuggling. And if the international community ultimately accepts the Trump administration’s argument, it may in turn convince OPEC and its partners of the need to increase output and compensate for the imminent collapse of Iranian oil.

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