Iranian ballistic missile tests unsettle nuclear agreement supporters
July 14th marked the first anniversary of the Iran nuclear agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). International consensus is that Tehran has fulfilled the terms of the deal, which provide for international supervision of Iran’s civilian nuclear programme.
But Iran’s ballistic missile development programme is also of concern to the international community as providing a possible delivery system should it covertly develop nuclear weapons, continues, so much so that the UN Security Council reviewed Iran’s compliance with UN Resolution 2231.
That measure went into effect days after the nuclear accord. According to the resolution, Iran is “called upon not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology”. Iran is barred from conducting ballistic missile tests for eight years.
In the wake of the Security Council’s resolution, the Iranian Foreign Ministry immediately issued a statement that stressed: “Iran’s military capabilities, including its ballistic missiles, are exclusively for legitimate defence; this equipment has not been designed for the capability to carry nuclear payloads and, thus, fall outside the scope and the jurisdiction of the [Security Council] resolution and its annexes.”
According to Western media, Iran conducted a ballistic missile launch on July 11th but the rocket exploded shortly after launch. The rocket was a version of the North Korean BM-25 Musudan ballistic missile, which has a range of nearly 4,000km, far exceeding the range of indigenous Iranian rocket designs. According to Western intelligence sources, the failed launch is Iran’s fourth in 12 months.
A confidential report from UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called Iran’s ballistic missile programme “not consistent with the constructive spirit” of the nuclear deal but left it up to the Security Council to decide whether Iran was in violation of Resolution 2231.
The Security Council discussed Ban’s report with members divided over whether Iran’s March ballistic missile launches during military exercises constituted a violation of Resolution 2231. Iran maintains that the launches did not violate it but a number of Security Council members stated that, while the launches were not technically violations of the JCPOA, they were “inconsistent” with Resolution 2231.
The tests provide ammunition to those arguing that the JCPOA is fatally flawed. On the same day of the Security Council meeting, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman — in his first appearance before the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee — remarked: “Iran is still promoting its missile programme with full force… and we don’t have to guess whom the missiles programme is targeting.”
Driving this is the concern that Iran and Israel regard one another as existential enemies. The harshest critic of the JCPOA has been Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who persistently maintains that Iran had a covert nuclear weapons initiative disguised within its ostensibly civilian nuclear energy programme. Tehran hotly denied the allegations and, in the absence of verifiable intelligence, the JCPOA was negotiated.
Netanyahu’s criticism has continued and has received support from some Republican members of the US Congress.
Iran’s apparent disregard of Security Council concerns raised over its implementation of UN Resolution 2231 has the potential to derail the JCPOA, a rare diplomatic success in a region increasingly torn by violence.
If the Security Council determines that Iran violated the resolution, the question arises about what action the Security Council and the UN General Assembly might take. In such a situation, the only winners will be the hawks in Israel and the US government, which from the outset declared JCPOA a bad agreement.
As the world re-engages with Iran, its government should carefully consider whether provocative experimentation with unreliable North Korean missile technology is worth the potential consequences to an economy battered by decades of sanctions, along with the political isolation Iran would inevitably face should it be determined that Tehran violated its agreements.