Testing the limits of the nuclear deal

Last week, Iran test fired a medium-range ballistic missile, the Emad, that may be capable of carrying a nuclear payload. It’s reportedly accurate to within 500 meters at a distance of 1700 kilometers, far enough to hit Israel on the fly, without having to skip it across the western Iraqi desert or something. This would be undesirable under the best of circumstances, but since we’re talking about Iran it actually may be a violation of a UN Security Council resolution. Specifically, Iran may have violated UNSC Resolution 1929, from 2010, part of which says that “Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology.”

But wait, you’re about to say, weren’t previous UNSC resolutions related to Iran’s nuclear program superseded by the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action? Yes, but UNSC Resolution 2231 (which adopted the JCPOA as official UN policy and lifted UN sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program) says that Iran is “not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology.” Note that the language there is pretty much lifted from 1929, so even if you consider 1929 void that nuclear-capable ballistic missile provision clearly is still in effect. This bit of the resolution got a lot of push-back from deal opponents in Tehran:

These features of the arrangement have not gone over well in Tehran. According to the official statement from Tehran, issued in response to the resolution, “Iranian military capabilities, including ballistic missiles, are exclusively for legitimate defense. They have not been designed for WMD capability, and are thus outside the purview or competence of the Security Council resolution and its annexes.” A prominent Iranian hardliner complained, “The negotiating team was not supposed to negotiate on Iran’s ballistic missile technology.”

Those deal opponents lost their bid to defeat the agreement in the Iranian Majles (its parliament) earlier this week, but not before this missile test, which raises the possibility that some Iranian legislators might have needed one act of defiance before they were willing to acquiesce to the deal.

The Iranian government is arguing that the Emad test didn’t violate any nuclear-related resolutions because the missile is not actually nuclear-capable, which may simply mean that they haven’t developed (or didn’t test) a nuclear warhead for it. I am no rocket surgeon, so as far as I know this may well be true. It is true that Iran has been improving its missile capability more generally; it recently completed a new short-range missile, the Fateh-313 (which doesn’t seem to be nuclear-capable, or at least nobody’s running around warning that it is), that doesn’t threaten Israel but could target Gulf Arab states if push ever came to shove. Iran sees its missile program as a deterrent and/or force multiplier in case of a confrontation with a much stronger opponent (i.e., the US), and it has consistently denounced UN resolutions and international sanctions aimed at limiting its missile program as violations of Iran’s right to self-defense.

However, what is also true is that on the subject of the Emad, the US doesn’t appear to see things the same way Tehran does. Samantha Power, the US Ambassador to the UN, is apparently preparing a case for the Security Council arguing that the missile test was a violation of 1929’s language, but it’s not clear if she’s going to ask the Security Council to do anything about it. Nor is it clear that the Security Council would do anything about it even if she did ask, since Russia can simply veto any new punitive measures that the council considers taking. And this single missile test probably doesn’t warrant invoking the JCPOA’s dispute resolution mechanisms, which could end with the whole deal being sunk before it had even been implemented. Some sort of penalty could, maybe, be imposed under the already operative Resolution 1929, but if that happens it would certainly test whether the JCPOA can survive the imposition of new penalties on Iran outside the parameters of the nuclear issue.

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