By Seyed Hossein Mousavian, The Security Times
There has long been much handwringing in Washington over Iran’s ballistic missiles. They are portrayed as threatening to regional security and developed with the aim of one day arming with nuclear warheads. This is as missiles form an integral part of Iran’s defensive military posture, which is fundamentally geared towards deterring attack. Indeed, when it comes to conventional military power, the regional balance is staggeringly stacked against Iran, with Saudi Arabia outspending Iran 5-to-1 on its military and even the UAE, with a native Emirati population of less than 2 million, spending 50 percent more than Iran. The United States, with its massive military presence in the region, spends nearly 70 times more than Iran.
At the peak of hysteria over Iran’s nuclear program in 2010, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1929, spearheaded by the United States. Imposed after a series of nuclear swap offers—wherein Iran would exchange enriched uranium for nuclear fuel—were rebuffed by Washington (including one facilitated by Brazil and Turkey), the resolution levied far-reaching nuclear sanctions on Iran. It also sought to place restrictions on Iran’s missile program, stating that Iran “shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons.”
However, with the July 2015 nuclear deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the groundwork was laid to remove UN-mandated restrictions on Iran’s missile program. The UNSC resolution endorsing the deal, Resolution 2231, removed 1929’s strict language on missile tests. Resolution 2231 instead “calls upon” Iran not to undertake missile tests that are “designed to be nuclear capable.” As Greg Thielmann of the Arms Control Association has stated: “[This language] implies nuclear weapons intent must now be established in assessing the design of any missile launched by Iran—an even higher bar in light of Iran’s acceptance of stringent limits on its nuclear program.”
Trump White House Beating the War Drums
Donald Trump’s election as U.S. president and his appointment to senior positions figures with records of seeking to provoke conflict with Iran, has spurred global concern about the fate of the JCPOA. Iran’ recent missile test, no doubt done with the aim of deciphering the Trump administration’s stance towards Iran, was greeted with overt hostility from the White House. Trump’s national security advisor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who in the past tried ludicrously tried to blame Iran for the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, threatened that Iran was now “on notice” for the missile test.
It goes without saying that conducting missile tests is well within Iran’s rights as a sovereign nation. The consensus between Iran, the P5+1 worlds powers, and the IAEA is that the tests are not a violation of the JCPOA. Among the P5+1 it is only the Trump administration that now says the tests are a “defiance” of Resolution 2231. There is simply no evidence that the missiles Iran is testing are designed to carry nuclear warheads. Mikhail Ulyanov, the head of Russia’s Department for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Weapons Control, has said in this regard: “As stated by the Iranians, the missiles they test are incapable of carrying nuclear warheads. No one has yet provided any evidence that this is untrue. So the question emerges, what violations we are talking about? No violations whatsoever.”
However, some have argued that the missile tests violate the spirit of Resolution 2231. A 2016 report by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon found that Iran’s ballistic missile tests were “not consistent with the constructive spirit” of 2231, but not a violation. As such, the Trump team’s hysteria regarding the tests is not only unwarranted, but threatens to undo the JCPOA and put the U.S. and Iran on the path to war.
Violations of Spirit and the JCPOA
When it comes to an international agreement whose spirit has been violated, the JCPOA itself serves as a leading example. Since it was implemented in January 2016, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has verified six times that Iran has met all of its JCPOA commitments. The United States, however, has done a less than satisfactory job of fulfilling its JCPOA obligations in terms of not standing in the way of accruing the benefits of sanctions relief. This was the case under Obama, and is set to get even worse under Trump.
The nuclear deal’s text specifically requires the United States to “sustain this JCPOA and to prevent interference with the realization of the full benefit by Iran of the sanctions lifting.” However, since the deal’s implementation, the U.S. government has taken a host of actions which, while not outright violating the deal, run against its spirit.
In January 2016, simultaneous with implementation day, the U.S. imposed new sanctions on Iran over its missile program. This was followed by new legislation signed into law by President Obama requiring individuals from countries with visa-free travel agreements with the United States who visit Iran to attain visas before entering America—creating a significant barrier to Iranian trade with Europe and northeast Asia. Trump’s notorious Muslim ban is only the extension of this policy.
By March 2016, it had also become clear that Iran was having difficulty financing the post-JCPOA trade agreements it was reaching with companies from Europe, Asia, and beyond. The issue was twofold. First, a U.S. ban on “dollar-clearing” for Iran remained in effect, which prevented foreign banks wishing to facilitate Iran-related transactions from accessing the U.S. financial system to conduct transactions in U.S. dollars—the currency that most major international trade is conducted in. This had the effect of impeding Iran’s ability to engage in international trade and repatriate its frozen assets. Second, international banks and investors were continuing to stay away from Iran for fear of violating the spider’s web of still-existing non-nuclear U.S. sanctions or potential new sanctions that could be imposed down the road that could threaten their investments.
Adding insult to injury, in April 2016 the U.S. Supreme Court broke all international legal precedent by ruling that $2 billion worth of frozen Iranian U.S. assets could be sued for by families of victims of terrorist attacks. This marked a violation of a basic principle of international law known as sovereign immunity, under which foreign governments are cannot be subject to private lawsuits.
Since the JCPOA was reached, Congress has also relentlessly tried to undermine it. In 2016, more than 80 bills were introduced attempting to scuttle the deal. One bill, a renewal of the Iran Sanctions Act, passed in November and was allowed to become law by President Obama—triggering outrage across the political spectrum in Iran. With that said, however, Obama still largely stood as a bulwark against congressional hawks trying to sink the deal, a Trump will almost certainly not continue.
Ostensibly in response to Iran’s missile rest, Trump has already imposed new sanctions on 13 Iranian individuals and 12 entities, a number of which are based in Lebanon, the UAE, and China. The international impact of these sanctions is clearly meant to instill more fear into global firms from doing business with Iran.
The fact is that there has now been one year of successful implementation of the JCPOA. This is in spite of its spirit being repeatedly violated by the U.S. side. By saber-rattling over Iranian missile tests, however, the Trump administration is set to undo the deal, through imposing new sanctions under the umbrella of human rights, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, and regional issues, bringing U.S.-Iran tensions to dangerous new heights. This would void an agreement that is the most comprehensive achievement in the history of nuclear non-proliferation and a model for realizing a world free of nuclear weapons. Moreover, it would weaken the fight against ISIS, as Iran is in the forefront of combatting the group, and contribute to greater regional destabilization.