A ballistic missile test was carried out by Iran on January 29 from a site near Semnan, east of Tehran. The medium-range ballistic missile reportedly exploded after 1,010 km. The fact was confirmed on February 1 by the country’s defense chief. Paragraph 3 of Annex B of UN Security Council’s Resolution 2231 (2015) calls upon Iran 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 claims the tests are legitimate because they are not designed to carry a nuclear warhead. According to Tehran, it has no plans to develop atomic weapons.
«The recent test was in line with our plans and we will not allow foreigners to interfere in our defense affairs», Defence Minister Hossein Dehghan said, according to Tasnim news agency. «The test did not violate the nuclear deal or the (U.N.) resolution 2231», he added.
The U.N. Security Council held an emergency meeting upon the request of the U.S. on January 31 to discuss the event. The Council agreed to refer the issue to its own sanctions committee for further inquiry.
U.S. officials sharply condemned the test. The U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, slammed Iran following UN Security Council discussions, saying it was «absolutely unacceptable», and the U.S. «will act accordingly… we will be loud». State Department spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement on Jan.31 that the US is «well aware of and deeply troubled by Iran's longstanding provocative and irresponsible activities».
US Senator Bob Corker, chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he would apply efforts to hold Iran accountable. The U.S. Congress has already made its contribution into undermining the Iran deal.
Donald Trump has always been critical towards the Iran deal. Trump called the 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran «the worst deal ever negotiated». He said that dismantling it in the present form would be his «No. 1 priority» as president. Mr. Trump said he wanted the deal to be renegotiated.
There are other irritants as well like the Tehran’s support for rebels in Yemen and the involvement in the Syria’s conflict on the side of President Assad. When tensions run high, there is always a possibility of a sudden spark, igniting a fire. This month, a U.S. warship sailing toward the Persian Gulf fired warning shots at vessels manned by Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps. U.S. new Defense Secretary James Mattis is an advocate of a muscular presence in the Persian Gulf, which separates Iran and key U.S. allies in the region. He believes the United States should not create a leadership vacuum in the Gulf and leave U.S. allies to fend for themselves.
The Washington Post quotes Michael Makovsky of the Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) who argues in an email to Right Turn that «We should threaten to shoot them down, especially if they leave their borders, and we should construct a regional defense shield». This approach is illustrative. Like in the case of North Korea, the Iran’s missile tests will be used to justify the need for ballistic missile defense (BMD) in Europe and the Middle East – a thorny issue to aggravate the relations between the West and Russia.
U.S. unilateral sanctions over Iran’s missile testing, human rights record and support for the groups the United States designates as terrorists are still in force. These punitive measures and the Iran nuclear deal are separate issues. The sanctions are a great irritant to Tehran, keeping the relationship from any tangible improvement. The restrictions hinder foreign investments in Iran due to the influence the United States has over the international banking system.
It also should be taken into account that the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) is an agreement reached by the parties endorsed by Resolution 2231. It’s not legally binding. The U.S. as well as Iran can withdraw from the JCPOA any time it wishes. President Trump could unilaterally decide to remove the presidential waivers that have implemented most of the U.S. unilateral sanctions relief or he can trigger the snapback procedure stipulated in Resolution 2231 in order to re-apply the now removed U.N. Security Council sanctions.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei both threatened retaliation if the United States extended the sanctions. Iranians have also been frustrated by the pace of economic improvement after the lifting of sanctions last year, and officials have frequently blamed the United States. To aggravate the situation, congressional Republicans have already prepared new sanctions legislation to anger Iran. Once effective, it will not per se breach the letter of the JCPOA, but rather undermine it. The recent missile test may spur the process.
In response to U.S. actions, Iran can also pull out of the JCPOA and get back to its nuclear program. Another consequence – if the U.S. president unravels the deal, other world powers will go their own way with Iran. The rest of the world is unlikely to follow the U.S. example and snap the sanctions back. That would put the U.S. at odds with the other parties to the accord – Russia, China France, Germany, and the U.K., – who support the agreement. Russia and China will adhere to the JCPOA provisions. Defying other global powers will make Washington the odd man out while the rest of the world would continue to trade with Iran. It should not be forgotten that American companies also want to make profits as they eye the Iranian market.
There is another consequence to take into account. Beyond just the deal, President Trump’s tough stand on Tehran could upend domestic politics in that country. Tehran has its own presidential election coming up next year, and the U.S. tough stand could bolster hardline opponents of President Hassan Rouhani. If Rouhani’s relative moderates are pushed out, Iran’s nuclear enrichment programs could resume. Will it benefit the U.S.? Hardly so.
There are other factors to consider. The JCPOA in place hinders Iran’s alleged efforts to acquire nuclear weapons. There will be no nuclear warhead to tip a ballistic missile to render it a far less of a threat. Iran has never developed or flight-tested a long-range ballistic missile; it has never even asserted a need to build one. Should it be provoked into doing it? Anyway, despite all the tensions neither the nuclear warhead nor the delivery vehicle capable of reaching the United States is being built in Iran.
President Trump has put an enormous emphasis on defeating the Islamic State group, saying he’d be willing to cooperate with Russia and the Syrian government to pursue the goal. But building a coalition to rout the extremist group would require keeping Iran onside. Russia could play the role of mediator between the U.S. and Iran to smooth out the differences.
There are the factors that cannot be ignored while the U.S. stance on Iran is taking shape. As one can see, tearing up the Iran deal has many implications, not all of them will benefit the U.S. or the international community. Diplomatic means for a peaceful solution of the crisis have not yet been exhausted, including efforts within with the framework of the U.N. Security Council. Adding the problem of Iran to the Russia-U.S. agenda could also contribute to finding a solution.