Iran’s announcement March 8 that the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) test-fired several ballistic missiles should not come as a surprise to anyone.
The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) concluded last year does not bar such tests. UN Security Council Resolution 2231, adopted on July 20, 2015, codified the JCPOA and superseded previous resolutions on Iran’s nuclear program. Among its provisions, it states that all UN members « are called upon to comply » with two paragraphs in an annex, which has not been endorsed by Iran, regarding its missile program.
I have been told that the use of the words “called upon to comply” rather than “shall comply,” was insisted upon by Iran to make the provision not mandatory. Iran apparently had Russian and Chinese support for this. All three favored dropping the missile provisions of Resolution 2231 altogether, but the U.S. insisted on retaining them, albeit for eight rather than ten years and eliminating the mandatory character.
The exact language is as follows :
“Iran is called upon [not “required”] not to undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology, until the date eight years after the JCPOA Adoption Day or until the date on which the IAEA submits a report confirming the Broader Conclusion [on the nature of the Iranian nuclear program], whichever is earlier.”
Apparently the word “designed” was also included at Iranian insistence, obviously to allow them to argue that their missiles were not designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons. Since, according to Iran, it never had the intention to possess nuclear weapons, it could not have (intentionally) designed its missiles to be capable of delivering them. Therefore, the Iranians argue, their missiles are conventional weapons delivery systems and restricting them would interfere with their legitimate self-defense capabilities.
But regardless of what Iran says about its nuclear weapons intentions, it can be argued that the missiles were indeed designed to have the capability of delivering nuclear weapons – that is, they were designed with sufficient range and payload capabilities to house and deliver nuclear warheads even if their currently intended use is to deliver only conventional munitions.
The word “designed” was not included in operative paragraph 9 of UNSC Resolution 1929 (9 June 2010) which stated that the Security Council « decides that Iran shall not undertake any activity related to ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using ballistic missile technology, and that States shall take all necessary measures to prevent the transfer of technology or technical assistance to Iran related to such activities. »
By testing ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons on Oct. 10 and Nov. 21, 2015, Iran clearly violated Resolution 1929. Indeed, the Security Council’s Panel of Experts on Iran concluded that the missile launched in October was capable of delivering a nuclear warhead. Iranian officials have of course disputed that conclusion.
This raises an intriguing question. Since Resolution 1929 was due to expire on Implementation Day for the JCPOA, which occurred on Jan. 16, why didn’t Iran wait until that day?
Was it a last attempt by the IRGC to sabotage the JCPOA? Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, in a December interview with The New Yorker magazine, said, “There are more than three dozen members of our parliament who do not want us to implement JCPOA.” Is it unreasonable to believe that President Hassan Rouhani and his supporters prevailed in postponing any missile tests until after the U.S. Congressional review of the JCPOA ended on Sept. 17, 2015 but were unable to hold back the IRGC any longer?
It is quite clear that Iran will further improve and test ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear weapons no matter what the Barack Obama administration or its successor does. Zarif would likely say: why shouldn’t we? As he noted in December, “Your allies are spending tens of billions of dollars on buying weaponry that they don’t need in this region. Iran’s military hardware is less than a fraction of that of any of the countries in this region”.
Are the latest missiles tests, just after the electoral success of the “moderates” in Iran, another reminder by the IRGC that they are still an incontrovertible force in the country?
In response the US is likely to impose new sanctions on Iran. But it will not stop Iran from proceeding with further ballistic missiles tests.
Where will that leads us? As Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) once said: “In politics, what is often most difficult to appraise and to understand, is what is taking place under our eyes.”
Pierre Goldschmidt is a nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy director-general of the International Atomic Energy Agency as head of the Department of Safeguards.