The Trump administration appears to be renewing the possibility of violent confrontation with Iran using a questionable pretext—Iran’s testing of conventional missiles.
No one in the U.S. government or the press seems to understand that Iranian ballistic missiles do not fall under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA (the "Iran Deal"). The JCPOA has nothing at all to do with conventional weapons, only nuclear technology.
The current controversy over Iran's missile testing has entirely to do with interpretations of United Nations Security Council Resolution 2231 (20 July 2015), which endorsed the JCPOA after it had been ratified.
UNSC Resolution 2231 stated flatly that ALL of the previously existing UN sanctions against Iran were terminated, viz.
"(a) The provisions of resolutions 1696 (2006), 1737 (2006), 1747 (2007), 1803 (2008), 1835 (2008), 1929 (2010) and 2224 (2015) shall be terminated" (p. 3 of the full document)
The current objections to Iran's missile testing has to do with a clause in Resolution 2231 that "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,” until eight years after the implementation of the deal.
This clause can’t be found on the UNSC web page announcing the agreement to the press.
It is buried on page 99 of the 104 page actual Resolution 2231 document with annexes.
The agreement does NOT prohibit Iran from developing conventional weapons or missiles at all. It also only "calls upon" Iran to not develop technology capable of carrying such nuclear weapons. It does not flat-out prohibit even this development.
The language "calls upon" was deliberate because the other P5+1 signatories to the JCPOA (Great Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China) would not endorse a stronger "prohibition." Moreover, the provision written this way provides no prescription for punishment if the provision is violated--which Iran claims has not happened. This means that there cannot be any UN imposed sanctions on Iran without an additional resolution.
It is notable that, according to experts, Iran never had, nor has today a nuclear weapons program, so there are no nuclear weapons that could be mounted on such missiles.
Anything the United States does in retaliation is in fact a response NOT to the JCPOA, to which the US is a signatory, but rather to some perceived violation of this UN Resolution. The United States in doing this is essentially engaging in a remarkable activity--cherry picking the violations of UN Resolutions that it likes and ignoring violations of UN Resolutions that it doesn't like, and deciding to act entirely independently of the UN, meting out its own free-boot punishment. Once again, the United States is singling out and targeting Iran on highly questionable grounds without any real authority.
The tiny issue on which the US objection rests is whether the Iranian missiles are capable of carrying a nuclear warhead. Iran says: no! The United States (and Israel) say "maybe," because they can't know for sure whether this is the case. In the latest missile test, the missile blew up, so no one can say one way or the other.
This is splitting hairs in the most egregious way. The Trump administration continues the tradition of the hawks in Congress to do anything and everything to antagonize Iran. In this regard Iran's leaders have been remarkably calm. Hawkish legislators in the United States would like to completely eliminate Iran's conventional weapons AND its overall missile program. Iran has all kinds of reasons for wanting to maintain this technology including satellite launchings.
Today the Trump administration's sanctions proved to be wimpy at best, targeting “multiple entities and individuals involved in procuring technology and/or materials to support Iran’s ballistic missile program, as well as for acting for or on behalf of, or providing support to, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force." Since there were already existing sanctions against such individuals, this amounts to virtually no "punishment" at all. However, President Trump's insistence that "nothing has been taken off the table" ominously suggests some kind of military action.
Iran responded with something much more symbolically effective, reportedly barring the U.S. wrestling team from competition in the Freestyle World Cup Competition on February 16-17.
It is dismaying that the Trump administration would risk violent action over such a small matter, but hatred of Iran in U.S. Government circles is so ubiquitous, rationality seems never to prevail, and as can be seen, provides Iran with the opportunity to retaliate in ways that can provide much more effective press.
William O. Beeman is Professor and Chair of the Department of Anthropology at the University of Minnesota. He has conducted research in Iran for over 40 years. His most recent forthcoming book is Understanding Iran from Ancient Times to the Islamic Republic.
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