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Iran's Missile Tests May Not Violate the Nuke Deal, But May Be Still Breaking Rules

Iranian TV aired footage of missiles launches on Tuesday, drawing criticism from US lawmakers and officials. While the tests may violate some UN and US sanctions, they don't appear to breach last summer's nuclear agreement.

by Avi Asher-Schapiro
Mar 8 2016, 7:40pm

Photo via EPA

Iranian state TV aired footage showing several missile launches on Tuesday, prompting US officials to question whether Iran is violating both US sanctions and a UN Security Council resolution against developing nuclear-capable missiles.

The launches indicate Iran is as committed as ever to maintaining a robust domestic missile program, even after it agreed to rein in its nuclear weapons program. And while US officials and politicians criticized Iran for the missile tests, White House officials confirmed on Tuesday that Iran technically did not violate last summer's nuclear deal, which targeted Iran's nuclear enrichment program, not is conventional weapons capabilities.

The footage — which Iranian media said showed a recent military exercise — features a series of missiles being launched from fortified underground silos across the country. Iran's Revolutionary Guards or IRGC, which carried out the tests, said they were designed to demonstrate an "all-out readiness to confront threats" against the Islamic Republic.

"Our main enemies are imposing new sanctions on Iran to weaken our missile capability," Brigadier General Amir Ali Hajizadeh, the head of the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace arm, told Iranian state media. "But they should know that the children of the Iranian nation in the Revolutionary Guards and other armed forces refuse to bow to their excessive demands."

US State Department spokesperson Mark Toner said on Tuesday that the US was aware of the tests and following them closely. "If confirmed, we intend to raise the matter in the UN Security Council," he said. "We will also encourage a serious review of the incident and press for an appropriate response."

Iran agreed to unprecedented monitoring of is nuclear facilities last summer, in exchange for a relaxing of international sanctions. That agreement, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), was formally agreed to by the UN Security Council last July. In endorsing the deal, the UN Security Council also included language that "called upon" Iran to refrain from any "activity related to ballistic missiles designed to be capable of delivering nuclear weapons, including launches using such ballistic missile technology." The Security Council is empowered to block the transfer of materials to Iran that it deems are contributing to the missile program.

Stephane Dujarric, a spokesman for the UN Secretary General, told reporters on Tuesday that it "will be up (to) the Council to decide" if Iran has indeed violated any sanctions regime.

A White House Official told the Wall Street Journal that Tuesday's tests "are not a violation of the JCPOA," but that they are "inconsistent," with the UN Security Council's directive.  

Republican Senator Bob Corker had stronger words for the Iranians, and he criticized the White House for not using tougher language. "Iran's complete disregard for the ballistic missile restrictions that remain in place must be met with swift and immediate consequences," he said in a statement "The administration's hesitancy and the Council's refusal to act after multiple violations last fall must not be repeated now." 

Last October Iran conducted its first high-profile missile tests since the adoption of the nuclear deal; a few weeks later, it aired footage of the speaker of parliament touring underground missile bunkers. A UN panel ruled in December that the October test did indeed constitute a breach of UN sanctions, since the missiles would have been capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

In January, the US imposed a new round of unilateral sanctions on Iranian individuals and companies it said were involved in missile activity. 

Iran has long chafed against US and international efforts to rein in its missile program, which it insists is defensive in nature and not tied to any nuclear weapons research. The IRGC released an official statement on Tuesday defending the tests, saying they were intended "to show Iran's deterrent power and also the Islamic Republic's ability to confront any threat against the (Islamic) Revolution, the state and the sovereignty of the country." 

Tuesday's tests come amid Iranian elections that are in many ways a referendum on the nuclear deal championed by President Hassan Rouhani. In the first round of voting last month, pragmatic and reformist forces who support Rouhani made gains against more conservative forces in the parliament. Though Rouhani has pushed for a more conciliatory relationship with the outside world, he exercises little control over Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which reports directly to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. 

Reuters contributed to this report. 

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