FPI Bulletin: Kerry Admits Iran Deal Not Working

April 14, 2016

Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent call for a “new arrangement” with Tehran to curb its ballistic missile program constitutes an admission that the U.N. resolution tied to the July 2015 nuclear deal has failed to stem Iran’s misbehavior. Rather than offer new concessions if Iran halts its missile launches, the White House should impose stronger economic sanctions aimed at compelling Iran’s compliance with longstanding international demands.

Over the past nine months, the Obama administration has repeatedly argued that the prohibition on Iranian ballistic missile development in U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2231 constitutes a binding legal obligation. In a Senate hearing last July, Kerry falsely claimed that the resolution contains the “exact same language” as the ballistic missile proscription in UNSCR 1929 (2010). In fact, UNSCR 1929 employed compulsory language stating that Tehran “shall not” advance ballistic missile-related activity, whereas UNSCR 2231 states only that the regime is “called upon” to forgo such activity, indicating that Iran has no legal requirement to comply.

However, the two resolutions partially overlap, since UNSCR 2231 mandated that the restrictions in UNSCR 1929 would remain in effect until the nuclear deal’s Implementation Day, which arrived on January 16, 2016. Thus, Iran’s ballistic missile tests in October and November of last year flouted both the binding prohibitions in UNSCR 1929 and the non-binding injunctions in UNSCR 2231. Still, the U.N., backed by a White House fearful of antagonizing the regime, failed to act.

The day after Implementation Day, the Obama administration imposed unilateral U.S. sanctions targeting subsidiaries of companies that America had already sanctioned — a move that amounted to pinpricks. Furthermore, at a Senate hearing in February, Kerry told lawmakers that he opposed congressional action to impose further sanctions. “I wouldn’t welcome them at this moment in time,” he said, “given the fact that we’ve given them a warning, and if they decide to do another launch, then I think there’s a rationale.”

In March, Iran provided such a rationale by again testing ballistic missiles, demonstrating that the sanctions imposed in January had no deterrent effect. By this time, however, the binding restriction in UNSCR 1929 had expired, leaving only the non-binding prohibition in UNSCR 2231. Therefore, the United States and its European allies responded with a letter declaring the tests were “inconsistent with” UNSCR 2231, but they did not allege that Iran had actually violated the resolution. As Russian Ambassador to the U.N. Vitaly Churkin noted, “A call is different from a ban so legally you cannot violate a call, you can comply with a call or you can ignore the call, but you cannot violate a call. The legal distinction is there.”

At first, the administration denied the significance of the letter’s omission. In a Senate hearing last week, the State Department’s third-ranking official acknowledged that UNSCR 1929 and UNSCR 2231 contain contrasting language, but nevertheless contended that UNSCR 2231’s prohibition imposes a legal obligation. “For me, it’s a distinction without a difference,” said Under Secretary for Political Affairs Thomas Shannon. “From my point of view, 2231 is telling Iran that it should not be undertaking any activity related to ballistic missiles, and that’s how we act.” In reality, the U.N.’s inaction indicated that the difference carried profound practical implications.

In the context of these developments, Kerry’s plea for a “new arrangement” with Iran over ballistic missiles belies the administration’s misleading rhetoric on ballistic missiles since the nuclear deal’s finalization. It also reflects the White House’s failure to learn the lessons of Iran’s continuing defiance both of the U.N. and of U.S. law. By ignoring his own pledges to meaningfully punish Tehran for its provocations, President Obama has incentivized the regime to continue them.

For this reason, it should come as no surprise that the Islamist regime quickly rejected Kerry’s overture. After all, Iran no longer faces a binding obligation to refrain from ballistic missile development. And thanks to the nuclear agreement itself, the regime has acquired not only billions of dollars in sanctions relief, but also the right to pursue an internationally recognized and large-scale nuclear program after the bulk of the deal’s restrictions expire in 10 to 15 years.

Rather than provide Iran with additional concessions in exchange for a “new arrangement,” the administration and Congress should seize this opportunity to reinvigorate the sanctions that still remain in place and pressure the regime to cease its ballistic missile activities, weapons purchases, and regional aggression. Kerry has finally admitted that UNSCR 2231 fails to definitively prohibit Iran’s development of ballistic missiles. The United States should not further reward Iran for its dangerous behavior.

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