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Did Iran's Ballistic Missile Test Violate International Law?

12 Feb 2017
By Dr Saeed Bagheri and Sahar Nejati Karimabad
Iran Deal signatories Photo Credit: US Department of State (Wikimedia Commons) Creative Commons

The US condemned last month’s ballistic missile test by Iran, claiming it breached the 2015 P5+1 nuclear deal and UN security council resolution 2231. In response, Iran denied the agreements had any relevance to the failed test. Looking at the details of the deal and the resolution may help determine its legal status.

Iran’s Minister of Foreign Affairs Mohammad Javad Zarif reacted to the United States’ claims that Iran had violated both the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or nuclear deal—reached on 14 July 2015 between Iran, the P5+1 and the European Union in Vienna—and the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2231 by stating “as all signatories to the [nuclear deal] have announced, the missile issue is not a part of it”. Moreover, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Qassemi affirmed on 31 January 2017, “none of the country’s ballistic missiles had been designed to carry a nuclear warhead and they were, therefore, not banned under the UNSC Resolution 2231”.

Considering the complexity of both parties’ claims, in order to better comprehend the international legality or illegality of Iran’s ballistic missile test in the context of the nuclear deal and Resolution 2231, it is necessary to consider specific provisions and measures foreseen in the deal and resolution.

Terms of engagement

At this point, a short glance at the main points made in the nuclear deal seem inevitable. Under the deal, Iran has agreed to eliminate its stockpile of medium-enriched uranium, cut its stockpile of low-enriched uranium by 98 per cent and reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by about two-thirds for 13 years.

Moreover, Iran will only enrich uranium up to 3.67 per cent for the next 15 years. According to the deal, Iran’s uranium-enrichment activities will be limited to a single facility using first-generation centrifuges for the next 10 years. To monitor and verify Iran’s compliance with the deal, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) will have regular access to all Iranian nuclear facilities.

The deal provides that in return for verifiably abiding by its commitments, Iran will receive relief from the United States, European Union and UNSC nuclear-related economic sanctions. In all, there is no prohibitive provision in the nuclear deal text that prevents Iran from conducting ballistic missile tests.

Additionally, all parties to the nuclear deal, including the previous US administration, have attested that Iran’s missile tests have nothing to do with the nuclear agreement. In his letter to Senator Marco Rubio, the United States’ previous Secretary of State John Kerry confirmed that the nuclear deal does not restrict its ballistic missile program.

Iran defends itself

As noted by Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Majid Takht-e-Ravanchi in the meeting of the Iranian Parliament’s Committee on National Security and Foreign Policy, “the issue of our missile [program] is by no means a breach of Resolution 2231 because our missiles have not been designed to carry a nuclear warhead and we have stressed this issue both verbally and in the form of registered Security Council documents”.

In this sense, it seems likely that Iran’s last missile test cannot be appraised in the context of the nuclear deal provisions, since its ballistic missile programs were not included in the deal and therefore its January ballistic missile test is not a violation of such a deal.

In such case, it seems that the new US administration’s attitude towards Iran’s failed missile test does not rest on the basis of a legal violation by Iran. Rather, it is based on the anti-Iran stance of Donald Trump and his promised ‘New Foreign Policy’. In a speech to the pro-Israel lobbying group AIPAC during the presidential campaign, he said that his number one priority was to dismantle the disastrous deal with Iran because, as he explained, the deal has enabled Iran’s aggression against US interests in regional conflicts like Syria and Yemen.

In terms of Resolution 2231, which endorses the nuclear deal, Iran has been obstructed from conducting ballistic missile tests for eight years under conditions that went into effect 20 July 2015. The Resolution reads in “Annex B (Statement)” as follows:

“Iran is called upon 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, whichever is earlier.”

To be clear, Iran’s failed ballistic missile test is legitimate and in compliance with the Resolution 2231 of the Security Council because, as stated by Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, it was “not designed for the capability of carrying a nuclear warhead…[Iran’s] ballistic missile was designed to carry a normal warhead in the field of legitimate defence”. To put it very simply, the security council resolution called Iran only to abstain from launching missiles able to carry nuclear warheads.

Iran has launched and tested several ballistic missiles since the nuclear deal, but it had never before received such a reaction from the international community because under the nuclear deal Iran’s actions were legitimate. Furthermore, as stated by the United Nations nuclear watchdog and the European Union officials, Iran had met its provisions in the nuclear deal; Iran has also completed the necessary steps in the nuclear deal to restrict its nuclear program, which ended many Western economic sanctions and unlocked billions of dollars in sanctions relief.

Electioneering trumps international law

Verily, the United States’ claims regarding Iran’s ballistic missile test on 29 January demonstrate that the Trump administration is interpreting the terms of the nuclear deal and the UN Security Council Resolution 2231 not from a legal point of view, but from a political point of view, to avert Iran’s nuclear activities entirely.

Nonetheless, without giving due consideration to the tensions created by US officials, the UN Security Council is expected to transfer the issue of Iran’s ballistic missiles test to the sanctions committee, formed in accordance with Resolution 2231. Even so, the UNSC might vote on a resolution in favour of Iran.

As one of Iran’s few allies, Russia, may use its permanent seat on the UNSC and veto powers to prevent the adoption of any substantive draft resolution against Iran. Weighing in on the legality of Iran’s failed ballistic missile test after the United States called for an emergency United Nations Security Council meeting to discuss this controversial issue, Russian officials said, “Iran missile test [was] no violation of [the United Nations] resolution”.

Dr Saeed Bagheri is assistant professor of public international law at Akdeniz University, Turkey. His main research interests focus on international humanitarian law, armed conflicts, nuclear law, and human rights law.

Sahar Nejati Karimabad is a Ph.D. candidate in area studies at the Middle East Technical University in Turkey. Her main research interests focus on ethnic identity, post-soviet space, international security and gender.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.