Do Iran’s Missile Tests Violate the Nuclear Agreement?

Since 16 January 2016, the Implementation Day of the Iran’s nuclear agreement with P5+1, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Iran’s armed forces have carried out a series of missile tests. The latest of such tests occurred this week when Iran tested a purely defensive missile with a relatively short range. The missile exploded after traveling only 630 miles.

Opponents of the JCPOA, and in particular Israel, have claimed that the missile tests represent a "gross" violation of the nuclear agreement. This is sheer fabrication. The text of the JCPOA itself mentions absolutely nothing about Iran’s missile program and, thus, the tests, regardless of how one interprets or views them, have nothing to do with the JCPOA.

Former President Barack Obama and former United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, both supporters of the JCPOA, stated multiple times that the tests violate the "spirit" of the agreement. This is also questionable. The true spirit and letter of the agreement was reducing tension between Iran and the West by putting Iran’s nuclear program under tight control and lifting the economic sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic. Iran gave up a very significant part of its nuclear infrastructure, including removing nearly 75 percent of its centrifuges, demolition the core of the heavy-water nuclear reactor in Arak, converting the Fordo uranium enrichment facility that had been built under a mountain and could not be destroyed by bombing, to a research facility, and shipping out most of its stockpile of enriched uranium.

But, what Iran did not agree to was giving up its only significant deterrence, its missiles, against possible military attacks by foreign powers, particularly by Israel, the United States, and Saudi Arabia. Iran does not have the modern air force that Saudi Arabia and Israel, Iran’s arch foes in the region do, nor does Iran have nuclear weapons and nuclear warheads that Israel and Pakistan do. Iran has been under an arms embargo by the West, whereas between 2009 and 2015 Saudi Arabia has purchased the most modern Western weapons worth more than $100 billion. Iran was a victim of Iraq’s ballistic missiles during their eight year war, a war in which The United States and its allies in the region firmly supported the aggressor, Iraq.

Let us examine the claim that Iran’s missile tests violate the UN Security Council Resolutions. After one such test last March, U.S. officials were quoted as saying that the tests are "likely in breach of a U.N. resolution calling on Iran not to undertake ballistic missile activity." This is plainly wrong, with the reason being threefold.

First, as of the Implementation Day, all the UNSC Resolutions that had been approved prior to 14 July 2015, namely, Resolutions 1696, 1737, 1747, 1803, 1835, and 1929, were no longer in force. In particular, Resolution 1929 that contained explicit language regarding a ban on Iran’s ballistic missiles and transfer of technology to Iran, was no longer in force.

Second, Resolution 2231 that was approved in support of the JCPOA supplanted all the prior UNSC Resolutions and, in fact, cancellation of the previous Resolutions was part of the JCPOA.

Third, page 99 of Annex B of Resolution 2231 states that,

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

Thus, as the language makes it abundantly clear, Iran is called upon not to carry out any ballistic missile tests. In other words, the language is hortatory, rather than obligatory, and hence not legally binding. In addition, it is clear that the tone of the language was deliberately set in a way that it could be interpreted differently by different countries. This implies that as of the Implementation Day of the JCPOA, 16 January 2016, Iran is under no legal obligation not to carry out any missile tests. In addition, given that Iran has given up most of its nuclear program, the question of a missile that can carry nuclear warhead is no longer relevant.

After a UN Security Council meeting on Iran’s missile test last July, Jeffrey Feltman, a spokesman for UN Secretary-General, issued a briefing that said in part,

"The Secretary-General had received no report, nor was he aware of any open source information, regarding the supply, sale, transfer or export to Iran of nuclear-related materials. Nor had the Secretariat received information regarding the supply, sale, transfer or export to Iran of ballistic missile-related items."

In other words, UN Secretary-General did not believe that, in accordance with Resolution 2231, Iran had violated any of its obligations. The same is still true today because Iran has undertaken the same action, namely, testing a ballistic missile.

Having followed and analyzed Iran’s political developments ever since its 1979 Revolution, the author views the recent missile tests as nothing but an expression of the Tehran’s hard-liners’ unhappiness with the JCPOA. Just as the hardliners in the United States oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran, so too do Iran’s own hardliners. They have lost the most as a result of the JCPOA, and have been trying to demonstrate their displeasure. So, aside from the fact that the missiles development is part of Iran’s military doctrine, which the Pentagon has conceded is purely defensive; the tests must not be blown out of proportion.

But, unlike the Obama administration, the Trump administration reacted swiftly and harshly to the latest tests. National Security Advisor Mike Flynn read a statement in which he threatened Iran explicitly, "putting Iran on notice," as if the new administration has already decided to go to war with Tehran. Flynn repeated the lie that "the recent ballistic missile launch is also in defiance of UN Security Council Resolution 2231."

In addition, Flynn also alluded to "an attack against a Saudi naval vessel conducted by Iran-supported Houthi militants." This is again baseless. Most objective experts have said that the Houthis are not Iran’s puppets. Iran has no control on the Houthis. In fact, before Saudi Arabia began its military attacks on Yemen in March 2015, there was very little contact, if any, between them and Iran. Iran’s clerics do not even consider the Houthis as true Shiites. But, after the attacks began, Iran considered giving some support to the Houthis "the cheapest middle finger it could give to Saudi Arabia," making the Saudi accusations before the war a "self-fulfilling prophecy."

The Guardian reported that the original draft of the statement was even harsher. But, apparently, Defense Secretary James Mattis persuaded Flynn to soften the draft. One can only imagine the type of bellicose language that the original draft had used.

Flynn’s reaction to the missile test and his lies and exaggerations are not unexpected. After all, this is the same man who has likened Islam to "cancer" that "has to be excised;" has stated that fear of Muslims is "rational," and considers Iran "more dangerous than Daesh" [also known as the ISIS or ISIL]. After Christopher Stevens, US Ambassador to Libya was murdered in Benghazi in September 2012, then DIA Director Flynn ordered his subordinates to find evidence that Iran was behind the attack, the evidence that did not of course exist. This is also the same Flynn that constantly imagines Iranian involvement in everything that happens in the Middle East. In his book with the neoconservative Michael Ledeen, The Field of Fight: How We Can Win the Global War against Radical Islam and Its Allies, Flynn presents Iran as the "linchpin" of huge "alliance" of states and groups that spans the globe, which is totally absurd. In fact, President Obama fired Flynn from his job as the DIA Director, precisely because he expressed extremely hostile and absurd views toward Iran.

On May 19 Iran will hold its presidential elections. The Trump administration should weigh its policy toward Iran carefully. It should not do anything to further provoke and motivate Iran’s hardliners to try to defeat moderate Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in his bid for re-election. What is the true national interest of the United States? Dealing with Rouhani and his team who have been advocating accommodation with the West and reforms at home, or with an ultra-hardline administration far worse than that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Rouhani’s predecessor, that may lead to a new bloody war in that war-ravaged region?

Muhammad Sahimi is a professor at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. For the past two decades he has published extensively on Iran’s political developments and its nuclear program. He was a founding lead political analyst for the website PBS/Frontline: Tehran Bureau, and has also published extensively in major websites and print media. He is also the editor and publisher of Iran News and Middle East Reports and produces a weekly commentary for broadcasting that can be watched at

Author: Muhammad Sahimi

Muhammad Sahimi, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science and the NIOC Chair in Petroleum Engineering at the University of Southern California, is co-founder and editor of the website, Iran News & Middle East Reports.