WH: Iran is Complying With Nuclear Deal; Ballistic Missiles Are a ‘Separate’ Issue

By Patrick Goodenough | March 31, 2016 | 11:29 PM EDT

Secretary of State John Kerry and Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif led their respective delegations in the nuclear negotiations in Austria and Switzerland, leading to the JCPOA agreement in July 2015. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

(CNSNews.com) – The White House reiterated Thursday that Iran is complying with the terms of the nuclear deal, stressing that its ballistic missile launches are a “separate” issue.

But in saying that, U.S. deputy national security advisor Ben Rhodes also argued that the nuclear deal was important since an ability to “marry” nuclear and missile technology would present “the most dangerous situation” for the U.S. and its allies.

“Thus far we have seen Iran meet its major commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” Rhodes told a press briefing focused on the administration’s nuclear security summit. The JCPOA is the nuclear agreement concluded with Tehran last summer.

Asked whether he referred to “major commitments” intentionally, so leaving “a little wiggle room” to allow for concerns relating to the missile launches, Rhodes disagreed.

“No, Iran has complied with the JCPOA,” he said, outlining key steps it has taken to limit its nuclear activities in line with the accord.

“We do believe that they are complying with the JCPOA,” Rhodes repeated. “The ballistic missile launches – um, you know, this is a nuclear deal. And we’ve always been very clear that the JCPOA is about rolling back and constraining Iran’s nuclear program.”

“We were also clear that they were going to continue to be engaged in behavior that we found counterproductive – ballistic missiles, support for terrorism, destabilizing activities in the region. That’s not the nuclear deal. It’s a separate set of issues on which we have the ability to respond.”

Iran insisted that its missile program not be on the agenda in the nuclear talks. As a result, the administration acknowledges that a series of missile launches conducted last fall and again in March do not violate the JCPOA.

On the other hand, the administration contends that the launches are “in defiance of” U.N. Security Council resolution 2231, which endorsed the JCPOA. The resolution, passed unanimously last July, says in an annex that Iran is “called upon” not to carry out launches of missiles “designed to be capable of delivering a nuclear warhead.”

Rhodes said that although missiles are not covered by the JCPOA, “the fact that they have a ballistic missile program is all the more reason why we need the nuclear deal.”

“Because what would be the most dangerous situation for the United States, Israel, our partners and allies in the region,” he continued, “would be if they were able to marry that ballistic missile technology with a nuclear weapons capability.”

The JCPOA, Rhodes said, “takes the nuclear threat off the table.”

The U.S. and its European allies are seeking a Security Council response to the missile launches, but Russia, a veto-wielding permanent member, is resisting. Moscow argues that the “called upon” language – which replaced the more forceful “shall not” contained in previous resolutionsdoes not amount to a legal prohibition.

Why the administration permitted the watered down language remains a matter of contention, eight months after Secretary of State John Kerry sparred with a skeptical Democratic senator over the issue.

A military exhibition displays a Shahab-3 ballistic missile under a picture of Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in Tehran, in 2008. (AP Photo/Hasan Sarbakhshian, File)

Iran confident Security Council will not act

Meanwhile Iran’s defense minister expressed confidence that the U.N. Security Council will take no action against Tehran for its missile launches, telling the IRIB state broadcaster the U.S. response to the launches is part of its “Iranophobia” campaign.

“I am certain that the Security Council and the United Nations will not respond, as our actions are neither a breach of the JCPOA nor are they against resolution 2231,” said Gen. Hossein Dehghan.

“[The] Americans are basically against any increase in the national power of the Islamic Republic of Iran, in any dimension,” he said.

Earlier, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei reprimanded Iranians who suggest it is time for dialogue, not missiles.

“The enemies are constantly upgrading their military and missile capacity,” Khamenei said. “Under such circumstances, how can we say that the time is gone for missiles?”

While multilateral action against Iran in response to the launches is looking increasingly unlikely, the U.S. Treasury Department has imposed some unilateral measures, adding or updating designations against entities linked to the missile program.

Iran disputes that the missiles it has launched are capable of carrying a nuclear payload.

But in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee in February, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper stated that, “Iran’s ballistic missiles are inherently capable of delivering WMD, and Tehran already has the largest inventory of ballistic missiles in the Middle East.”

Clapper described the launches that Iran has carried out since the conclusion of the JCPOA as “a deliberate message of defiance.”

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow